07 August 2015
A populist revolt against Fox News?
I get to hear first-hand opinion from right-wingers at my job and what I've heard since last night echoes reports like this one about dissatisfaction with the Republican presidential debate on Fox News. The general complaint seems to be that the Fox panel asked too many "gotcha" questions of the candidates. While some assume that Donald Trump was the principal target, disgust seems widespread among followers of many candidates. The prevailing feeling is that events like this debate are the candidates' main opportunity to make their positions known to the wider public while differentiating themselves from their rivals. Seen that way, moderators and panelists only seem to get in the way. They're assumed to be self-serving or biased for or against particular candidates. Some take it for granted, for instance, that the Republican "establishment" (whatever that is at this point) was using Fox to try to break Trump or at least blunt his momentum. Especially with ten people on the podium, it's understandable if audiences feel that the candidates were denied the fullest opportunity to define themselves rather than be defined, presumably, by panelists' questions. If this feeling persists, it will represent a dramatic reversal in the status of Fox News within the Republican/conservative movement, or else it will show that many of us, including the people at Fox, misunderstood its status. To me it seemed that Fox aspired to represent "conservatism" rather than the Republican party. Its virtue, for those who found it virtuous, seemed to be that its popular prime-time commentators could hold Republicans accountable to the conservative movement. In the minds of Roger Ailes and the other leading figures at Fox, the news channel probably was meant to serve the same role for today's conservative movement that National Review magazine played sixty years ago. It would insist on ideological soundness while guarding against crazy extremes. National Review and its founder William F. Buckley were credited for Republican repudiation of conspiracy mongers like the John Birch Society, while Fox News presumably made a similar statement when it did away with Glenn Beck's program. The Republican party is having a "populist" moment, however, as indicated by the fresh surge of interest in Donald Trump, and populism abhors gatekeepers. Trump supporters in particular seem to think that Fox is part of an "establishment" whose inferred hostility to their man makes Fox part of the problem -- perhaps because even there some civility is expected -- rather than part of the solution. The Birchers of the 1960s probably felt the same way about Buckley and National Review, but gatekeeping was more effective back then, while it's more difficult now to relegate anyone to a harmless fringe. But there's more than one way to look at the debate over the debate. The positive, populist interpretation is that supporters of Trump and other insurgents simply resent a perceived effort to suppress voices that need to be heard. The other side of the story is that some people feel that no one, not even so supposedly trusted an institution as Fox News, has a right to question their idol's worthiness to lead. If the debate proved anything, it's that on some level Fox remains committed to journalism as opposed to exclusive partisan cheerleading, as it was back on Election Night 2012 when reporters humiliated Karl Rove for denying their statistical projections of an Obama victory. It may also hint now, if not prove in retrospect, that more than Fox News itself, the Fox News audience is a Frankenstein monster destined to turn on its creator.