Has Fox News Been Good for Conservatives?

Sure, the network helped spawn the Tea Party, but that's not the whole story -- it's also saddled the right with massive political costs

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"Uncommon Knowledge" is an interview program hosted by Peter Robinson, whose role is essentially that of a conservative Charlie Rose. His conversations, taped at the Hoover Institution in California, are often worth watching, and I was especially keen on seeing the latest episode, as it includes Andrew Ferguson, one of the most consistently smart and enjoyable political writers working today. Here's what he has to say about the biggest name in conservative media:

PETER ROBINSON: What has been the effect of Fox News in American politics?

ANDREW FERGUSON: Well I guess I should say that Fox does a lot of really terrible things. Some of it is simply unwatchable, particularly at night. But its effect on the body politic, to use a pretentious phrase, has been almost completely salutary and admirable, I believe. The tenor of the political debate absolutely changed over the last two years because of the Tea Party. And the Tea Party would not have existed without Fox News.

PETER ROBINSON: Say that again. The Tea Party would not have existed without Fox News.

ANDREW FERGUSON: I'm absolutely convinced -- when I've gone out to talk to Tea Party leaders, in various states I've talked to leaders and rank and file people, no one does not watch Fox News. Religiously, almost. I use that word advisedly. And I think without that place to coalesce around the Tea Party never would have existed. The Tea Party, regardless of whatever cranky elements it has, has changed the terms of the debate and concentrated the minds of politicians on something that they were ignoring for 40 years.

Despite thinking it's a good idea to read everything Ferguson has ever written, I'm confident he is partly wrong here -- yes, Fox News does broadcast a lot of terrible things, and yes, it's probable that the Tea Party wouldn't have spread as it did if not for the influence of the network. Finally, the Tea Party has led to an intensified emphasis on taxes, spending, and size of government.

But Republican politicians have hardly been ignoring taxes, spending, and size of government for 40 years -- neither Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush nor speaker of the House Newt Gingrich ignored those issues, for example  (as yet the Tea Party hasn't had any more success delivering on small-government rhetoric) -- and the effect Fox News has had on the right is not "almost completely salutary"! Here's an incomplete list of how the network has been bad for conservatives, the Republican Party, and/or the American people. Call it The Costs of Fox News:

1) Fox News didn't launch when President Obama got elected. It was around for the whole Bush administration. Remember its endless apologia during what even many conservatives now concede was a disastrous eight years? As the network embraces the populist movement that is in part a backlash against Bush, no one should forget that Fox helped enable the Bush administration.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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