A New York magazine blog post pointed to anecdotal evidence as proof that Fox News is moderating its political advocacy in the run-up to the 2012 election, but the weight of the evidence shows that Fox is playing a heavy role in selecting the next president.
In a September interview with the Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz, Fox News head Roger Ailes claimed that the cable behemoth had taken a "course correction" in light of the network's close connections to Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the tea party movement becoming a "branding issue."
Citing a recent, contentious interview Fox anchor Bret Baier conducted with Mitt Romney, New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman took the bait and argued that while Fox would "continue to function as home turf" for Republicans, Ailes' "course correction" has been on display during the 2012 primary:
This chaotic and raucous primary season is demonstrating that Roger Ailes will put the interests of his network ahead of all else. If 2010 was the year that Fox fueled the tea party -- culminating in record ratings and the Republican sweep of the House midterms -- 2012 is shaping up to be the year that Ailes decided Fox will benefit if the political world recognizes that his network is willing to make GOP candidates sweat in front of their base. Like any good candidate, the network plans to tack toward the center for the general election.
It's a complex game Ailes is playing. Conversations with Fox sources and media executives suggest a new strategy: Fox is trying to credibly capture the center without alienating its loyal core of rabid viewers. To this end, the network is flexing its news-gathering muscles in high-profile ways that will capture media attention.
Baier's interview with Romney must be viewed in the context of Fox's overall treatment of the GOP candidates. As The Washington Post's Eric Wemple noted, "based on recent appearances, Fox appears to be treating Mitt Romney (hardball warehouse interview with Bret Baier) more harshly than Newt Gingrich (smiling, treacly interview with Sean Hannity)." The New York Times recently reported on the role that television has played during the 2012 election, in particular Fox News:
"Everything has changed," said Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who traveled across Iowa as an unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate four years ago. "It's like a town hall every day on Fox News. You hear people talking back to you what you saw yesterday on Fox. I like Fox, and I'm glad we have an outlet, but it is having a major, major effect on what happens."
Sherman also pointed to the presence of a New York Times reporter at a recent Fox News candidates forum as further evidence that Fox is a different animal during the 2012 primary. An adequate analysis of Fox News' role in electing the next president, however, requires looking beyond the dog and pony show.
Host Sean Hannity's role in measuring Fox News' burgeoning role in the 2012 election is critical. Just before Thanksgiving, Hannity teased what he promised would be a "very heavy" role in the election. To date, Hannity has already offered GOP candidates use of his Frank Luntz-approved campaign slogan: "Can you afford four more?" That slogan has already appeared in a GOP ad that received free airtime on Fox. He's actually branded his Fox News show the "Hannity primary."
Fox News' role in the 2012 election is in no way limited to Hannity. In November, Newt Gingrich became the third GOP presidential candidate -- joining Herman Cain (who announced Saturday he has suspended his campaign) and Michele Bachmann -- to pay Dick Morris, who frequently turns up on Fox News to promote the candidates paying him. In recent weeks, Greta Van Susteren has come under scrutiny for having covered Cain's campaign without disclosing that her husband was connected to it.