I’ll never forget the first time I was on Fox News. Bill O’Reilly had taken an interest in one of my cases and brought me and my client on to his show. Truly, he was interested only in her perspective, but since litigation was looming, we were a package deal. So I drove to a studio in Nashville, sat in front of the fake city-skyline background, took a deep breath, and dove in.
I bombed miserably. O’Reilly didn’t like my answers, and I struggled to explain myself when he pressed me for more details. I didn’t look good and I didn’t sound good. I had all the charisma of a wet dishrag. The first phone call after the show was from my best friend from college. He was laughing at me. “Dude, you were terrible.”
It’s hard to overstate the power of Fox News for those seeking a career in the conservative movement. I’ve seen the most accomplished of lawyers suddenly become “somebody” only after they regularly appear on Fox. I’ve seen young activists leave senators or representatives languishing alone in rooms as they flood over to Fox personalities, seeking selfies. Fox has become the prime gatekeeper of conservative fame, the source of conservative book deals, and the ticket into the true pantheon of conservative influence.
It’s killing the conservative movement.
The result is clear: Conservatives gain fame, power, and influence mainly by talking to each other. They persuade each other of the rightness of their ideas and write Fox-fueled best-selling books making arguments that Fox viewers love. The sheer size of the audience lulls minor political celebrities into believing that they’re making a cultural and political difference. But they never get a chance to preach to the unconverted.
The problem goes well beyond this cocoon effect, into the very moral and intellectual heart of the conservative movement. Like any human enterprise, Fox is filled with a wide variety of people — some good, some bad. But it is, at heart, a commercial endeavor, rather than an intellectual or spiritual one. Its fundamental priority is to make money, not to advance a particular set of ideas or values in public life.
To be clear, one of the ways that it makes money is through a very deliberate strategy of counter-programming the mainstream media. But that is an economic determination far more than an ideological one, which means that Fox’s priorities will never exactly match the conservative movement’s.
Such is the power of Fox fame that I’ve seen with my own eyes conservative leaders alter their message and public priorities in response to Fox’s demands.
Yet such is the power of Fox fame that I’ve seen with my own eyes conservative leaders alter their message and public priorities in response to Fox’s demands. “Fox isn’t interested” is a statement that often shuts down conversations and ends public campaigns before they begin, because if Fox is interested, the conversation never ends. Ever wonder why conservatives talk so much about Benghazi almost four full years after the vast majority of the key facts of that tragic engagement became clear? Because Fox remains interested.
I’m not ascribing nefarious motives to Fox executives. They know their audience and they play to it. Conservative leaders and conservative politicians should likewise be savvy enough to know the limitations of the network’s reach: It doesn’t speak to a majority; it speaks to a bubble. But such is the allure of the community within the bubble that a person can’t help but walk through its gates.
The result is a world in which many individual conservatives just keep failing up. Fox is the place where you can nurse grievances over failed arguments. It’s the place where you can make money after failed campaigns. Do you wonder why the GOP had 17 presidential primary candidates? In part because there were actually two primary contests — the race for the nomination and the auditions for Fox.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee won by losing — not by making a strong electoral showing and positioning himself for the next contest, but rather by demonstrating enough charisma to land his own show on Fox. Here was a form of victory through continued influence and enhanced fame. If you couldn’t win the election, you could still be a contributor. You could still write a book. You might even get a show. So why not run? You’d probably lose the election, but you might gain a time slot.
Fox News went on the air in October 1996. Since that time, the GOP has won the popular vote for president exactly once: in 2004, by a whopping 2.4 percent. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, as appears likely, the GOP will have lost the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections since Fox broke the liberal media monopoly.In the six presidential elections before Fox, the GOP won four landslides. The reasons for the change are complex, and we certainly shouldn’t overstate the influence of any given media outlet. But prior to 1996, a politician could truly succeed only by going to the American people through the media outlets they actually watched, which encouraged communication that persuaded those who weren’t true believers.
The conservative movement is a victim of Fox’s success. The network is so strong that conservatives who ignore it risk obscurity and irrelevance, even as it remains far too weak to truly transform the landscape. So long as Fox continues to make more than $1 billion per year, that’s unlikely to change. It will be up to conservative leaders to wean themselves off the cheap high and intentionally engage the vast majority of Americans who don’t turn on Fox, don’t follow Sean Hannity, and think “The Factor” sounds more like an old game show than the most-watched news program in America.
Appearing on Fox can create an alluring but illusory fame, and in seeking it above all else, some of our best minds inadvertently limit their own influence. I don’t resent Fox’s existence, but I lament its effect on our movement. It’s time to leave the cocoon.
— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.