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With the O’Reilly Era Over, Here’s Why Fox News Has Been Horrible for Conservatism

Bill O’Reilly, the king of cable “news” for most of the past two decades, has now officially been dethroned/replaced, and his name, like that of a deposed dictator, is barely ever mentioned on the same Fox News Channel where he reigned supreme for all those years. This is the latest in a stunning series of major personnel decisions at the network, which began with the departure of star-maker Roger Ailes. It now leaves Fox News with only one prime time host, Sean Hannity, remaining from their coverage of the majority of the 2016 campaign, over which they had historic influence.

Among other things, this seems like a good time to take a look at the impact the network has had on conservatism.
Now, to the average Fox News viewer, especially those who are big fans of Donald Trump, I am quite certain that this topic is rather open and shut. To them, Fox News is obviously the greatest thing that has ever happened to “conservatism.”
We know this because there is an anti-media, pro-Fox News, Republican president with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Clearly this would never have happened without Fox News making sure the real truth was told, because before they existed the liberal mainstream media would have forced the majority of Americans to live in reality shaped only by Democrats who have never lived outside of a big city on a coastline.

As a life-long conservative who has devoted most of my career to the fight against liberal media bias, I certainly understand why fans of Fox News think this is the case. I am quite positive, however, that they are very wrong.

While there are some important stories which never would have gotten traction without them, it is my belief that Fox News has, on balance, been horrible for the cause of conservatism in nearly every way.

Since Fox News began in 1996, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote exactly one time, and that was in the first election after 9/11 with an incumbent running for reelection against a terrible candidate. Even that win was by a small margin. That’s a popular vote record of 1-5. Conversely, in the six presidential elections before Fox News existed, Republican candidates went 4-2 with every victory being, by today’s standards, a complete blowout.

Now obviously correlation does not prove causation, and there are demographic explanations for this dramatic disparity in results. Also, there is no doubt that on the legislative level Republicans have done better under Fox News than before they existed, though given the meager national coverage of local races, it’s difficult to see how they get any credit for that.

Then, of course, there is the issue that the current “Republican” president, the one Fox News did more to elect than any other candidate in its history, is an unqualified life-long liberal. Also, a new poll out this week indicates that more Americans want a larger federal government than any other time since Fox News began.

But it is what the Fox News phenomenon has done to the dynamics of the conservative movement, in my opinion, that have been the most corrosive aspects of the network.

In short, what Fox News did was isolate conservative television “news” and opinion all in one place. This was a great business model but it eliminated the need for “mainstream” outlets to appeal to conservatives and thus liberals strengthened their grip on the majority of “news” outlets.

This not only created a dangerous bubble for conservatives, but it also facilitated a “star system” for conservative leaders which dramatically valued entertainment value over substance. When the goal of someone is to be popular, this inherently means that principles are arbitrary and, as we saw in 2016, at best, a nuisance.

Effectively, the Republican Party and the conservative movement outsourced its communication arm to an entity whose goal was to create a small, cult-like following for their economic benefit rather than a governing majority. This meant that losing presidential elections, like what happened in 2008 and 2012 was actually VERY good for their business, while also being very bad for conservatism.

It cannot be overestimated how powerful Fox News producers are (even before they had the ability to influence our president with a single booking on an inane morning show) when it comes to dictating conservative thought. If you are a regular guest on Fox News, then you are at least a minor celebrity within the conservative ranks. This means speaking engagements, book deals, fundraising, and general credibility automatically come your way. If you are not seen on Fox News, and they are known to regularly blackball conservatives based on whims and vendettas, then you basically don’t exist.

This, of course, means that whatever Fox News wants “conservatives” to be, is what, magically, “conservatives” are going to turn into (this, once again, is an important part of how we got Donald Trump as the GOP nominee). I have seen this magnetic force even impact “old school” conservatives I respect like Charles Krauthammer and Brit Hume. It is also patently obvious that O’Reilly’s replacement, Tucker Carlson, has been richly rewarded for having morphed, not by coincidence, into exactly what the Fox News audience currently desires (and precisely what he once correctly condemned O’Reilly for being).

I have always believed, having been on Fox News many times before I went “rogue,” that Fox would change its format to pro-socialism overnight if they thought it would be good for their business interest. Effectively, that is what happened with their Trump cheerleading in 2016. But there has been a lot of speculation, given the recent programing changes, that a more obvious philosophical alteration is going on there.

Former Fox News star Glenn Beck has been talking in great detail about how he thinks that cultural conservatism is no longer in vogue there now that the younger Murdoch generation is starting to take over the family’s media empire. He has even essentially predicted that Sean Hannity will be the next Fox star to fall from the sky.

I see this a little differently. I think that the departure of Ailes has allowed Fox to follow the ESPN model, which is to go away from expensive and high-maintenance stars and instead rely on the format/system to keep their cult fully satisfied. Until the cult indicates it wants something else, Fox will keep giving them whatever “Trumpism” is.

Regardless, the recent sexual harassment mess at Fox News has further engrained the public perception of conservatives as white male misogynists. This obviously doesn’t help with the long-term demographic problems Republicans still face despite Trump’s miracle win having temporarily masked them.
Personally, even though I have benefitted financially from appearances on the network in the distant past, I wish Fox News never existed. Media fragmentation in general has been one of the worst and most underrated developments in this dangerously divided country. While the news media of the pre-cable 1980s was very biased towards liberals, at least it was somewhat substantive and conservatives had a legitimate seat at the mainstream table.
That also happened to be decade when real Republicans won all three presidential elections in legitimate landslides.

John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at [email protected]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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