One of the wonderful things about Fox News is how it drives the Left out of their minds. Talk about having no sense of proportion: even though Fox kills CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, Fox News’s viewership is still just a fraction of audience for the nightly news broadcasts of the Big Three legacy networks, which I confess I still watch for the pure schadenfreude of seeing the unstoppable decay of these self-important media institutions. The Left openly pines for a revival of the “fairness doctrine,” initially to clamp down on Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio, but now the big target is clearly Fox News. It’s another great example of William F Buckley’s remark that while the Left says it is open to other points of view, it always shocks them to discover that there are other points of view. To which I’ll add that conservative dissent eventually brings out the Left’s desire to censor or limit opposing views.
The Fox-induced agony of the Left is why it is difficult, then, to criticize Fox News or raise the question of whether it does a disservice to conservatives in some respects. One needn’t be a highbrow critic of “populism” to ponder this. It’s bad enough that Fox continues to feature the egregious Dick Morris, the person who confidently predicted not just a Romney landslide, but, back in 2007, that the 2008 race would be Condi Rice against Hillary Clinton, and who is now peddling an unserious book about the UN. (Just to clarify: it’s not that the UN is unworthy of a hard smackdown; rather, Morris isn’t the person to do this.) Now comes the announcement that Fox has hired Dennis Kucinich to be a commentator, chiefly, it appears, on the O’Reilly Factor. As the teens like to say, “really?”
Fox already has Joe Trippi, Kirsten Powers, and Juan Williams from the center-left, though they play the role of analyst more than advocate most of the time. But if you want someone to play a more open liberal advocate role on Fox, there are lots of serious and articulate liberals—I’ll just suggest Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast for one example—who would give O’Reilly or other Fox hosts a run for their money. Kucinich is a clown, and he makes the O’Reilly Factor more of a clown show than it already is. But maybe that’s the point; it is not for nothing that Rush Limbaugh, a serious man who nonetheless understands showmanship at the same time, refers to Bill O’Reilly as “Ted Baxter.”
I get plenty of air time on Fox shows, though my one and only contact with the O’Reilly Factor several years ago was deeply problematic. A producer called to ask about my availability on a segment about gasoline prices. O’Reilly likes the stupid and constantly discredited theory of the Left that high gasoline prices are the result of market manipulation by Big Oil. After a few minutes of conversation about how oil markets actually work, the producer said to me, “Well, we’re really looking for someone who will say that it’s market manipulation,” and apparently not someone who would say the opposite. To which I replied: “Sounds to me like you’re not interested in someone with expertise on the subject to provide analysis and discussion, but a character actor to play a role for Bill.” Long pause. “We’ll get back to you.” They never did. I’ve long suspected that O’Reilly is a pure opportunist; if there were more money to be made in being a lefty (say, over at MSNBC), he’d be there in a New York minute. Footnote: the next day I had a similar long and serious conversation with a producer from another show that was substantive and productive. It was a producer from “The Daily Show.” Go figure.
The same can’t be said of Sean Hannity, whose conservatism is sincere and passionate. But that’s part of the defect of his show (both radio and TV); he gives up in depth and persuasiveness what he exudes in pure loud partisanship, to the point that he is hard to listen to. I always have to tune out his radio show when he starts shouting at and berating liberal callers. And he features Dick Morris too much, too.
To be sure, we shouldn’t expect Fox shows to imitate the cool urbanity of “Firing Line” (though “Firing Line” generated some of the highest ratings of any PBS show over the years), and there are genuinely substantive shows on Fox such as everything on offer from John Stossel and Neil Cavuto. And Special Report with Bret Baier is the best evening news show on air. At some point someone will say, “Ratings! Profit!,” at which point I begin to suggest that Fox is misnamed: they are the Hedgehog News Network (if you know the old Isaiah Berlin article). They get one big thing, which is ratings. (And to which I’ll add that there’s one Roger Ailes trait I do highly approve: blondes.)
It still seems to me that you could get big ratings and still do the conservative cause some good with some thought and some fresh faces. In place of Morris I’d nominate Jack Pitney, one of the liveliest speakers you’ll ever see, with a depth of knowledge about politics that easily keeps up with Karl Rove. He’d grab an audience in nothing flat. And if you want someone new to fit the Fox distaff profile, how about Melanie Marlowe? She’d be a killer.