Last month Walter Shapiro watched 50 hours of Fox News, trying to get a sense of which Republican Presidential candidates are portrayed the most positively – in other words, who the organization seems to be backing. His finding, you won’t be very surprised to hear, was that Fox News doesn’t like Ron Paul or Jon Huntsman, is trying to downplay Michele Bachmann, and loves Rick Perry. Perrymania is all over the place. Romney is not being attacked either, just clearly treated as the runner-up in the network’s affections: “Perhaps because he could still be the GOP nominee next year, Romney is being treated gingerly.”
I don’t know how much this really tells us about who’s going to win. Like most news networks, Fox reflects what could be broadly called establishment views; in Fox’s case, it’s mostly the Republican establishment, of which Roger Ailes is a longstanding member. It’s likely that some percentage of Fox’s viewership has views that line up somewhat with Ron Paul’s, but certainly not the party establishment. And with Huntsman, the Republican lean of the network probably helps Fox to see things more clearly than other networks. Remember, other networks were portraying Huntsman as a serious candidate until quite recently. This was ridiculous; he was the sort of Republican who could only appeal to people who long for some sort of centrist détente between the two parties – in other words, non-Republicans. Fox understood this, and portrayed Huntsman as the fringe candidate he actually is. Even the Bachmann blackout Shapiro talks about may not be a case of Fox telling its viewers what to think, but picking up on what its viewers already think and reflecting it back at them. Once Perry came into the race, he really did take a lot of energy away from Bachmann, and Fox seemed to pick up on that quickly.
I’m not saying that Fox has no role in shaping the beliefs of its viewers, just that if the network is promoting Perry, that’s not a sign that Perry is a creation of Fox News – it could be that he’s a creation of Fox News viewers. If Romney pulls ahead of Perry, I suspect we’ll see more pro-Romney material on the network. (He can never become an absolute favourite of Fox, but that’s part of his appeal: he’s selling himself as the guy who can appeal to centrists, and like McCain, the fact that he’s not a talk-radio, Fox News favourite is supposed to be evidence of that.) Fox is a generator of memes, but it’s also very good at picking up on them, and the buzz that’s circulating within the electorate will be reflected on the network itself.