If you talked all day every day you’d say some pretty stupid stuff and, no surprise, the cable talkers are no exceptions. Much of what gets said, in fact, is just barely above gibberish. On his December 10 show, O’Reilly led with an attack on Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Order television franchise, for allowing a character on one of his shows to criticize O’Reilly by name. To buttress his rebuttal of Wolf, O’Reilly quotes—who better?—himself. Later in the show, he interviews fellow host Glenn Beck about President Obama’s Peace Prize, which Beck says was given as a sort of affirmative action award.
Beck: I used to believe in a meritocracy. I used to believe you would. . . .
O’Reilly: Earn things?
Beck: You would earn things. I have no problem with the president winning a Nobel Peace Prize.
O’Reilly: No, I agree he didn’t earn it, but so what? It’s Norway. You know? It’s Norway. You know what I’m talking about?
Beck: Well, now that you put it in that context.
O’Reilly: Right. And I love Norway.
Beck: You’re exactly right. Who doesn’t love Norway?
O’Reilly: I love the fjords.
O’Reilly: I’ve been to Oslo.
Beck: I have never.
O’Reilly: Right. I believe I have some Viking blood in me.
Beck: Do you? I think you do.
O’Reilly: OK. So. . . .
Beck: I want him to wear the hat with the horns. Don’t you? Seriously.
O’Reilly: It’s Norway.
Beck: Send him the hat with the horns. He’ll wear it. But [singing] la la la la. [speaking] He’d do it.
O’Reilly: Easy, Mr. Fascination. Calm down.
There’s a loopy self-absorption to this that is peculiar to Fox and that derives from its origin narrative as the network for the unrepresented, for the outsiders. There is a strain of resentment, of put-upon-ness that pervades almost everything Fox puts on the air. Beck, in particular, was born to play this part. He would be Beale. On his own show that night, Beck spent fully two-thirds of his time in an agitated defense of himself against charges few would ever had heard of had he not spent so much time defending them.
No reasonable person would sincerely deny that Fox has a distinct bias favoring Republicans, and conservative Republicans especially. Even Fox used to admit as much. When he started the network, Ailes was straightforward in talking about his desire to redress what he saw as ideological bias in the mainstream media. He wanted to address the same “silent majority” his old boss Richard Nixon had sought to serve. This is nowhere more apparent than in the guests who appear on the network. On the day in question, other than short video clips of news conferences or other public appearances, Fox didn’t put a single Democrat on the air except as a foil for Republican or Fox commentators.
This appears to be politically motivated, but that could be just an artifact—the content seems political but the primary aim is much more likely commercial. Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast. At any given moment, there are a relative handful of people (in peak hours less than five million and in non-prime hours half that, out of the U.S. population of 320 million) watching all of these networks combined. American Idol, in contrast, routinely draws 30 million. Although cable news is a comparatively small market, it is a small market with a much larger mindshare, mainly because the media are self-reflective, creating a kind of virtual echo chamber. It is also lucrative. Advertisers want exactly the sort of educated, higher-disposable-income audience news programming tends to attract.
Ailes has proven an extraordinarily acute businessman who has, according to an excellent piece by David Carr and Tim Arango in the January 9 New York Times, turned a fledging news operation that barely existed a decade ago into the runaway market leader in cable news and a profit engine that turns out more than $500 million annually for Rupert Murdoch’s global News Corporation.
Ailes’s most valuable insight was that sharp opinions do not necessarily chase an audience away. In fact, they seem to have created one. There is no worry of offending a broad audience, because there is no broad audience to start with anymore.