Conservative media eat their own
In the civil war that broke out between Republicans the minute the election was called for President Obama, media conservatives have turned on media conservatives. But none have shown more recklessness than Andrew Sullivan, chief American columnist for Murdoch’s Sunday Times in London, who on “Real Time With Bill Maher” cheerfully chewed off the hand that feeds him. “The Republican Party has to say, ‘We have no part of Fox News,’ ” Sullivan declared.
Attacking Murdoch’s grip on the post-defeat Republican debate through the strict party line dictated by Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, the clearly agitated Sullivan said, “The media-industrial complex on the right is so lucrative they don’t want to lose it. And it is now controlling a political party. That has to be severed. Fox News has to be demonized and cut off.”
Sullivan is no leftie. An avowed Reagan and Thatcher fan who moved to Washington from Britain and became a U.S. citizen to more closely involve himself in conservative thinking, he is the moderate right’s equivalent to that other naturalized Brit, the late Christopher Hitchens. [r2] Sullivan is smart, eloquent and has championed individual rights and attacked social conservatives, not least because he is openly gay.
His extraordinary outburst against Murdoch’s “media-industrial complex” is both brave and foolhardy. He appears to have reached a breaking point and sees Murdoch’s henchmen defining the Republican Party in such a narrow, unattractive way as to make it totally unelectable. How long Sullivan can keep his lucrative Sunday Times gig will depend on how generous Murdoch feels toward those who attack his pride and joy, Fox News. Murdoch is not known for forgiving those who pee inside the tent.
Sullivan’s day job is writing a blog for Newsweek, once a champion of liberal causes that, since falling under Barry Diller’s ownership, has become home to the few articulate conservatives Murdoch does not wholly own. Sullivan is not alone in his belief that Murdoch’s TV and newspaper empire has ignored moderate conservative voices in favor of the more sensational and simplistic views of Tea Partyers. His views are shared by former George W. Bush speechwriter and Newsweek blogger David Frum, who similarly blames Romney’s defeat on the “conservative entertainment complex” that has “fleeced,” “exploited” and “lied” to Republicans.
In his postmortem on why Romney lost, Frum deplores the fact that “the Republican Party is becoming increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America.” Like Sullivan, he blames Romney’s defeat on Murdoch’s minions pursuing an irrelevant agenda. He deplores the “kind of angry talk [that] may gain eyeballs on (Sean) Hannity” but has “narrowed [GOP] appeal to the most ideological fragment of the conservative base.”
“Fox Nation never was more than a very tiny slice of the American nation,” Frum wrote, “and it was only sad self-delusion that ever led anyone to think otherwise.”
Sullivan and Frum have a point. Their charge that Murdoch’s “media-industrial complex” provides lucrative livings for compliant conservative cheerleaders is hard to deny. Apart from the few conservatives on Diller’s payroll, which includes gay rights champion Margaret Hoover, who is Herbert Hoover’s granddaughter and a former George W. Bush staffer, Murdoch has cornered the market in prominent conservative opinion makers who blather endlessly to Fox’s audience of about 2 million.
In the wake of the 2008 election, Murdoch hired defeated presidential wannabes Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. He employs as a paid Fox contributor and Wall Street Journal columnist Karl Rove, George W.’s election strategist and the director of the American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS super PACs. Bush 43’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, and vice president Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz are also paid Fox contributors. Perennial presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich received a reported $4.5 million from Murdoch’s HarperCollins in 1995 yet wrote only one book for them.
If conservative media outlets are partly responsible for Romney’s defeat, Fox boss Roger Ailes can hardly escape his share of the blame. Throughout the Obama presidency he has encouraged Tea Party supporters to push out moderate Republican lawmakers, an editorial policy that made voting Republican appear extreme and irrational. During the 2012 campaign, Ailes concentrated Fox’s fire on dissing Obama rather than showcasing Mitt Romney’s business and presidential credentials.
Ailes’s choice of election issues failed to persuade independents or wavering Republicans to vote for Romney. He directed Fox to blanket-cover the administration’s muddled response to the September 11 deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, a two-month campaign that proved little and did not resonate with middle-ground Americans, at the expense of domestic subjects that may have boosted Romney’s chances. In the light of the Romney defeat, Ailes’s GOP strategy must be counted as a gross miscalculation.
The failure of Ailes to throw his considerable weight behind Romney may stem from Murdoch’s annoyance at having his unsolicited advice to Romney on how to best run the campaign totally ignored. Murdoch likes pliant politicians who do as they are asked, which is why his brief flirtation with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came to an abrupt end after Christie embraced Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The battle to win Republican hearts and minds has now begun in earnest. Murdoch does not play softball, so do not expect Sullivan, Frum and other middle-ground Republicans to be found making their case on Fox. Murdoch’s dilemma, however, is whether to continue to pursue the lucrative seam of conservative fundamentalists, libertarians and Tea Partyers that has made Fox News such a success, or whether to broaden the channel’s appeal to help Republicans find a route back to electability.
Murdoch is a conservative billionaire with views to match. He tends to put business before his own predilections, cash before conscience. So long as the extreme conservative audience increases his family’s wealth, we can expect him to stick to his guns, even if that means facilitating a permanent Democratic majority.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published in paperback by W.W. Norton. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is seen at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 27, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer