As CNN moved consistently left in the 1990s, abandoning any pretense of unbiased TV journalism, a huge void was created in the cable news industry — one that Fox News Channel was all too happy to fill. And it filled it quite remarkably. From humble beginnings in the mid ’90s, FNC quickly became the king of cable news even before the Clinton administration had ended. And stayed there for nearly two decades.
Now it’s all crumbling.
If Sean Hannity is indeed on his way out, as developments in recent days seem to indicate, Fox News is done as a powerhouse in the cable news industry. Perhaps it can cling to some sort of fringe status, as MSNBC has done, but even that seems to be an optimistic goal. MSNBC, after all, has a clear identity. It delights in its liberal approach, and has a small but devoted audience of liberal views. In the post-Ailes, post-O’Reilly, post-Hannity world, Fox News would be without an identity. It would be aimless. It would be — dare we say it? — pointless.
The speed at which Fox News ascended to the top of the cable news industry was shocking. The speed at which it is crumbling is even more dizzying.
First, there was Ailes, the network chief whose genius made Fox News more than a household mainstay, but the cable news channel that played on televisions in airports, physicians’ offices and restaurants across America — a feat that would’ve been unthinkable in the CNN-monopolized world of cable news in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Then there was O’Reilly, whose stature among the larger-than-life cable news legacies made Larry King look like a mere midget.
Now, it appears, there’s Hannity — the last of the stalwart conservative originals in the Fox News fold.
It was sex scandals that brought down Ailes and O’Reilly. And perhaps, at the end of the day, Fox News had little choice but to cut ties with both men. Certainly, if the allegations were proven, the firings were justifiable — if not overdue. The allegations against O’Reilly, at least, don’t seem to rise to the level of criminality, even if substantiated. And the fact that O’Reilly and the network paid millions to silence such accusations is hardly an admission of guilt — not when public perception is everything, and not when those millions are merely a drop in the bucket. O’Reilly, after all, is worth more than any cable news personality has ever been worth, while Fox News is the richest TV news entity ever, raking in $1.5 billion in profits just last year.
That isn’t to say that O’Reilly is innocent; at the very least, he appears to be a bit of a sleaze-ball, whose views on women and sex are like those of too many rich and powerful men. (Is this the appropriate time to mention that O’Reilly’s views on women are probably not altogether different from Bill Clinton, the same man O’Reilly’s critics have spent so many years defending?)
Nor is it to say that Ailes is innocent. But the fact that two men at the same network were toppled by similar — but separate — accusations is interesting. It’s either a sign of a dark, pervasive culture at Fox News . . . or it’s an incredible coincidence. We’ll never know, because the Murdochs — the sons of Rupert — acted so quickly to wipe their hands of both of them.
There are those who would say that the allegations, whether founded or not, don’t matter. Once they’re made by credible women, the damage has been done and the network had no choice but to move on . . . even if the two men did happen to be the very two men who made the network into the cable news giant that it became.
But what about Hannity? His Fox News contract appears to be at death’s door. And over what? A discredited story about a DNC staffer. Never mind for a moment the assumption that Hannity acted irresponsibly in his pursuit of the story. That is going to topple the guy who’s currently (now that O’Reilly is out of the picture) the biggest name in cable news? The same sort of thing that would earn a reprimand at any other network or newspaper?
That’s even more stunning than the swift ouster of O’Reilly.
There is, of course, things at play here that reach well beyond the corporate offices of Fox News. Media Matters, the well-heeled liberal pot-stirring outfit that has attracted support from some of the biggest names on the left. Through Media Matters’ shush campaign, we’re seeing an orchestrated effort to silence conservative voices. The strategy is simple enough: convince lemmings to march lock-step against those conservatives’ advertisers. Inundate the advertisers’ email inboxes and voicemail, then wait for them to cave. And it’s working. It worked exceedingly well with O’Reilly. And Cars.com announced today that it is pulling its advertising from Hannity’s show on FNC.
Whether you’re a fan of those conservative voices or not — and let me be the first to say that I can’t stomach watching Hannity’s program — it should scare the bejeezus out of any fan of free thought and free expression that this intolerant move to silence dissenting voices is playing out with such swift success before our very eyes. The left — sadly, even left-minded journalists, who are too short-sighted or blinded by idealism to realize that the shoe will eventually wind up on the other foot and it will be their voice that is being silenced — is cheering this strategy, but it has stark consequences for our nation and for our society.
Still, this strategy only works if Fox News is complicit in it, and the network appears more than eager to sign its own death warrant. There have been numerous reports in the past couple of years that the Murdoch sons are eager to move the network away from its conservative roots — even if it means losing profits along the way. Those reports were easy to dismiss as the stuff of groundless conspiracy theories until the past few months. Now it appears they were spot on all along. As Andrew Klavan wrote last month, “The way I hear it, the young Murdochs don’t like getting razzed for the O’Reilly-Of-It-All when they go to fancy cocktail parties in New York, London and L.A. They want to be part of the cool crowd and you can’t do that with the smell of conservative cordite on you. They care less about profits than about making Fox presentable to the liberal set.”
We’re already seeing it play out. Fox News’ ratings are in a free-fall. The network once dominated primetime. Now it’s getting beat by even MSNBC, which was hardly a blip in the radar as recently as during the Obama administration.
So what’s the future for Fox News? It isn’t a future as a conservative outlet, it would appear. So what? Do the Murdochs seek to make the network an MSNBC copycat — a voice for the left side of the political spectrum? That seems like a spectacular way to fail, with both MSNBC and CNN being so well-established. Do they seek a middle-of-the-road approach, similar to what Al Jazeera America aspired to become? It’s a noble idea, if true, but it would take years for FNC to retool and establish itself. It might never build a satisfactory audience, and it would forever be a shadow of its former self — both in terms of views and of profits.
Let the Murdochs worry about that. They’re making their bed; they’re gonna have to lie in it. For now, the spoiled sons of Rupert Murdoch appear to be among the very few people in this world who have so much money that they truly can throw some of it away in their pursuit of idealism. Conservatives have a much bigger problem to worry about: who is going to be their voice?
Say what you like, but Fox News aided the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The Megyn Kelly feud notwithstanding, FNC was more than an unaffiliated correspondent during the presidential campaign, and Trump was the happy benefactor. Just as George W. Bush was in 2000 and again in 2004. In fact, I think it would be foolish to argue against the idea that, if not for the presence of Fox News Channel in 2000, Al Gore would’ve been president.
Sure, there are blogs like Instapundit, digital news orgs like Breitbart and aggregators like Drudge, but we’re still in many ways an old-school society, and no one is more old-school than your typical conservative. At the end of the day, Fox News is the cultural voice of conservatism. And while Klavan’s piece is ridiculously over the top, he nailed it when he closed like this: “Conservatives are soon going to find themselves facing elections with no cultural voice at all. Trust me, you’re not going to like it.”
Some argue that conservatives managed just well during the Reagan era without Fox News. Ah, but the war has changed. America won her independence with muskets. But those same weapons would’ve hardly allowed her to maintain her independence in World War II. As your opponent beefs up his arsenal, you had better as well. So the question begs asking, again: In a world where CNN and MSNBC are fighting for progressives, who will fight for conservatives?
Klavan is right: You’re not going to like it.