MEDIA JANUARY 14, 2014
While the title of Gabriel Sherman’s new book, The Loudest Voice in the Room, is an unquestionably accurate descriptor for its subject, the subtitle presents a more debatable thesis: “How the brilliant, bombastic Roger Ailes built Fox News—and divided a country.” A 2011 New York article by Sherman argued much the same: That Ailes is so powerful that a couple mistakes—including his handling of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck—“may have lost him the next election.”
It is that last bit of Sherman’s argument that has come in for dispute from otherwise sympathetic reviewers. Has Ailes truly divided a country? Is he actually powerful enough to do so? “Between 1988 and 2012, during the ascendancy of conservative media, Republicans won only three out of seven Presidential elections. When Mitt Romney lost, Ailes blamed the Party,” notes The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore. In his review of Sherman’s book, my colleague Isaac Chotiner argues, below a headline that reads, “Roger Ailes Is Not That Powerful,” “Ailes has certainly revolutionized television news, but winning audience share is a far cry from winning the White House.”
But these competing claims are not as contradictory as they may appear. Yes, cable-news viewers, according to Nielsen, are not very representative of the country at large. If you rely on television for news, then, according to data from the Pew Research Center, you are probably 40 or older. While 55 percent of the entire population says they watch news on television, a whopping 73 percent of those 65 and up do. The age skew overlaps neatly with that of electoral politics: Mitt Romney lost the general election while winning voters older than 45. (Fox News, in particular, skews old: Nielsen data does not even go into detail once median age is over 65, as Fox News’ is and has been for much of the past decade.)
It’s unsurprising, then, that while barely half the country uses television as its primary medium for news, according to Gallup, the number goes up to 63 percent if you poll only Republicans. And 20 percent of all Republicans—even the minority who do not mainly use television—cited Fox News as their most frequent news source. “Fox News is a clear driver of Republicans’ higher tendency to turn to television for their news,” Gallup concluded. Over-65s make up 42 and 40 percent of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly’s viewers. You can find similar proportions among the under-30 set in the audiences for Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
For years, liberals have mourned the absence of an effective alternative to Fox News. There are a diverse array of theories about why such a thing doesn't exist: Maybe it’s because liberals don’t have the same tolerance for O’Reilly-style patriarchal ranting. Maybe it’s because the people who run MSNBC aren’t as wiley as Ailes.
But what the demographic data makes clear is that, even if a left-leaning programming genius were to emerge, it’s unlikely any network could have the same pull with Democrats. The groups that tend to vote for liberal candidates get their news from a more diffuse set of platforms—there’s cable, sure, but also social media, national papers, and a constellation of websites. While one-fifth of Republicans cited Fox News as their main source, CNN won first-place among Democrats with just one-tenth. Being on the whole younger, Democrats are less likely to go in for traditional platforms: 28 percent of those 18-29 rely solely on digital platforms, and it is only among those 50 and over that news engagement with digital platforms falls off a cliff. Black people, a prominent Democratic-leaning minority, use Twitter more than white people, according to Pew.
Maybe the lack of a liberal Ailes is a sign—and a guarantor—of vitality, though. Fox News caters to, reflects, and you might say represents a group of predominantly old white people. There are enough such people to ensure the continued success of Ailes-style management and journalism. But there are not enough to enable Fox News to change substantially the political direction of the entire country, particularly in the face of growing forces trying to push the country in the opposite direction. In fact, by presenting this group of voters an inaccurate vision of the country, Ailes is probably lulling them into a false sense of complacency (this he does, ironically, by appealing to delusions of victimhood).
In short, Ailes is our gerrymanderer-in-chief, and Fox News is the country’s biggest, most lucrative House district. Gerrymandering helps the incumbent, whether it’s the representative from the Arkansas Fourth or Roger Ailes. But it endangers the larger movement. It forces the Republican Party into positions and personalities that are not nationally palatable, and have helped it lose the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. And it forced Ailes to preside over a circus-like Republican primary that produced a weak general-election nominee. Fox News is enough to make a liberal glad that there is not—and could not be—a liberal powerful enough to match Ailes move-for-move.