On big news nights, when the sort of people who don’t watch Fox News every night are more likely to turn it on, the channel nearly always puts its best face forward. The real crazies aren’t invited. The idiots and most grotesque race-baiters and conspiracy theorists and worst hacks wait patiently until the next morning, when Fox & Friends resumes as scheduled with its usual audience of credulous and furious old white people.
So last night we got Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, Brit Hume and Chris Wallace hosting a roster of oddly reasonable pundits and analysts, from Juan Williams to Karl Rove and Joe Trippi.
Of course all of those people are horrible and mendacious in their own special ways. But they’re not Sean Hannity. That’s the point. Dick Morris wasn’t invited. Donald Trump didn’t call in. Michael Barone was on hand, but of the people who got the election disastrously, hilariously wrong last night, he’s probably the least clownish. Bill O’Reilly performed the night’s most explicitly racial outburst, but O’Reilly has wholly reinvented himself for the Obama era as a Fox moderate. He’s now the guy who says the president’s not so bad, not even that extreme, just a bit too liberal for his taste.
This suggests that Fox knows it has a misinformation problem.
Fox knows that the sort of people who clog its airwaves on normal, regularly scheduled programming days — and especially prime time — are liars, phonies, wackos and con men. It knows it’s constantly lying to its audience. In the Bush era this was fine for morale. In the first years of Obama’s term it was good for midterm election turnout. But it’s apparent that it’s clearly bad for the movement in the long term. Counting midterms, the parallel conservative media has now utterly failed to grasp the reality of the American electorate in three of the last four national elections. (And for the record, their counterparts on the left did not spend 2010 furiously pretending that everything would turn out great for the Democratic Party.)
Roger Ailes is as paranoid, hysterical and deluded as Jack Welch, but he does grasp that this is unsustainable. He fired Glenn Beck and replaced him with a dumb panel show because he knew Beck was going too far to be useful. “The Nightly Apocalyptic Death Cult Report” is decent for ratings and great for buzz but it doesn’t help Republicans win elections, or at least doesn’t help them remain able to win many elections in the long term.
Karl Rove is an overrated strategist and professional liar, but he is not actually a fool and his goal is to help Republicans win elections, which is why he spent the primaries on Fox being the lonely voice of reason arguing that all of these candidates are awful. But while Rove complained, Fox repeatedly invited on Newt and The Donald. (Similarly, after Rove attempted to create a long-term majority for the GOP by trying very hard to pass immigration reform, the crazies allowed the nativists to seize power of the movement. In 2010, Fox Business hired Lou Dobbs.)
And Fox viewers and talk radio listeners and readers of nearly every single conservative media organ with a significant audience were repeatedly told, over the last month, that Romney was going to win this thing easily and all the polls were lies. They were also told that Barack Obama was a historic failure, and that this election was turning out exactly like 1980, when the sainted Ronald Reagan slew the dragon Jimmy Carter despite trailing in the (biased liberal) polls. The Drudge reader knew Obama was on the ropes, getting desperate, and certain to lose. (No one has yet told Mark Halperin, but decent humans can take solace in the fact that this was the second presidential election in a row in which Drudge did not matter a whit.)
There will be no reckoning. Conor Friedersdorf does his best to shame the conservative media in the Atlantic today but I promise you no one’s getting fired. Dick Morris isn’t going anywhere, no matter how unsatisfying his fake mea culpa is.
But Roger Ailes will likely subtly retool his channel to be more like it was on election night and less like it was in the years leading up to it. The question is whether the other cretins in charge of the conservative media, from the Internet to talk radio, do the same or continue peddling comforting lies that have apparently lost their efficacy.