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
"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.
2) After President Obama's election, Fox News could've elevated critics of his administration like Mitch Daniels. Instead it elevated critics like Sarah Palin. And along with other factors, that affected the 2012 presidential field. The Tea Party might not have been possible without Fox News. Neither would Herman Cain.
3) Roger Ailes created a market for former and sometimes future GOP politicians to be highly paid on-air personalities, blurring the lines between politics and infotainment. This is problematic for the GOP because its politicians are incentivized to appeal to the cable-news audience more than the average Republican voter or the average American -- and because the most visible spokespeople for the right now model themselves after Sean Hannity more than Ronald Reagan.
4) Two words: Glenn Beck. Is it possible to broadcast hours of transparently absurd nonsense every day for months on end and for the effect to be almost completely salutary? Propaganda and misinformation have a cost.
5) Fox News makes a lot of grandparents needlessly anxious and pessimistic about stuff that they actually needn't worry about at all. For a certain kind of trusting consumer who lacks skepticism and media savvy, it is basically reducing quality of life for their last years on this earth.
6) Its coverage of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque managed to demonize innocent Muslim Americans and undercut the norm that religious groups are free to build places of worship wherever they want without government interference.
This is an incomplete list because anyone could spend hours going back through "The Daily Show" archives to the most absurd stuff Fox News broadcasts and pinpoint the particular harm each segment does. That's what confuses me about Ferguson's assertions. If you think, as he does, that Fox "does a lot of terrible things," doesn't it follow that there is a cost to that terrible broadcasting?
It's also a bit early to celebrate the Tea Party. If it succeeds in shrinking the deficit and reining in federal excesses, perhaps Fox News will deserve some of the credit, but as yet, it hasn't accomplished anything. That isn't to say that it will or won't, but I think it's important to stop measuring success in terms of media coverage, polls, or even election results, and start measuring it in terms of sound legislation passed that moves the country in the right direction.
In other words, the opposite of the approach that Fox News takes.
Image credit: Reuters