The Decline of Fox News

Ratings are down. Can the network save itself by actually seeking out and telling the truth?

Like many liberals, I felt there was one appropriate response when I heard that Fox News ratings had plummeted to their lowest levels in 12 years:

HahahahahhahahahahahahAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHahahahah! WOOOOOO!

Or something like that. Schadenfreude’s an ugly emotion—and Fox News isn’t going anywhere—but sometimes the best thing in the world is to see your rival stumble and bump his nose on the door frame. It can enrich the soul on occasion.

There are probably two big reasons that Fox News is losing viewers. One of them is kind of incidental, and won’t last forever. But the second requires everyone’s attention.

The first: Nobody likes a loser. Since Fox News is an all-but-declared arm of the Republican Party, which hasn’t won a presidential election for awhile now, Fox has started to get some of that “loser stink” on it. That’s a situation easily reversed, though: If unemployment rises back above 10 percent, say, the next midterm or presidential election will look great for the GOP—and Fox News will once again be Party Central.

The second reason is more important: Nobody really trusts Fox News to tell the truth.

Liberals could, of course, make the argument that’s always been the case. But remember, Fox News arrived on the scene with a pretty simple mission statement: Its founders made the case that the “liberal media”—CBS, The New York Times, your local paper—were infused with a bias that made it difficult for conservatives, especially, to get the “real story” about the events of our day. The network’s motto—”Fair and Balanced”—was intended as a thumb in the eye to the rest of the media. But it was also a statement to conservatives out in the viewing audience that they’d get the “real” story, and if that real story happened to comport with their views, well, that was to be expected, wasn’t it?

Only there was a problem.

It’s easy to make a case for liberalism in the mainstream media. The reporters are, by and large, liberal. They live in big liberal cities where the expectations are liberal. The result? Coverage can swing left and even the best journalists can not quite realize it. They are humans in a human business, after all.

But the mission of the New York Times or any other big mainstream has never been to push the Democratic Party line, believe it or not, but to tell the truth as best as reporters and editors understood it. You can’t really say that’s true of Fox News. Winning elections for Republicans has clearly been one of the main missions of the network.

Fox’s desire to sell a winning GOP narrative to the audience became ridiculous during the closing days of the election—when Dick Morris predicted a landslide, and Karl Rove refused to accept the election results that were apparent to everyone else. And when shocked Republicans found out that a majority of Americans supported Barack Obama in the election, well, they didn’t know what to think. Fox News never really told them to expect it.

The result? Only Republicans trust Fox News these days, and not even all of them. Democrats and independents certainly don’t. Which creates a paradox: The network is both the most- and least-trusted outlet for TV news.

It didn’t have to be this way, exactly. Fox News could have built itself by trying to be a news-oriented conservative outlet—mirroring the outlets it despised—instead of setting itself up as a GOP campaign office. If it had pursued truth as it understood it, even at the occasional expense of Republican interests, the network might have some real scoops under its belt right now—the righty equivalent of the New York Times’ reporting about the warrantless wiretapping program or something like that. (The Times has been a pain to Democratic presidents too, after all.) It might’ve been a real service to the country.

Instead, we got a couple of years of Glenn Beck.

It’s cheaper, easier, and maybe even more effective in the short run to have Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly yelling at your audience every night. But Fox News could’ve built a real conservative news machine; it’s now paying the price for focusing on propaganda instead.