National Public Radio's David Folkenflik is a little late to the party in noticing the surge in Fox News Channel's ratings during President Barack Obama's young presidency. Yet one wonders if News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch isn't becoming a prisoner, in some respects, of Fox News' success.
Always a pragmatist, Murdoch has plenty of business to transact that could involve the new administration, and according to biographer Michael Wolff has seen his own notoriously conservative political views soften somewhat. Yet Murdoch's conservative assets have grown more strident than ever, from Glenn Beck's tearful rants to the New York Post cartoon flap, over which Murdoch himself ultimately apologized.
Fox News CEO Roger Ailes has done a bang-up job in capitalizing on conservative/GOP resentment toward the Democrats' electoral victories, but it's hard to argue that FNC has veered harder right in the process — not only adding Beck, but allowing Sean Hannity to go solo since Alan Colmes stopped lending his tiny voice to that program. And even Bill O'Reilly has pretty much dispensed with the pretense of fairness and balance, as Monday night's show demonstrated, in which the host asked if Obama is "over his head," then discussed the question with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and two right-leaning pundits who mostly just agreed with him.
(O'Reilly, by the way, continues to experience Captain Queeg-like moments on air, the latest involving an ambush interview with a blogger that dared to criticize him. Couching the story as one of "good & evil," he ended up bringing the whole thing around to attacking NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker — clearly as a means of lashing out at MSNBC for employing Keith Olbermann. I don't have the time or patience to recount the entire dust-up, but see this Huffington Post link for the video and back story.)
Ailes is enjoying such success at Fox News that it's unlikely Murdoch will rock the boat, especially with so much else going on at the studio as No. 2 Peter Chernin steps aside. Put simply, Murdoch has a lot on his plate, so FNC can run on auto-pilot for awhile. The really interesting part, though, will be seeing how and whether Murdoch can seek to gingerly distance himself from FNC when the need arises to try cozying up to Obama. If Murdoch can master that two-step, he'll qualify as not just a man amongst moguls but the Lord of the Dance.