Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fox News at the Crossroads: or, The Great GOP Divide

Fox News got record-breaking ratings for its Republican debate in Cleveland. It got one of the top-ten highest cable TV ratings of all time; the other nine are sporting events, mostly big bowl games on ESPN. So Chris Christie and the boys got better ratings than Tony Soprano, and if you'd like to make your own Mad Men joke, here's the place for it. On the other hand, thousands of Fox viewers have denounced Fox's moderators as biased and unfair. At least ten thousand have signed a petition demanding that Megyn Kelly be banned from all future debates. Roger Ailes has had to promise Trump that they'd promise him fairly, and Kelly has gone an an unexpected vacation. I've lost track of the back-and-forth. Fox is doing the best business it's ever done, and some of its most loyal customers are enraged. How did Fox get here?

What I think we're seeing is an important fracture between the two most important elements of modern American conservatism: the Republican Party's political operation and the conservative media. We can talk about the Establishment vs. the Tea Party, but the really profound split is between the Political Side and the Media Side. Yes, those sides have long worked together and depended on each other. But they also have their own separate agendas, and obey separate strategies defined by very different strategic logics. What is good for one is not always good for the other. The Media Side, especially, can thrive off things that are simply disastrous for the Political Side. And now we're seeing those two sides in conflict, catalyzed in part by Donald Trump, and Fox News, trying to remain loyal to both, is at war with itself.

Obviously, the conservative media complex (most importantly Fox News and conservative talk radio) actively advocate for conservative Republicans to win elections. But those media companies don't need the Republicans to win. Barack Obama isn't worse for their business than George W. Bush was; it many ways he's better, because he upsets and energizes Fox's (and Beck's and Limbaugh's) core audience. Remember, most of these conservative media outlets really got rolling during the Clinton Administration. They're designed to thrive in opposition.

More importantly, and this is where the trouble sets in, conservative media is designed to thrive in an extremely fragmented media environment, competing with a vast array of other choices. Fox News is one cable channel out of hundreds. A talk radio host competes against dozens of other stations in every market. Blogs ... don't even get me started. What this means is that conservative media has no hope of actually reaching a majority of the American people, or even a plurality. Fox News's highest-rated shows usually get a couple of million viewers: not even a single percent of the population. Put another way, on any typical night more than 99% of the American public does NOT tune in to Bill O'Reilly. But that's still a viable business model, because America is huge. You can make a lot of money on cable, or on AM radio, by getting a tiny slice of the market.

But the Republican Party ultimately competes in a two-party world, most of all when the presidency is on the line. The major parties need to be at least close to a majority to win. It's not even like the old three-network setup. It's more like the 1930s, when there were only two national radio networks, NBC and CBS. (Third parties in national elections function less like ABC than like independent TV stations or PBS.) A small and intense band of followers is not enough for the Republicans to take the White House. If you want to be elected President of the United States next fall, you're going to need at least 66 to 70 million votes. To put that in perspective, all of the people who watched the first Republican debate on Fox, put together, are only about a third of the votes the eventual nominee will need to win. In fact, that record number of viewers is only about 40% of the number of people who voted for Mitt Romney. To many Fox viewers, Mitt Romney is a big embarrassing failure while Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are huge hits, but that's because totally different standards apply.

(And this is not strictly partisan. John Kerry got hundreds of times more voters than John Stewart or Stephen Colbert ever got viewers. Being a cable TV entertainer and running for the presidency are nothing alike.)

When you're trying to build a cable-TV or AM-radio audience, you want to get a small slice of the population as worked up as you can. You want to ramp up the intensity, no matter what that takes. Being polarizing and controversial is good. Making people upset is good. If half of America hates you -- hell, even if two thirds or three quarters of America hates you -- but fifteen percent likes you and two or three percent totally LOVES you, you are going to print money. Beck, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and the rest are using Howard Stern's basic media strategy.

However, if you are running for president, 60 percent of the country disliking you is just deadly. National candidates need broad appeal, even if that means doing without the hard-core loyalists. (Think Tom Hanks instead of Howard Stern.) And candidates need to make a broad appeal to win nationwide. The kind of divisive positions that strengthen a media figure with a niche audience (and every openly-partisan media figure, right or left, has a niche audience) are just poison to a national candidate.

But Fox and AM have been building up Republican primary candidates who play well on Fox and AM, meaning niche politicians who have electoral troubles outside their safe GOP districts. Fox wants to promote the politicians, or would-be politicians, who make good TV, meaning good niche-cable-news-TV.  Ron Paul. Rand Paul. Michelle Bachman. Herman Cain. Ted Cruz. Bobby Jindal. Ben Carson. Those people aren't realistic candidates for president, because their strategies are aimed at ramping up a small, passionate segment of the base by turning off the wider electorate. Mike Huckabee has taken to talking openly about subordinating the Supreme Court to his religious beliefs; that's a frightening thing to hear, but Huckabee would never say that if he believed he had a prayer of being nominated. Trump is just the culmination of these conservative-media-friendly fringe candidacies. He understands the media logic intuitively: be as outrageous and polarizing as possible, to whip up your small section of support.

Simply put, what's good for Fox News is bad for the Republicans right now. The Republicans need to be rolling out broadly palatable general-election candidates, and taking positions that will help them win next fall. But their primary is clogged with people who are trying to build small, intense followings by taking the most controversial positions possible. And there's no way to tell the core Fox/AM talk radio voters to get with the program. Those voters have been with the program, literally, between elections: whipped up and made angry or frightened every 24-hour news cycle, fed whatever extreme positions moved the dial on a given day, and -- worst of all, from the perspective of the GOP as a political organization trying to win elections -- taught to demonize anyone who disagreed. The motto of Conservative Media is "No Compromises. No Middle Ground." But you win the White House by winning the middle ground. Now the Political Side and the Media Side are in fundamental conflict, and apparently there's no compromise to be had.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

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