Fox News is turning down the crazy

Fox News is betting a kinder, gentler approach will rescue it from its ratings slump
Fox News is turning down the crazy
Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

Is Fox News going liberal? Probably not, but there have been signs that it’s going soft. Ever since America’s most Republican-friendly cable network suffered major embarrassments during the 2012 presidential election, culminating in the now-famous image of Karl Rove refusing to admit that President Barack Obama had carried Ohio, the network has been subtly changing its image. Founder Roger Ailes had already moved Fox away from the fire-and-brimstone tone it took in the early years of the Obama presidency, when Glenn Beck was one of its stars. But in 2013, the signs of squishiness have been even more unmistakable.

The most high-profile change at the network came when it parted ways with Sarah Palin, who had been pontificating there ever since she stepped down as Alaska governor. In her place, Ailes has been signing up people who are, by his standards, moderates: people like former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, an affable pro-choice Republican who managed to get elected in one of America’s bluest states. Another recent signing was 2012 vanity candidate Herman Cain, a black Republican who is well liked by the likes of Jon Stewart. Even some of Fox’s regulars are recasting themselves in a less right-wing mould, like Bill O’Reilly, whose recent books like Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy are almost apolitical. “If they dropped Hannity,” says John Hawkins, editor of Right Wing News, “the network would be more fairly described as middle-of-the-road than conservative.”

“I think the moderation is cosmetic only,” scoffs Ellen Brodsky, who writes for News Hounds, a liberal site devoted to monitoring Fox News. “They got rid of the crazies who were embarrassing them but underneath, they’re as seriously anti-Obama, anti-Democratic, anti-liberal as ever.” But at Fox, even cosmetic moderation is a shift, especially on issues like immigration. Days after the election, Hannity announced on Fox News’s radio division that he had “evolved” on the issue and now supports a path to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants. Ailes set down the new party line by telling the New Republic, “I think the word ‘illegal immigration’ is a false name,” even though he’d previously hired an enthusiastic user of the term, Lou Dobbs.

Some see the shift as a political move, designed to help Republicans win elections. Brodsky detects the influence of Rove, whose power at Fox is so great that his contract was renewed even after his election-night fiasco. “Rove was close to G.W. Bush, who was moderate on immigration, and now has some kind of PAC devoted to getting ‘electable’ candidates on the GOP slate,” she says.

But it may have just as much to do with ratings as ideology. Fox’s ratings have tumbled since the 2012 election, when even loyal viewers grumbled that its stars were too optimistic about Mitt Romney’s chances. This January, the network had its worst numbers since 2001 in the advertisers’ preferred demographic of ages 25 to 54; Hannity has seen his ratings drop by a reported 50 per cent. Ailes may be trying to attract a less partisan audience by clearing out some of the people who are seen as party hacks: one of the Fox contributors cut loose was Dick Morris, best known for predicting a Romney landslide.

The danger for Fox is that in chasing a new audience—the people who have given increased ratings to its rival MSNBC—it might alienate its core conservative viewers. But Hawkins points out that conservatives have always felt Fox was too liberal for them. Fox is “certainly not where anyone should go to find out what grassroots conservatives are thinking about issues like illegal immigration,” he says. If its regular viewers never fully trusted it, Fox News might not be taking that much of a risk in courting new ones. Besides, Brodsky says they don’t have to worry about losing their favourite stories. As far as she can tell from watching the network, it’s still relying heavily on its usual fare: stories about immigrants on welfare and greedy unions.“It’s more a change in tone than substance,” she says. A new tone for new viewers, with some red meat left over for the old ones—it could be the combination Fox needs.