Fox News inspires flurry of analysis among media watchers

While their politics might be polar opposites, Fox News shares one trait with the Cold War-era Kremlin. Always a source of fascination among media watchers, the channel is inspiring a flurry of analysis and a sifting for clues regarding policy shifts by imperious leaders and chinks in its iron wall.

Two themes have emerged simultaneously. Under the heading the “Murdoch primary,” some have surmised that the Republican presidential nomination runs directly through Fox News and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, with the treatment afforded candidates offering signs as to his king-making preferences. Josh Marshall at Talkingpointsmemo.com has articulated this point, which has been picked up by others, such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

The second impression states that the channel — as much a political operation as a media one — is behaving like a general-election candidate with “plans to tack toward the center,” as New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman put it. The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz has also discussed this “course correction,” which received renewed attention when FNC granted a “liberal media” representative — from the New York Times! — backstage access to a GOP debate.

Both theories appear flawed, with some basic misunderstandings of Fox News and its principal architect, CEO Roger Ailes.

There’s no question Fox wields enormous influence over the Republican Party. But Ailes is the main sounding board for politicians, not his boss Murdoch, who has probably been distracted in part by the hacking scandal endangering his family succession plans.

Ailes made headlines with the “course correction” comment after the network’s prolonged detour into conspiracy-minded lunacy with Glenn Beck, prompting Kurtz to report, post Beck, that Fox is “edging back toward the mainstream.”

Still, there are multiple forces at work here, balancing Ailes’ desire to maximize ratings with a goal of playing a significant role in the electoral process.

In a May profile, Sherman wrote Ailes “wanted to elect a president.” While 2012 is far from his last hurrah, at 71, he’s doubtless aware there are only so many more campaigns he can help sway. However, as competitive as Ailes is, such a prospect could be considerably more enticing than the familiar thrill of kicking CNN to the curb.

What most coverage has missed, too, is how being cozy with Republicans so neatly dovetails with Fox News’ ratings success. Throughout the campaign, GOP candidates have treated Fox as a safe (or safer) haven to disseminate their messages. This forces other outlets — especially those the hopefuls shun — to rely on Fox News video, magnifying the brand’s impact and helping it echo through the mediasphere.

It’s to Fox’s benefit, then, to enjoy its relationship with the GOP as the party’s primary media platform.

Despite all that, Fox News’ critics tend to underestimate Fox’s vulnerability to the impulses governing all news in today’s rough-and-tumble media world.

Like any other organization, much of Fox’s bias is toward whatever constitutes the sexiest story. Indeed, the irony in how freely FNC brandishes the “liberal media” charge involves self-servingly choosing to overlook this apolitical inclination in rivals, whose “what a story” bias so obviously trumps all else.

Similarly, Fox needn’t relish reporting on Herman Cain’s alleged improprieties to see a story combining infidelity and politics as irresistible.

Finally, any political analogy only goes so far. In a fragmented TV universe, Fox has an advantage the eventual Republican nominee doesn’t: Strictly in terms of cable ratings, it can “win” without expanding its loyal base.

If all this indicates gravitational forces pulling in different directions, we won’t know how the stars truly align until the GOP settles on a standard-bearer, but this much is clear: Accusing Fox of edging anywhere prior to the general election — when there finally won’t be multiple Republicans from which to choose — seems premature at best. And as the network’s orchestrated outrage over a new “War on Christmas” demonstrates, if there’s any tacking being done, it can be measured in inches.

In other words, once the race boils down to President Obama versus whoever’s still standing, will there be stories about Fox News’ pursuit of the “mainstream” and tough treatment of Republicans?

Like the Kremlin (or the Shadow), only Ailes knows for sure. Yet however Fox News looks now, the channel’s true colors ought to show the closer we get to Labor Day.

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