How Fox News is coping with Obama
By Ed Pilkington
When Barack Obama became president there were celebrations around the world. Car horns were honked in Mexico City, thousands gathered to watch the inauguration on big screens in Liverpool and Leeds, feasts were held in Kenya. Yet the festive spirit failed to permeate one small corner of Manhattan, home to the right-leaning cable channel Fox News. While the city’s streets were filled with the sound of fireworks and champagne corks popping, the mood in its studios was almost sombre. This is the conversation that took place on air between the two Titans of conservative broadcasting, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity:Hannity: “So do you want [Obama] to succeed?”
Limbaugh: “I’m so glad you asked me this question . . . No! I want him to fail.”
A few days earlier, speaking on his own talk radio show, broadcast from his home in Palm Beach, Florida, Limbaugh had put his feelings even more pithily. Responding to a newspaper that asked him to express in 400 words his hope for the Obama presidency, he replied: “I don’t need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails.”
Even within the parallel moral universe inhabited by Limbaugh and his listeners, this was risqué stuff and, within hours, the backlash had started. Commentators on rival talkshows accused Limbaugh of displaying a lack of patriotism at a time of economic crisis; liberal bloggers bayed for his head. Then Obama himself took the bait. Three days after the inauguration, he called on conservatives to break their ties with Limbaugh, telling a group of top Republicans in Congress: “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”
Obama’s intervention was puzzling. Hasn’t the leader of the free world, faced with two wars and global financial meltdown, more to worry about than Limbaugh and his fellow hotheads on the Fox News Channel? Stand back from the current storm in a teacup, though, and a far more significant battle has begun.
Obama’s mission is to revive bipartisanship and trust in public service in America. He is backed by a growing band of moderate conservatives who think that the Republican party must wean itself off the culture wars it has waged over the past 20 years – anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-international co-operation – with all the negativity and nay-saying that goes with them. Colin Powell spoke for this group last month when he said: “Can we continue to listen to Rush Limbaugh? Is this really the kind of party that we want to be?”
On the other side of the great divide is a small band of talkshow hosts who have a grip on much of the conservative political debate. On TV, the king of the form is acid-tongued Bill O’Reilly whose The O’Reilly Factor is aired on the Fox News Channel.Limbaugh is the undisputed champion of talk radio, attracting at least 14 million listeners a week. He delivers three hours of diatribe, 10,000 words or so with only the benefit of a few notes, every day. Even his detractors admire his skill. “He’s an amazing performer, who has become one of the richest people in America by drawing millions of listeners,” says former Bush speechwriter David Frum.
How can Obama achieve his desire for bipartisanship while millions of Americans continue to be turned against him by such performers? Conversely, if Obama succeeds in defusing some of the political hatred that has held sway in America for much of the past 15 years – spawned and supported in part by the rise of talk radio and TV – he will have challenged the talkshow hosts’ very reason for being. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the two sides are at war.
“If Obama turns out to be a very good and unifying president, he could make talk presenters sound petty, which they can’t afford to do. If you come across as petty you have no credibility,” says Michael Harrison of the talk radio magazine Talkers.To some degree they are already sounding petty. With millions of Americans at risk of losing their jobs and homes, Limbaugh’s call for Obama to fail sounded a discordant note. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Fox News Channel, for whom gaining the favour of those in power is even more important than espousing conservative causes (his backing of Tony Blair attested to that), has been reported to have growing qualms about the anti-Obama tone taken by O’Reilly, Hannity and other Fox News presenters. In his biography of Murdoch, The Man who Owns the News, Michael Wolff reveals that the media tycoon “barely pretends to hide the way he feels about Bill O’Reilly”, whom he “absolutely despises”.
But there is one thing that means more to Murdoch than either power or conservatism, and that is money. Murdoch may have been tempted to cleanse Fox News of the O’Reilly factor, but what did he do? Extend the presenter’s contract for another four years at more than $10m a year, as he did for Hannity. In the world of talk radio Limbaugh recently signed a new eight-year national syndication package worth an astounding $400m.
It doesn’t take much to explain their enduring appeal to media proprietors: ratings are booming. The O’Reilly Factor enjoyed a massive bounce through the election campaign that brought in almost five million viewers a night, proving that Obamamania is good for business even – or perhaps specially – for his detractors. “If I were Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, I wouldn’t be too worried about the plug being pulled any time soon,” says Robert Seidman of the website TV By the Numbers.
Indeed, the fact that the rightwing pundits are no longer on the winning side appears only to have increased their bounce. They are busily perfecting new lines of attack, like soldiers oiling their rifles before an engagement:
Line of attack 1: Bush is a hero. Many of them were ruthless critics of George Bush, who they blamed for increasing government spending; now they lionise him. (“Bush stuck by what he knew to be right” – Hannity.)
Line of attack 2: Mainstream media – drive-by media as Limbaugh calls it – is in the grip of an Obama cult. (“They’ve done a great job, the media has, of covering up his deficiencies” – Limbaugh.)
Line of attack 3: Obama plus his bail-out equals socialism. This is the big argument, certain to be repeated relentlessly in coming weeks. (“Socialism has failed everywhere it’s tried, so why did America adopt this?” – Hannity.)
So they’ve got the ammunition, their ratings are booming, Obama has given them a new lease of life. All in all, things are looking good for the bully boys of talk media. That may not amount to good news for the Republican party, however. Right now the party should be embarking on a process of deep soul-searching and reform. And yet the pundits – who wield vastly more influence among rank-and-file members than any politician – are arguing the opposite: for a return to the angry culture-war stances of the 80s and 90s. “What’s good for Rush Limbaugh is bad for the Republican party, and vice versa,” says Frum.
If this analysis is correct, the talkshow hosts are standing in the way of real change within the conservative movement, like a giant wall of talk. Between them, they could confine the Republican party to the political wilderness, potentially for years to come. Put like that, maybe Limbaugh et al have their attractions, after all.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service