Liberals and conservatives agree: the Obama Administration's recent campaign to delegitimize Fox News Channel as a news source is a huge boost to the Fox News Channel brand.
Fox's success shows the rewards for cable news networks of building engagement among a dedicated base of diehards, following the vaunted "80-20 rule" that says that 80% of a channel's ratings come from 20% of its audience. Keeping the core audience tuned in for repetitive programming that confirms their beliefs turns out to be the recipe for success. That it has transformed US politics is a mere side-effect. (The 80-20 rule probably caused Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998, when FNC rode the Lewinsky scandal to ratings glory.)
The latest controversy began in early October, when White House media advisor Anita Dunn rounded the talk shows to argue that Fox -- which has been attacking Obama all year -- "often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party."
FNC's situation is unusual for a news organization. Strongly identified with the conservative right, it's part of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate that includes major brands with no political identification, like the Fox broadcast network (whose hit show The Simpsons often mocks conservatives) and Fox film studio (as well as MySpace). While the news channel's "Fair and Balanced" tagline is generally understood to be tongue-in-cheek (as I have learned when appearing on the network, gamely representing the liberal perspective), and their reporting often blatantly biased, politicians across the spectrum give Fox access comparable to other mainstream news organizations, appearing on their shows and credentialing their reporters.
The new White House campaign against Fox hopes to change that, pushing the channel into the precariously marginal journalistic status of the Washington Times, owned by the Unification Church's Sun Myung Moon and also known as a dependably conservative outlet. (In contrast, News Corp's New York Post is popular and influential in heavily Democratic New York City, even though its conservative editorial stance commonly bleeds into its news coverage.)
Fox has hardly been alone among conservatives who've criticized Obama intensely since he took office in January. But FNC is seen as especially influential in energizing the conservative base who turned out for anti-tax "tea parties" and town meetings protesting the President's health care proposal this past spring and summer -- a function of playing to the 80-20 rule.
Still, delegitimizing a news organization risks a backlash. Obama and his team have been compared with Spiro Agnew and other right-wing politicians who have declared war on the press over the years. And while the buffoonishness of Fox's lightning-rod host Glenn Beck is evident to all who disagree with him, conservatives see emotive liberal MSNBC host Keith Olbermann as equally unhinged. (Of course, MSNBC lacks Fox's reach or influence -- though after languishing for much of the decade, it too has revived by playing to its own base.)
On NBC's Meet The Press yesterday, panelists agreed the Obama anti-Fox campaign has been nothing but helpful to the Fox News brand. Ex-Bush advisor Dan Senor speculated that getting Obama to attack Fox would be right out of FNC chief Roger Ailes' playbook, while liberal radio host Tavis Smiley called the attacks on Fox "a distraction." And Joe Scarborough, the conservative former Congressman who now (anomalously) hosts a popular morning show on left-leaning MSNBC, believes the attacks are ratings gold for Fox and others like Rush Limbaugh who have been targeted by the White House:
Fox News right now, you can tell by looking at the ratings starting at 5 AM, America's waking up in the morning, click, they turn on Fox News.
Of course, Fox is a channel and Obama is a politician, so their game isn't zero-sum: both can use the brouhaha to mobilize their base and come out ahead. Which doesn't mean there aren't any losers: ratings due this week will show that CNN, who invented cable news, is in fourth place, behind Fox, MSNBC and their own spin-off sister network HLN (formerly Headline News).