Howard Kurtz of Newsweek believes the Republican debate last week, co-hosted by Fox News and Google, indicates that Fox, at the behest of its chairman Roger Ailes, is moving back from the far right. Describing the situation more broadly, Kurtz writes:
[Ailes] calls it a ‘course correction,’ quietly adopted at Fox over the last year. Glenn Beck’s inflammatory rhetoric — his ranting about Obama being a racist — ‘became a bit of a branding issue for us’ before the hot-button host left in July, Ailes says. So too did Sarah Palin’s being widely promoted as the GOP’s potential savior — in large measure through her lucrative platform at Fox. Privately, Fox executives say the entire network took a hard right turn after Obama’s election, but, as the Tea Party’s popularity fades, is edging back toward the mainstream.
After the Gabrielle Giffords shooting triggered a debate about feverish rhetoric, Ailes ordered his troops to tone things down. It was, in his view, a chance to boost profits by grabbing a more moderate audience.
Most importantly, Kurtz argues Fox’s choices could have a crucial influence in 2012:
Next fall’s election could well pivot on whether Ailes is more interested in scoring political points or ramping up ratings and revenue.
Kurtz stumbles here, because of course Ailes could do both: If Fox moves toward the center, it could garner broader viewership and higher profits and help the Republican party prevail in 2012, by pushing it back to the center and gaining wider electoral approval.
One explanation for why Kurtz errs here is the liberal assumption that Ailes’s decisions thus far have been politically motivated, part of a vast rightwing media conspiracy – when they really could just have been good business. Over the last few years, Fox encouraged conservatives to move to the right by, for instance, giving Glenn Beck a pulpit, and solidifying its ratings and its profits at the same time. Ailes may have been proud of the former, but as a businessman, he may have been more interested in the latter. As the Republican party has now drifted right to the point where one must worry about its candidates’ electability and the appeal of incendiary figures like Beck, both interests may again be served by moderating.