Fox News’ Post-Election Post-Mortem?
With election results now in, attention has inevitably turned to the one media source that has seemingly dedicated itself, 24/7, to making sure Obama was defeated and Republicans would take control of the Senate: Fox News.
Journalists and bloggers have lined up to peddle new conventional wisdom as to why, given all the time and effort employed to preach right-wing Republicanism all the time, the network seemingly failed as both an electoral strategy and as a news organization. Fox’s mission, they argue, was supposedly repudiated. They point to the failures of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who has featured too many kooks on his network for it to be taken seriously. They argue that Fox misinformed its viewers over the last four years—from its mad-cap conspiracy theories and outright lies to its closing campaign to push unrealistic fantasies of a Romney landslide. They point to the failures of the audience, which supposedly wants to be lied to, or wants to hear what it wants to hear. They point to the failures of Fox’s supposed electoral strategy of constant anti-Obama, anti-Democrats rhetoric, and thus, they contend, Fox must start over.
Perhaps some of those arguments have merit, but I tend to think they miss more important, better explanatory points. The failures of Fox is not about misinformation, for information is not the commodity it is selling. The failures aren’t about Ailes trying to get his guy elected, for there is no overall electoral strategy from which Ailes is working. And it’s not about making the audience comfortable by giving it the lies it wants to hear, because audiences don’t directly drive the specifics of content. Rather, Fox is fundamentally about two things that go together—community and money. Through the former, the latter arrives with ease.
The creation and sustaining of a community of viewers is one of the most important cable industry strategies of the post-network era, as I have argued elsewhere. Fox News has, by all accounts, created one of the most loyal audience communities, and done so largely through ideology. As numerous polls have shown, conservative viewers have found the place on TV where they call home.
Another, perhaps more helpful word for community, though, is tribe. Fox isn’t attractive to viewers because viewers have some overt affection for Dick Morris, Michelle Malkin, or Steve Doocy, or belief in the information (or vitriol) these commentators and hosts spout. Rather, those are just people found within the tribe. The tribe coheres, and its participants return, for other reasons.
Let’s look at the Chicago Cubs as an example. By all measure, the Cubs are losers. They haven’t won the World Series in over 100 years, and when post-season opportunity knocks, they are always sure to disappoint. What is more, there is a completely viable team that could be cheered instead—the recent World Series champs (2005), the White Sox—who live right across town, where the baseball fan can even find a ticket on any given day.
But Cubs fans come for something else. It is who they are; it’s where their peeps reside. And never mind that tickets are hard to come by, or that you have to sit on the roof of a house that isn’t even in the damn ballpark. To be a Cubs fan is to be at Wrigley Field and to be with other fellow Cub fans, irrespective of the manager’s strategy for winning, and irrespective of the fact that you rarely hear what you want to hear (e.g., the roar of the crowd). The same goes with conservatives and Fox News. Audiences come because this is their crowd and their team and their stadium. They lost this season, but 2010 was glorious.
What Fox is selling is a worldview that makes sense to its audience’s worldview. They aren’t selling information, because the audience didn’t come for that. Indeed, as Chan-Olmsted and Cha argue in the International Journal of Media Management, studies of cable news audiences suggest that the motivation to view in order to learn information is not a primary factor in people’s choice of cable news viewing.
Neither is Fox in the business to convert voters in Wisconsin, Colorado, or Nevada. They are concerned with feeding their tribe in Alabama, Indiana, and Arizona. It’s about communion, a word that shares a central relationship to community and communication, as James Carey famously pointed out. These are communers who return day after day, week after week, and by doing so, leave their offering in the viewing plate.
News Corp didn’t just renew Roger Ailes contract before the election because they were confident he had brought or would bring them a victory. They did so because he makes them nearly a billion dollars in profits (40% of News Corps profits), a unit that is second only to the company’s film division for profitability. We might argue (as did Thomas Frank in 2004 concerning the electoral defeat of certain right-wing culture war initiatives) that failure is good for business. It sustains impatience, and given the network’s tendency to cast the viewer as protagonist in the struggle against evil liberals and the Kenyan Overlord, the viewer is, as Victor Turner once wrote, “overborn by duty” to keep tuning in, ever vigilant in defense of his or her core values that are under attack.
Perhaps the most prescient analysis of Fox News was made over a year ago, and unrelated to this election. Former Bush speechwriter and conservative columnist and blogger David Frum noted, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us. Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.” Literally, Fox has masterfully mined the fields of Republican politics for a cast of characters that make up the Fox team. Win or lose (preferably the latter, for then the Palins, Roves, and Huckabees are available for air time), they provide the talent and ideological perspective from which Fox crafts its programming around daily events and partisan struggles.
We make a mistake, I contend, in continuing to evaluate Fox’s place and role in American political culture through the lens of journalism (and its assumed information-seeking citizen-viewers), or even through the lens of politics. Fox News is about television and the assemblage of the largest audience it can muster. Like other reality shows that feature food or fashion or fishing, this one just happens to use politics for its performances.
It is in this regard that Frum gets it right—as the tribe comprised of the Republican politicians and Republican viewers engage in their ritual performances, they provide the (free) labor, while Fox simply coordinates, orchestrates, and performs its public demonstration of the tribe’s fight for survival. Unfortunately for Republicans, in this instance, another tribe has spoken.