Liberals may be ascendant around much of the nation — in control of both houses of Congress, a majority of governors' mansions and, of course, the White House — but times could hardly be better at the Fox News Channel, the cable channel liberals love to hate.
"There were a couple of people who basically wrote about our demise come last November [and] December and were, I guess, rooting for us to go away," said Bill Shine, senior vice president for programming at the Fox News Channel. "With this particular group of people in power right now, and the honeymoon they've had from other members of the media, does it make it a little bit easier for us to be the voice of opposition on some issues?"
Why, yes. Yes it does. Ratings estimates from Nielsen Media Research indicate audience levels are up significantly — to extremely high levels for cable news — making Fox News among the highest-rated of all basic cable channels. (MSNBC has had some of its best ratings in its existence since veering to the ideological left in prime time last year, but both it and CNN lag well behind.)
Shine argues the ratings boost is because Fox has taken a skeptical eye to the new administration — which it has done in no small part owing to its trio of pundits, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
O'Reilly is often in full populist swing; Hannity is newly freed from liberal co-host Alan Colmes; and Beck, recently arrived from CNN Headline News, has more than doubled last year's audience in his 5 p.m. ET time slot. Each is largely right of center; in Beck's case, largely right of right of center.
In a recent interview at Fox News' Manhattan studios, Beck worked up a full head of steam over Obama's spending plan, saying, "Unless we hold them responsible for their actions — unless we actually say, 'Enough!' Unless we say, 'You play by the same rules that we have to play by' — unless that happens, we have an out-of-control government that will steamroll us."
In person and on the air, Beck is a self-deprecating and often buoyant guy who has spoken publicly on the importance of getting past partisan divisions. But his depiction of the country is frequently bleak and conspiratorial. Beck has brooded on the air about whether FEMA is somehow setting up concentration camps — a notion that few take seriously and that even Beck has told viewers he can't prove. He hammers on the idea that Obama has throughout his life been surrounded by Marxist thinkers and that his program seems socialistic. He satirically plays off Stalinist imagery in characterizing the administration's proposals.
As for his own politics, Beck invoked an affinity for a group of politicians from an earlier era — an affinity over which he says he has bonded with Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes.
"I have become more and more libertarian every day — more and more against both of these parties," Beck said, adding, "As every day goes by I have just become much more like the Founding Fathers. I just wanted to be in a place that understood that."
Count Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of the left-of-center magazine The Nation, among those who are utterly unsurprised about the success of Fox News under an Obama administration.
"For many years we had a bad joke: If it's bad for the country, it's good for The Nation," Navasky said. The political left saw the election of President George W. Bush as a bad thing pretty much right out of the box. But, Navasky says, The Nation's circulation doubled after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"It's a rallying point for people who feel that they're not represented at the highest levels of power," Navasky said. He said he has watched Fox News for years because he finds O'Reilly and others terrifically entertaining. Plus, he says, he welcomes the channel's conservative check on a Democratic administration. But Navasky argues that the other side's arguments sometimes don't get much of a fair hearing on Fox News, even, at times, within news coverage.
"It is a credibility problem if you distort, omit or otherwise demagogue against the opposition," said Navasky, who adds that he has reduced how much he watches Fox News over the past year.
Fox News' Shine says the network's opinion shows achieve their own kind of balance by inviting more liberal guests on the air. And the more straight-ahead Bret Baier replaced the networks' conservative Washington Managing Editor Brit Hume as anchor of the evening political newscast Special Report when Hume retired. Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace says the channel's traditional news coverage just seeks to take a contrarian look at a popular president: "For instance," says Wallace, "on Fox News you've seen a lot of coverage of the question of, 'Are we headed down the road to socialism?' "
Newsweek had a cover article that posed much the same question — but on Fox News it often seems more a cudgel than a question.
Wallace adds, however, that the Obama administration shows that it knows it's getting a fair shake, by giving full access. In the meantime, even if some of Fox's most famous figures feel as though they're on the outside looking in, there are a lot of viewers keeping them company.