FOX News: Conservatives’ fickle friend

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“George Will, one of the most overrated political pundits (who lost his way long ago), has left the Republican Party. He’s made many bad calls”
— Donald Trump, on Twitter, June 26, 2016

“He has an advantage on me, because he can say everything he knows about any subject in 140 characters and I can’t.”
— George Will, on FOX News, Sunday, June 26, 2016

The year-long rift between presidential contender Donald Trump and punctilious columnist George Will symbolizes perfectly the conundrum FOX News faces with conservatives.

Will — a cerebral, conservative commentator and author, who was a registered Republican for over 50 years, before leaving the party this spring — offers FOX much-needed sober commentary.

Trump – all bombast and populism – offers FOX, well . . .ratings.

And so it seems that Trump has taken up residency at FOX, appearing with all the frequency of a New York City subway train, roaring from station to station (or, in FOX’s case, from program to program). So desperate is FOX for Anything-Trump, in his rare absence, it calls up his children (Donald Jr., and Eric), now go-to surrogate policy experts.

Trump is no conservative; he is barely a Republican (having registered in the Republican party four years ago, after several changes in party affiliation). Intellectually, philosophically, and emotionally, his political prurience stands in marked contrast to FOX’s once-vaunted political prudence.

Once the formidable conservative alternative to CNN’s centrist dominance and MSNBC’s leftist somnolence, FOX’s bear-hug embrace of All-Things-Trump is the sight and sound of the cable network shattering conservative verities, and abandoning its own values-system (“Fair and Balanced”). FOX is no longer a sensible conservative alternative. It is just an alternative.

In April 2012, Roger Ailes, FOX News Chairman and CEO, delivered a lecture at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he recalled the FOX mission statement, drafted on the day of the its first broadcast, October 7, 1996:

“FOX News is committed to providing viewers with more factual information and a balanced and fair presentation. FOX believes viewers should make their own judgment on important issues based on unbiased coverage. Our motto is we report, you decide. Our job is to give the American people information they can use to lead their lives more effectively. And our job is to tell them the truth wherever the truth falls.”

Ailes said, “I run a journalism organization.” Elaborating, he further added, “So, if your point of going into journalism is to show how much you care, or how sensitive you are, or to affect the outcome of your personal desires, it’s the wrong profession for you.”

And he cautioned: “If you’re going in to affect [journalism], you have to think about that, because you might want to go to political science where you can join a campaign, help elect who you want, push the issues you believe in.”

Ailes also addressed the distinctions between “talk shows” and “hard journalism,” suggesting the former were exempt from journalistic tenants of objectivity. But like its competitors, FOX has blurred these distinctions. Indeed, Megyn Kelly, anchor of the talk show “Kelly File,” lists her profession on Facebook as “journalist.” On any given weekday, only eight hours of programming on FOX can be considered “hard journalism.” The remaining 16 hours are spread among a homogenized smattering of commentary (talk shows) and entertainment. The few bona fide journalists must feel lonely.

Ailes should be more concerned about his network’s brand of journalism. Without a formal declaration, FOX has, effectively, endorsed Trump.

The ghastly alliance of Trump and FOX, however, makes sense. FOX talk show anchors, like Trump, rely on personality, product and self-promotion as a means to advance their own personal agendas. In between musings about Trump’s Great-Wall-of-Mexico, not a day goes by on FOX when someone isn’t selling a book or an appearance or criticizing the “mainstream media” and “media elites” (without even a hint of irony). This is a serious journalism organization?

Viewers may be wondering the same thing.

Credentialed conservatives have decried FOX’s election coverage, especially during the primary season, claiming favoritism towards Trump. this past winter wrote that FOX, “seems to have lost its perception mojo with its core right-leaning audience.” And reported in April that CNN beat FOX News for the fifth time in the corresponding eight-month period, in the Monday through Sunday prime time block, among adults 25-54.

Over the last several years FOX has become a kind of political Love Boat, where “B-list” celebrity politicians – chameleon conservatives — of limited accomplishment, offer saccharine commentary and myopic advice in the dusk of their short careers. Should he lose, will Trump join the ranks of Sarah Palin, Scott Brown and Herman Cain, and others masquerading as conservatives?

“We’ve lived with this bull’s-eye on us for 15 years,” Ailes determined in 2012, “and our journalism actually is very good. Now, when you watch it, some people say it’s too conservative.” But in 2016, conservatives are asking where that conservatism has actually gone. After the election this fall, FOX may determine that it is suffering from a crisis in identity and philosophy.

For conservatives, FOX has become a fickle friend.

James P. Freeman

James P. Freeman

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former Cape Cod Times columnist. Read his past columns here.