South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis, frustrated by a restive crowd at a recent forum to discuss health care reform, suggested people turn off the TV when Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck came on.
Judging by the escalating boos and catcalls, squirting lighter fluid on burning coals would have been wiser. Beck is a hero to many people who are not buying the Age of Obama, and so is Fox. The network was already on pace for its best ratings year even before the health care debate sent viewership jumping during a traditionally slow month for news.
How emboldened is Fox? After President Barack Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs warned against "cable news" derailing health care plans, Bill O’Reilly assumed he was referring to Fox and seemed ready for a fight.
"Who’s that going to help?" O’Reilly said. "Us, that’s who. Our ratings are already soaring because we don’t denigrate the protesters, the way a lot of other TV news organizations do. They’re dying. We’re on fire."
Fox’s strong year hasn’t come without controversy. Some critics worry about overheated rhetoric — Beck has called Obama a racist and joked about poisoning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and suggest Fox has helped lead, instead of just follow, the president’s opponents.
Fox’s viewership is up 11 percent over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. CNN and MSNBC, which benefited from interest in the campaign last year, are down. O’Reilly, who already had cable news’ most popular show, Beck and Sean Hannity lead the way.
The ratings expose as naive anyone who believed that the dawn of a Democratic government in Washington would hurt Fox.
"Fox is much more firmly established than it has ever been," said Eric Burns, former host of Fox’s "News Watch" media criticism show. "It has been in existence for 13 years. It knows its base. And it knows its base is bigger than CNN or MSNBC."
Since Fox is already the network of choice for conservatives, the ratings indicate it must be drawing in more moderates and even liberals, said Bernard Goldberg, best-selling author of "A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (and Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media" and other books that criticize liberal media bias. The poor economy and the administration’s ambitious agenda have made people anxious and searching for a media outlet that understands them, he said.
Roughly three times as many Republicans said in a June survey that they regularly get news from Fox, as opposed to CNN or MSNBC, reported the Pew Research Center. The three networks had about the same number of Independent followers, and Fox had more Democratic followers than CNN and MSNBC had GOP fans.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group that is busing demonstrators across the country to health care forums held by members of Congress, said other news organizations seem more interested in who is helping to organize protests. Fox doesn’t ignore the protesters’ concerns, he said.
"Is Fox more critical of Obama than MSNBC? Of course," Phillips said. "But when you look at what is happening, Fox is actually covering it."
Fox’s critics question its balance. Fox aired comments from 63 opponents of health care reform on Monday and Tuesday, and only 10 supporters, the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America said. Fox also cut away from Obama’s New Hampshire town hall after only two questions, saying it would return if it got contentious. It didn’t.
Some advertisers are boycotting Beck because of his remarks about the president, although Fox quickly distanced itself with a statement by network executive Bill Shine saying it was Beck’s opinion, not Fox’s.
During this spring’s anti-tax "tea party" demonstrations, Goldberg said he found many networks’ coverage disgraceful. But he was also critical of Fox, which he said "didn’t simply cover the tea parties, they championed them."
O’Reilly’s show (where Goldberg is a frequent guest) has covered the health care meetings fairly, he said. But he said others on Fox are encouraging the incivility of protesters. A call and e-mail to Fox for comment were not immediately returned.
Fox also declined to make an executive available to be interviewed for this story.
"Some liberals say we intentionally glorify the protesters," O’Reilly said on his show last week. "That doesn’t happen here. We’ve said there’s no doubt that some of the dissent is organized by people who don’t like President Obama. That’s a fact — and we’ve reported it."
The addition of Beck and dropping of Hannity’s liberal co-host Alan Colmes has increased anti-Obama time on Fox. To a degree, MSNBC’s left turn provides Fox with cover; opinionated cable news is that much more accepted.
Even if outnumbered, opposing voices are more likely heard in Fox’s prime-time than on MSNBC’s. Fox has also largely ignored the more extreme Obama opponents who question whether the president was born in the United States.
Just from the e-mails he got at "News Watch," Burns, the former "News Watch" host, said he understands the devotion of Fox’s fans. Many Fox fans feel their point of view wasn’t expressed on TV, and will be forever grateful to someone who does. The brand loyalty "exceeds the loyalty, I’ll bet, to any other network except maybe ESPN to sports fans," he said.
With Obama in office, he’s bullish about Fox’s future.
"They’ve got it made," Burns said. "They’ve got it made for four years."