Here's a large statement with scanty evidence, yet one I believe nonetheless: 21st century media historians will record that the decline of Fox News Channel as a dominant force in right-wing politics began on May 16, 2011.
Not that Fox is showing any particular signs of immediate weakness. It dominates its two cable news competitors in most meaningful measures, and essentially owns the conservative news brand in America. Conventional wisdom says that Fox – which holds the distinction of being simultaneously the country's most trusted and least trusted TV news channel – will be a dominant player in the news business for the foreseeable future.
But sniff around Fox for a while and see if you don't catch a whiff of decay.
The seeds of its coming decline were planted long ago, and much of what will become of Fox is written in generational demographic data, not in a single segment of The O'Reilly Factor. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that letting Bill O'Reilly bring Jon Stewart on the network to debate the comedian's critique of the channel's “selective outrage machine” was a milestone mistake of historic proportions.
It's unclear what O'Reilly and the executives at Fox thought would happen during the segment, but the result was one of those moments that rattles across American society in unexpected ways. O'Reilly framed the discussion of Common's invitation to a White House poetry reading as a culture-war crime against American police officers, but Stewart flipped the script to a direct assault on the channel's calculated demagoguery.People paid attention, and the overwhelming morning-after consensus is that Stewart won. America's usually combative conservative pundit class has been noticeably quiet on the story. Not a mention on Drudge. Not a peep from Malkin, Instapundit, the MRC or Red State. Andrew Breitbart's staff eventually warmed to the task, but only to change the subject.
Fox promoted the Common controversy to create an anti-Obama narrative during the White House's weeklong “We got Osama” victory lap. This was probably obvious to most observers, but it was essentially invisible to adherents of conservative media theology, which asserts that non-conservative media outlets are illicitly biased in favor of liberals, and therefore fundamentally not credible. In the resulting echo-chamber, Fox executives have been increasingly free to pursue partisan narratives more akin to the fever-dreams of wingnut bloggers than the stodgy, fact-constrained coverage of professional news operations. People generally like news that confirms what they already believe, and Fox is in the business of increasing the intensity of those beliefs.
But the Stewart-O'Reilly debate went awry. An O'Reilly interview is supposed to be a cathartic morality play, and when Papa Bear failed to deliver the anticipated smack-down, the result had to feel disconcerting to his regulars.
Fox viewers were introduced Monday night to an alternate reality where Fox News and its most popular personality were proven to be something other than invincible. And since sheer dominance is a big part of Fox's branding (“The Most Powerful Name in News”), any hint of weakness feels particularly troublesome to the channel and its supporters.
Conservative media is generally in an uncomfortable place in May 2011. Glenn Beck and Fox are parting ways, and despite his multimedia empire, Beck's syndicated radio show is suffering from falling ratings, an effective advertising boycott and a diminishing roster of radio stations. Rush Limbaugh's ratings are down as well, and a new method of counting listeners is revealing a sampling bias that may have for decades systematically inflated ratings for political talk.
Whatever the explanation, right-wing media bullies no longer look quite so intimidating, and Fox finds itself bedeviled by the burdens of empire. As David Frum so famously asserted during the 2010 health care fight, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”
Which means that Roger Ailes is feeling some pressure. Though generally acknowledged as a TV genius,nothing in the man's record suggests that he's capable of leading an effective political movement. Create the orchestrated illusion of a grass-roots Tea Party movement? Easy. Convert that to legislative success? Difficult. But as the owner of the 2011 GOP, Ailes has to deliver both media profits and conservative policies.
Even the GOP's creepy anti-union victories in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio this winter look Pyrrhic, a classic over-reach that has reawakened blue-collar voters and shoved them directly into the arms of the Democratic Party. Like the fake candidacy of Donald Trump, the modern conservative movement is great at attracting attention and fundamentally ill-equipped to govern.
Absent an unlikely and dramatic reversal of fortune in 2012, conservatives will face some soul-searching questions in 2013. None will loom larger than this one: How do you build a political future when the heart of your party is an aging white demographic and your political opponents keep winning overwhelming majorities among new voters and minorities year after year?
Fox lacks an answer to that question, and its piss-off-grandpa-and-scare-grandma-to-death programming is unlikely to attract new influxes of twentysomethings. It's the dominant force in 24-hour cable news, but as a combination political movement and media jauggernaut, Fox is an evolutionary dead end.
History suggests that great empires seldom fall because of dramatic events. They just slowly poison their own soil until nothing grows but weeds and thistles, and one day the mighty collapse like empty suits of armor.
Today, the currents of history are swirling around the immobile empire of Fox News, eroding its foundation like a sandcastle at high tide. Every time its defenses are breached – every time a truth-teller like Jon Stewart is allowed to speak directly to a Fox audience, exposing viewers to the foolishness they have endorsed – the empire hollows out a bit more.