For the first time in 14 years, CNN is beating Fox News, whose ratings have nosedived in the last 8 months, ever since the appearance of Donald Trump. Radio host Mark Levin, who has taken to calling Fox, “the Donald Trump superPAC”, blames the decline on its blatant Donald Trump cheerleading.
The most egregious example occurred the day of the Indiana primary. Donald Trump opined about how he thought Ted Cruz’s father was conspiring with Lee Harvey Oswald. The talking heads at Fox nodded politely as if they were hearing something serious, instead of the career-ending ravings of a lunatic. They didn’t even challenge Trump on the fact that this story came from the National Inquirer, a scandal rag run by his friend, David Pecker. This episode was embarrassing - for Trump but even more for Fox. But I think pro-Trump bias is only part of the explanation; it doesn’t explain that part of the decline that predated their Trump infatuation.
Looking back, I think Fox News’ descent began at that disastrous first Republican debate when the objective of the moderators seemed to be to get the candidates fighting with one another - and when Megyn Kelly attacked Trump using Hillary Clinton’s ‘war on women’ playbook. The purpose of an all-candidate debate is to educate the voter on what the candidates stand for. Instead, Fox played games. Go after the candidates hard on substantive issues important to conservative voters, but don’t have favourites. At the time, the debate’s sky-high TV ratings made it seem like a triumph, but in retrospect it was the first sign of trouble.
And let’s be frank, Fox did a deplorable job covering the Republican nomination race. First they went all-in for Jeb!. Then, after Bush bombed, they went in the tank for Marco Rubio, and when he dropped out, they picked their pom-poms up for Donald Trump. Who wants to watch propaganda? Hey Fox, did you ever consider covering the Republican race honestly and dispassionately? I don’t have a problem with individual commentators openly taking sides. That’s just natural. Anything less would be dishonest. But that sort of partisanship can’t be scaled up to an entire news network. The whole premise of Fox News is to be fair and balanced coverage of the news from a conservative perspective.
To have done that, they would have had to cover every GOP candidate fairly. By all means ask them tough questions – addressing the concerns of conservatives and libertarians that the Main Stream Media systematically ignores. They should have also provided a little bit of airtime to marginal candidates like Rick Santorum and Jim Gilmour. This would have helped provide a complete picture of the race to their viewers. For instance, Gilmour was dismissed out of hand for his low poll numbers, but weren’t these numbers at least partly due to the fact that he never got any air time? What were his actual positions on issues and what solutions did he offer? I can’t say - because the media ignored him.
And then there is Megyn Kelly. I commented at the time of the infamous first Fox debate that I thought that the underlying message of her attack on Trump was, I may be the star of a successful conservative news network but I am also ‘flexible’. I think she is angling for a job on broadcast news, whose ratings are still much higher than any cable station. Her subsequent Vanity Fair cover only confirmed my suspicions. Later, she openly mused in an interview about the possibility of moving on from Fox a year or so from now. I hope her collapsing rating have brought her back down to earth.
If I were Roger Ailes, my response to the bad ratings would be to can the pom-poms and return Fox to the ‘fair and balanced’ – but from a conservative perspective – formula that made it such a success in the first place. Fox is going down - not because their formula failed - but because it was abandoned. If there is some kind of secret arrangement with the Trump campaign, I would end it immediately. Next, I would replace than preening narcissist Geraldo Riviera with Sharyl Attkisson - a top-notch investigative journalist. She may not be a doctrinaire conservative, but she is relentless in the pursuit of the truth and doesn’t let politics – hers or anybody else’s - get in the way. That’s exactly the quality that is needed and one that is all too rare in the media. For the life of me, I can’t understand why Fox didn’t immediately snap her up after CBS canned her for investigating Obama. They picked up Juan Williams after NPR fired him and Williams is a second-rate liberal hack who says nothing original. I’d also frog march Kelly into my office and give her an ultimatum: get your ego in check – right now - or go get another job.
But if Fox News insists on remaining the propaganda organ of the Trump Empire, expect Fox’s ratings to slide further. They have had their wake-up call.