Accuracy in Media

I recently received a copy of conservative Howard Phillips’ newsletter reporting that Judge Andrew Napolitano, Senior Judicial Analyst for Fox News, had delivered a speech accusing President Bush of imposing “a fascist-Nazi-Soviet style power grab” in America. This was Phillips’ way of headlining and summarizing the thrust of Napolitano’s remarks at an event sponsored by the libertarian Cato Institute. 

Phillips exaggerated the nature and severity of Napolitano’s anti-Bush statements but not by much. Among other things, Napolitano said the Bush-supported anti-terrorist Patriot Act, which passed the Congress in 2001 by votes of 98-1 in the Senate and 356-66 in the House, was “abominable” and “unconstitutional” and “an assault on liberty.” The Cato Institute is strongly opposed to many of Bush’s foreign and domestic policies.

By staking out such a position, Napolitano has, of course, made common cause not only with libertarians but with the ACLU and others on the extreme left. NewsHounds, a website devoted to exposing the alleged conservative bias of Fox News Channel (FNC), has approvingly noted that Napolitano has made similar statements on FNC. When, for example, Napolitano was on John Gibson’s program attacking Bush for his NSA terrorist surveillance program, one of NewsHounds’ left-wing writers commented, “It is not our policy to give Fox employees blue ribbons, but I’ll definitely give the judge a bone.” This is just one of several accolades they have thrown his way. Napolitano is their kind of “conservative.”

But conservatives who believe in winning the war in Iraq and the global war on radical Islam see Napolitano’s anti-Bush rants as more evidence of FNC drifting leftward. The result is apparent in the ratings: FNC has lost viewers compared to last year. “I think many viewers are seeing a trend that they don’t like,” noted one former FNC enthusiast who wrote to me earlier this year. Broadcasting & Cable reports that FNC chief Roger Ailes is upset about the decline and blames “complacency” at the network. It was reported that he believes that bookers are “relying too heavily on the same pool of faces and settling for authors or actors after they’ve already been on CNN or…gasp…MSNBC.” 

The trouble is that some of these faces are on the FNC payroll. When I wrote a column about FNC anchor Shepard Smith giving an interview to Playboy and attacking the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, I heard from many former FNC viewers who said that they had already given up on him. One said: “?it’s obvious that Smith knows nothing about their claims and evidence and is merely parroting the liberal line. This is what he means by fair and balanced? I have often wondered what his background is that he should have been handed a plum nighttime spot like that.”

Despite the solid work of hosts like Sean Hannity and Brit Hume and correspondent Eric Shawn, who has been a thorn in the side of the United Nations, FNC seems to increasingly feature talking heads like former Democratic Party presidential candidate Wesley Clark, now a “Fox News military analyst,” who constantly attacks the Bush Administration’s approach to Iraq and the war on terrorism. Clark was on the O’Reilly Factor show the other night urging the closure of the U.S. terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay and the transfer of the prisoners to an international tribunal, possibly under U.N. jurisdiction. Host Bill O’Reilly, who repeatedly emphasizes that he is NOT a conservative but generally supports the Bush foreign policy approach, thought Clark had a valid point.

Another one of my columns, noting how FNC had given a platform to Howard Stern on the O’Reilly and Hannity & Colmes programs, prompted this response: “Thank you for the column about Fox drifting to the left. Actually, it is more of a lurch! I hope that Roger Ailes will take heed.” At AIM we have received hundreds of emails from conservatives over the last year expressing concern over the drift of the channel. Last year’s FNC program featuring the man-made global warming theories of liberal activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was a tipping point for many. This program was so laughably one-sided that it’s doubtful that one of the traditional liberal networks would have dared to put it on the air.

The good news for FNC, according to a June 28 story in Media Week, is that it is still on top, drawing more viewers than CNN, which also saw a decline from a year ago (but not as large as the decline experienced by FNC), and MSNBC, which upped the size of its very small liberal audience. Reporter Anthony Crupi said that many observers attributed the ratings decline of Fox and CNN to “a particularly slow news cycle.”

But if you examine the potential size of the conservative audience available to FNC, there is no excuse for any decline. FNC is available in 80 million homes, the percentage of conservatives is 34 percent of the electorate, and yet FNC’s highest-rated program, the O’Reilly Factor, gets about 2 million viewers a night. His success, in my view, reflects his pursuit of conservative issues, such as going after liberal judges, the ACLU and George Soros. The obvious conclusion, however, based on the latest ratings plunge, is that FNC is not doing enough to appeal to its natural constituency. In fact, some of the programming seems to be turning off conservatives.

Liberals, who are only about 20 percent of the electorate, seem to be getting more and more attention from FNC. In fact, one of the leaders of that 20 percent, Senator Hillary Clinton, will be benefiting from a fundraiser in July being hosted by Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, parent company of FNC.

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