In the Age of Obama, Fox News is thriving.
The news cabler has forged a ratings-rich bond with an audience that feels ignored and under siege as Democrats dominate Washington.
And nobody speaks to that audience with more passion, more empathy, than ex-Philadelphian and Fox newcomer Glenn Beck.
Stocky and stentorian, easily moved to tears for his country (Comedy Central's Jon Stewart has mocked his emotionality), Beck knows his audience: "I tell my viewers, 'Keep a journal. You're living in historic times - perilous times. We are the crew of the Titanic, and we have to watch out for ice.' " His show is now the third-leading cable news program, behind those of Fox colleagues Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Led by the O'Reilly-Hannity-Beck trinity, Fox has surged past its nearest rivals, MSNBC and CNN, especially in prime time. Fox is now the second-most-watched cable channel of all during prime time (behind only USA).
During a recent show at the Fox News studios in New York, Beck, an energetic performer on an energetic stage, shows just how a host connects. His set asserts electrified space, with flashing news images, Fox News logos, labels, headlines, and quotes in constant motion. Yet he manages to project a sense of conversation, of speaking to and with the audience. It's not just a trick; it's the key to the Fox News style.
On a recent afternoon, he is interviewing Kathy Barkulis, who marched in an April 15 Chicago "tea party" protest. Beck plays a video clip in which Barkulis tells CNN's Susan Roesgen: "We are sick and tired of the government taking our money and spending it in ways we don't have a say in."
Beck comments in a tone not so much sarcastic as expecting agreement: "Someone finally had the guts to stand up to a CNN reporter." Barkulis responds in kind: "Everybody knows that the media is biased, and we see what goes on every day on all different networks and in newspapers."
Fox is confident that it holds a mirror up to its audience.
"Fox News fits our world," says Michael Clemente, senior VP for news, "where there's so much access to information, through people's iPods, their portable laptops, cell phones. You get in a taxi and there's a video screen telling you what's going on. We have an extraordinary number of stories of national concern, and we feel like we're having an ongoing conversation with viewers about it, and bringing that into our coverage."
With Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, some wondered whether Fox News could maintain the viewer loyalty begun in the Clinton era and built up through the Bush years. Fox answered with a new lineup for 2009, bringing in Beck for the 5 p.m. slot and naming longtime newsman Bret Baier to succeed Brit Hume as host of Special Report at 6. Even longer-time news anchor Shepard Smith (who has been with Fox News since its birth in 1996) holds down The Fox News Report at 7. And liberal Alan Colmes left Hannity's prime-time show.
In prime time, Fox News' ratings have risen as much as 26 percent. MSNBC, traditionally third among cable-news outlets, also has enjoyed strong gains, especially during its left-leaning prime-time shows with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. The shocker: CNN, daddy cable newsie of them all, has fallen off the table in prime time. The channel that prides itself on its straightforward, unbiased news has lost a quarter of its viewership at the time of night when it counts.
(There are many ways of slicing these numbers. CNN, for example, beat the other two cablers in the crucial 25-54 age bracket during Obama's news conference Wednesday. Barbara Levin, vice president of communications for CNN, says, "CNN's audience is growing each month, increasing an impressive 25 percent in April by doing journalism the right way. We offer a range of opinions and are not in the pocket of the right, nor the left." She emphasizes the total number of unduplicated viewers this year to date, in which CNN has 70 million to Fox News' 59 million and MSNBC 53 million.)
The implications are lost on no one. "We've been No. 2 in all of cable for the last nine weeks," says Bill Shine, Fox vice president of programming, "and we're keeping an eye on USA."
Why the Fox surge? Are viewers abandoning objective news in favor of political extremes?
A certain number may be. But some perspective: Even though the big networks have lost market share, audiences for individual cable channels are smaller than for network shows. According to Nielsen data, almost 99 percent of U.S. households have TVs, of which about 89 percent have either cable or satellite. Against only a handful of national broadcast networks, there are hundreds of cable channels, so the audience is fragmented. A hit prime-time show such as The Mentalist on CBS may pull 10 million to 11 million viewers; Fox News' biggest show, The O'Reilly Factor, peaks at around three million.
This is the cable version of the "school-board-vote effect": a small but passionate number of absolutely dependable viewers can deliver ratings success.
Obama's victory was "a blessing for Fox," says Eric Alterman, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York and media columnist for the Nation. "Now it can be the voice of the opposition." Obama's people are giving Fox "an endless cornucopia of things to be against . . . solidifying a motivated, loyal audience for Fox."
People at Fox News credit Story No. 1 - the economy - for viewer loyalty. News anchor Smith says: "That's the story affecting everyone. The left is blaming Bush for the meltdown. The right says Obama's ideas won't work." Baier, who works from the Washington bureau, calls the flood of news "like drinking out of a fire hose."
At the behest of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, longtime Republican media consultant Roger Ailes created the channel to appeal to people who, as Beck puts it, "are so starved for someone to treat them well, someone to feed them some meat, not just cookies all the time."
Cable news, like the Internet, offers a rich range of alternatives for those disaffected with big, "mainstream" media. "It's nothing new for people to seek media with their values," says Diana Mutz, professor of political science and communications at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. What's new "is that cable now offers people more choices; it can narrowcast to smaller, yet still profitable audiences."
All the Fox News professionals interviewed for this article emphasized the tightly managed "wall" between the opinion side and the news side, "very much like a newspaper," as Baier puts it. Smith says that news and opinion "have different teams, different backgrounds, different goals. We feed two different beasts." For him, "Fox News is first and foremost what it was created to be: a news-gathering operation. We may cover stories the other channels don't, but that's what has made us what we are."
The "tea party" protest story illustrates the difference Fox News labors to create. No other news outfit covered the run-up to the protests in greater detail. The channel ran more than 100 ads promoting the coming protests. Critics - taking the news and opinion sides together - accused Fox News of cheerleading for the antitax crowd. On tax day itself, through almost the entire broadcast day, news and opinion alike was dominated by tea-party reports and discussions.
According to the statistics Web site fivethirtyeight.com, about 300,000 demonstrated that day from coast to coast, with the largest single crowd of 15,000 in Atlanta, and crowds generally larger in the South than elsewhere.
That's small, especially compared to the crowds Obama and John McCain regularly attracted during the election, but significant. It suggests that although this audience may be a minority (most polls show acceptance of taxes and support for Obama's economics, so far), it really does exist, truly feels marginalized and antagonized, and is ready to protest to assert its viewpoint.
As Fox News veteran Smith says: "Why would so many people be watching us if they didn't think we were doing something right?"