It’s hard to overstate the power of Fox News for those seeking a career in the conservative movement. I’ve seen the most accomplished of lawyers suddenly become “somebody” only after they regularly appear on Fox. I’ve seen young activists leave senators or representatives languishing alone in rooms as they flood over to Fox personalities, seeking selfies. Fox has become the prime gatekeeper of conservative fame, the source of conservative book deals, and the ticket into the true pantheon of conservative influence.
It’s killing the conservative movement.
As Matthew Sheffield laid out brilliantly in a piece earlier this month, at any given moment Fox may have the biggest audience in cable news, but its overall cultural and political influence pales in comparison with that of its leading network and Internet competitors. Fox has constructed a big, beautiful, and lucrative gated community — a comfortable conservative cocoon.
The result is clear: Conservatives gain fame, power, and influence mainly by talking to each other. They persuade each other of the rightness of their ideas and write Fox-fueled best-selling books making arguments that Fox viewers love. The sheer size of the audience lulls minor political celebrities into believing that they’re making a cultural and political difference. But they never get a chance to preach to the unconverted.
The problem goes well beyond this cocoon effect, into the very moral and intellectual heart of the conservative movement. Like any human enterprise, Fox is filled with a wide variety of people — some good, some bad. But it is, at heart, a commercial endeavor, rather than an intellectual or spiritual one. Its fundamental priority is to make money, not to advance a particular set of ideas or values in public life.
To be clear, one of the ways that it makes money is through a very deliberate strategy of counter-programming the mainstream media. But that is an economic determination far more than an ideological one, which means that Fox’s priorities will never exactly match the conservative movement’s.
Yet such is the power of Fox fame that I’ve seen with my own eyes conservative leaders alter their message and public priorities in response to Fox’s demands. “Fox isn’t interested” is a statement that often shuts down conversations and ends public campaigns before they begin, because if Fox is interested, the conversation never ends. Ever wonder why conservatives talk so much about Benghazi almost four full years after the vast majority of the key facts of that tragic engagement became clear? Because Fox remains interested.