Throughout its five years on the air, the Fox News Channel has been singled out by the media elite as uniquely biased to the right. Right off the bat the network became suspect when Roger Ailes was hired to run it. He worked for Nixon and the elder George Bush, countless establishment media types huffed, conveniently overlooking that the resumes of the Kennedy and McGovern and Gene McCarthy groupies could paper entire walls at the rest of the networks.
Not much intimidates Ailes, and this didn't, either. He launched his network with a full broadside at the competition by introducing the "We Report, You Decide" and "Fair and Balanced" slogans. This merely confirmed the suspicions of the liberal media, who sneered at such sophomoric nonsense. To the consciousness-raisers who cut their teeth on civil rights protests and Vietnam, these were mantras and mottoes that belonged in a museum, not bouncing off a satellite dish.
Well, they're not laughing anymore. Fox has left MSNBC and CNBC in the dust, while pulling virtually even with CNN. Fox did it with hard work, gutsy journalists and a refreshing outlook on the world.
So why are the folks at Fox now messing with that formula? Recent hires indicate a new direction: glitzy star power over quality. Conservatives are concerned, and Fox had better be careful.
First, Fox grabbed the glamorous and historically liberal Paula Zahn away from CBS. Those conservatives who were wary of this move (like me) were pleasantly surprised when she delivered a truly fair and balanced product; indeed, some were actually saddened (me again) when she was lured away by CNN.
Then Fox hired Geraldo Rivera away from CNBC. Much bigger alarm bells went off this time. (SET ITAL) Geraldo? (END ITAL). And this time the suspicions about this "reporter" were justified. Ultra-patriotic though he was (a nice twist for the aging hippie, that), within weeks Geraldo was embarrassing his new bosses. The Baltimore Sun's David Folkenflik exposed that a Rivera report from the "hallowed ground" where U.S. soldiers fell in a friendly-fire incident was nowhere near where Geraldo was standing. "War correspondent" Geraldo was recalled from the war before Christmas.
What Fox will do with him now -- or he will do with Fox -- is uncertain.
Now Fox has recruited CNN host Greta Van Susteren, counted by most as a counter-coup for CNN stealing Fox's Paula Zahn. Greta will fill Zahn's old hour-long slot at 10 p.m. I can tell you there is most definitely displeasure in Conservativeland over this move.
Lest anyone forget, Greta was, like Geraldo, a full-time Clinton cheerleader during that crazy year of 1998. Within weeks of the Monica Lewinsky revelations, she was anchoring a two-hour special ripping into Ken Starr for his abuses of power and his suspect "religious and Republican roots." (Which was rich coming from Greta, who never wants anyone to talk about her fervent belief in Scientology.)
By May of that year, she was sitting next to Hillary Clinton at a White House state dinner. She argued that Bill Clinton should fight any attempts to make him testify and take it all the way to the Supreme Court. Her trial-lawyer husband, John Coale, represented former Kathleen Willey buddy Julie Hiatt Steele in her attempts to belittle Starr as a vicious, out-of-control prosecutor. Coale had also given thousands of dollars that year to the budding Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
What's going on here? Is Ailes capitulating to the barrage of liberal accusations and trying to make his network look more like the rest of the major media? I doubt it. This man is too much the warrior to be cowed by the opposition, especially now when his gamelan is working so well.
Is he trying to tweak his competitors and drive up the ratings appeal of Fox by hiring away their big-name stars? Maybe that's the answer, but if it is, it is worrisome.
There's an underlying message here, one conservatives have heard before, unfortunately, and it is this: Conservatives have nowhere else to go and will just have to accept this broadening of the message. It had miserable results in GOP politics and could have similar consequences with Fox.
"Nowhere else to go" overlooks one very important player in this drama: CNN capo di capi Jamie Kellner. Call him a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat all you want, but this man is first and foremost a hardnosed businessman. If he has accepted (and who cares whether he says so or not publicly) that a major reason for CNN's ratings free-fall is the loss of its conservative viewers, he will do what it takes to regain them. In truth, there are plenty of signs at CNN that is intent on doing just that.
Fox is going to have to be careful. The biggest mistake it could make is to take its conservative audience for granted.