What Fox News Lost in the 2012 Election
My Think Again column: “Pity the Poor Folks at Fox News.” It’s here.
My Nation column: “The Missing Link in Obama's Liberalism.” It’s here.
And a special extra: “Brooklyn College and The BDS Debate” done for OpenZion.com and that’s here.
Actually, I don’t feel like doing any reviews this week. I saw Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub the other night but I’ll give the CD another week to arrive before I write about it. I tried to see the Greg August Four by Six Sextet at Smoke last night but they had no seats and so I went home. (He’s in JD Allen’s band so that’s a good sign.) Tonight I’m looking forward to another Southside Johnny show at City Winery but I’ll write that up next week with Mr. Thompson. I guess I want to mention that I recently finished listening to the newly rescued James M. Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, which was a lot of fun, and a labor of love for Hardcase editor Charles Ardai, read by Amy Rubinate for Harper Audio. Check it out.
What Fox News Lost in the 2012 Election
by Reed Richardson
In both politics and the media, one might be tempted to look back at all the turbulence of the past year and claim that the events of 2012 didn’t really change anything. In Washington, DC, after all, the GOP neither gained nor lost power; Speaker Boehner was—and still is—Speaker Boehner, and the same goes for President Obama. Likewise, in the TV news ratings battle, Fox News retained its overall standing as the most-watched cable network with CNN and MSNBC fighting it out for second. At the ballot box and over the airwaves, one might argue, the status quo remained intact.
For a few days in the election’s aftermath this past November, this Pollyannaish take was popular among Republicans, and understandably so. However, once a full accounting of the demographic and ideological challenges facing the party became clear, it didn’t take long for some clear-eyed members of the GOP to backpedal from this unjustifiably positive spin. What had been a realistic expectation—back in the summer of 2011—of a return to a grand unified Republican government somehow unraveled into a second term for Obama, a squandered opportunity to take over the Senate, and a diminished (and increasingly unmanageable) majority in the House. Even now, months later, the high price the GOP paid just to maintain this status quo is still being tallied up.
And now with each passing day, we’re learning the same goes for the GOP’s media handmaiden, Fox News, whose perch on top of the cable TV news heap has become increasingly wobbly. In the weeks after its avant-garde, on-air Election Night meltdown, the network’s primetime ratings began a steep slide. Competing shows at CNN and MSNBC, on the other hand, held on to their audience and have grown even more competitive in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic. Then, last week we learned the ratings for Fox News’ high-profile primetime shows hit a 12-year low in this demographic. For a network already known for having the oldest audience in cable news, these ratings trends suggest an ominous demographic reckoning had begun.
But beyond the morbid reality of what it might actually mean when Fox News “loses” viewers, the network has also begun voluntarily purging some of its on-air talent as well. In something of a long overdue bout of damage control, Fox News recently rid itself of expensive contracts with Sarah Palin and Dick Morris, two on-air “contributors” whose political acumen was consistently demonstrated to rank somewhere down around fatuously self-involved and gloriously stupid. To hail these moves as a major turn toward moderation is to set the bar for intellectually honesty and competence laughably low.
Indeed, Fox News has accompanied these departures with some arrivals that might actually qualify as further losses in net intellectual capacity. For instance, just this past week, the network scooped up hard-core right-winger Erick Erickson, recently cut loose by CNN, whose most notable contribution to our national discourse involves famously slurring Supreme Court Justice David Souter as a "goat-fucking child molester." Not long before that, the network had hired former Representative Dennis Kucinich, a consistently ineffectual far-left member of Congress who will no doubt serve as a handy liberal foil for Fox conservatives to beat up under the pretense of a “fair and balanced” discussion, a la Alan Colmes. The latest news that Fox is also in discussions to hire former Playgirl model and Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, a right-winger whose moderate posing fooled few, is perhaps best summed up by Brown’s now infamous Twitter insight: "bqhatevwr."
But beyond the cratering ratings and pundit Whodunit, there’s another element working against Fox News, one that makes expanding its graying, shrinking audience that much tougher. Just this week, Public Policy Polling released its annual poll studying which TV News networks the voters trust the most (and least). Here again was more bad news, as Fox News reached an all-time low in credibility. (Granted, PPP’s only been conducting this poll since 2010.) PBS, by contrast, was the big winner, trumping all others with a 52 percent to 29 percent trust-to-no trust ratio.
At the zenith of the Tea Party movement three years ago, PPP had found that Fox News was enjoying a robust 12 percent net positive trustworthy rating (49 percent trust, 37 percent no trust), the highest by far of any network tested (all the others were in net negative territory). But by the time GOP primaries arrived last winter, that figure had slumped to a 3 percent net positive rating. Trying to help the GOP wring every last drop out of every phony, overblown Obama scandal during the presidential campaign didn’t help matters, as the network’s trust factor has now sunk to a 5 percent net negative rating (41 percent trust, 46 percent no trust).
To put Fox News’ 17 percentage point drop in context, over the same three-year period ABC, CBS, and NBC News all saw small upticks of around five percentage points in their trustworthiness, while CNN experienced a minor, 3 percentage point blip downward. (PBS along with MSNBC and Comedy Central were only been included in PPP’s past two surveys.)
And though Fox News continues to lead all comers as the “most trusted” TV news network (34 percent)—thanks to its near monopoly on conservative viewership—it once again dominates PPP’s rankings as the “least trusted” name in news (39 percent) as well. No other network comes close to eliciting this kind of love/hate relationship. MSNBC, for example, only earns an 8 percent to 14 percent most-to-least trusted score. CNN gets 12 percent and 13 percent, respectively. And because few voters can abide having no opinion of Fox News’ credibility, the network has become something of uncanny bellwether of someone’s political persuasion:
“We continue to find that Democrats trust most TV news sources other than Fox, while Republicans don’t trust anything except Fox,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling. “News preferences are very polarizing along party lines.”
This is perhaps the clearest evidence yet of epistemic closure on the right. However, to say it’s just Democrats that don’t trust Fox News would be to grossly miss the point. In fact, the PPP survey shows that there’s now a broad array of Americans that simply don’t believe Fox News can be trusted as a news organization. (Keep in mind, though, that some of the poll’s subsets have smaller sample sizes that can introduce volatility into the data.) To pour through this year’s credibility poll is to discover that one can make these two rather amazing statements:
- Majorities of Democrats, liberals, Independents, moderates, African-Americans and those between the ages of 30 and 65 do not trust Fox News.
- Pluralities of men, women, Hispanics and even whites do not trust Fox News either.
Who’s left? Well, mostly just people over 65 and conservatives—in other words, the Fox News audience. But even in this last redoubt of Fox News loyalty, however, the ranks are starting to break. And this is perhaps the scariest part of the PPP data if you’re Roger Ailes. In the course of the 2012 presidential campaign and its aftermath, the most significant erosion of trust in Fox News occurred among mainstream conservatives.
In fact, Fox News’ trustworthiness among those who self-identified as “somewhat conservative” fell by a net of 27 percentage points over the past year. (“Very conservative” folks lost faith in Fox News too, according to PPP, by a net of three percentage points, but that’s not statistically significant.) Where the network was once trusted by 65 percent of this cohort last January, as of last week a bare majority—52 percent—now felt the same way. Similarly, distrust in Fox News by these conservatives has nearly doubled, from 18 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2013. MSNBC, by the way, didn’t see any similarly sized net fluctuations among its viewers by ideology, while CNN, notably, saw a huge net drop in trustworthiness (-52 percent) among the “very liberal” and a smaller drop (-20 percent) among “moderates.”
These kinds of figures should worry any network president. CNN, for its part, has already begun a top-down retooling, bringing in former executive producer of NBC’s Nightly News and Today show Jeff Zucker and cashiering several pundits who'd long passed their expiration date. (One hopes Zucker sees the PPP data as further proof that CNN’s previous attempts to achieve pundit balance with folks like Erickson severely damaged the network's brand among a core segment of its audience.)
As for Fox News, well, its longtime president Roger Ailes just signed a new four-year deal with the network a few weeks before Election Day. Savvy timing, that. As a result, any legitimate attempt at undoing the damage wrought by vanishing viewers and corroded credibility during the past year will fall to the same man who unwittingly orchestrated the damage in the first place. Of course, there’s always the possibility that these disaffected mainstream conservatives will sulk for awhile and then eventually tune in all over again, ready to accept a little rebranding and to be mobilized by the latest outrage. But that’s no longer a bet Fox News has no chance of losing.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Re: James' comment as to Bruce, "...I've never been a giant fan." Sorry, this tells me all I want to know about him. Honestly. How could you be serious about music and rock and say this? In the pantheon of rock music, if one could find a more superlative, exciting, meaningful, entertaining and noble body of work than Springsteen's, where would it be? You were merciful that James was finally "blinded by the light," but really. In my alternate universe that has another career and actual time, I would become a female rock critic writer and set all these dummies straight.
Eric Replies: "You know, the difference between the greatness of Bruce Springsteen and that of Neil Young as someone once explained to me back in college: Bruce makes you think you, too, can be as great as he is; Neil makes you think he is really no better than you are to begin with. Remember that."
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Please login first in order for you to submit comments