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Irony, Fox Style

There’s been a fuss in the last week or so over Gabriel Sherman’s book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country.” The book has been widely reviewed and praised for its “fair and balanced” but ultimately devastating overview of Ailes and Fox News, not to mention being flagged for its annoyingly long title. Has anyone published a political book in the past five years that doesn’t have a colon followed by “How ….” in the title?.

Ailes build a news organization up from basically nothing to where it is today, the dominant cable news organization with the largest audience (far outstripping its competition, CNN and MSNBC), the highest revenue stream and the highest profit margins. It accomplished all this using a simple, Ailesean strategy: identify your target audience and give ‘em what they want.

The target audience from the beginning was conservative Americans who identify with the GOP, vote reliably for any Republican on the ballot, hated the Clintons and have similarly unfriendly feelings for Obama. This group is, demographically speaking, small, specialized and shrinking. It consists of older, white, mostly Southern males. In fact, the median age of Fox viewers is over 65 years (latest figures show it’s now just about 68).

Importantly, however, among the critical cohort, those between 25 and 55, Fox’s numbers have been plummeting — over 40% in the just the past five years — at the same time that the number of viewers in this age bracket has gone up by 10%. Old, white geezers don’t buy much. Boomers, Millennials, Gen X’ers do. Is this a problem for Fox? In one way nope; in another yup, very much so.

Fox News orients its reporting toward the sentiments held by their target group. They use a stable of cheery blonds to read cherry-picked news, outline the day’s events and resolutely focus on those they know their audience wants to hear about. They have been shouting “Benghazi, Benghazi” for over a year now, repeatedly focusing on features about the IRS and how it targeted conservative organizations (never mentioning that it also scrutinized liberal groups) and miss no chance to report on even the most minor glitch in Obamacare — or what the rest of the news world calls the Affordable Care Act. For a week or so they had a good old thigh-slapping time fawning over Putin, praising him for being a tough and resolute leader who made Obama look like a wimp — a line of “reporting” that ground to halt with the invasion of Crimea.

Their top guns are conservative icons like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly — though the once-wildly popular Glenn Beck got too crazy, even for Ailes who “allowed” him to go off and start his own network. A year or so ago there was a bit of a dust-up over a study that showed that those who get their news exclusively from Fox are less-informed and more ignorant of current events than those who don’t watch any news shows, leading some to argue that watching Fox News makes you stupid. Could be, but it’s just as likely that only stupid people watch Fox. It’s also true, to be fair, that those who only watched other cable news shows also scored low — though not as low as Foxites.

But, no matter. The really interesting story here is that Ailes has created what every media corporation would seemingly love: a news network with big numbers, a loyal following and a bottom line that is well in the black. Ironically, its doom is written in these rosy demographic and financial figures.

America is changing. It is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and with diversity comes tolerance, acceptance and openness. If a news network is going to have a future it is going to have to adjust, welcome the change and ride with the new, more liberal social values that are sweeping the country.

But Fox can’t — even if they wanted to, even if Ailes realized the morass his policies will eventually pull the network into, even if the Murdochs demanded changes. They bound themselves with steel wires to their demographic. And, as always, it’s about money. Fox’s advertising revenues aren’t particularly high. They barely cover the cost of running the network. Their billion dollar annual profits (yup, they average just about that) come from subscription fees paid by local stations to carry Fox programming. These stations derive their income from local advertising and, because so many of them are in districts with high numbers of old white conservatives — you know, Fox viewers — they do fine. If Fox were to try to shift its editorial content or begin really presenting news in a “fair and balanced” manner, they would howl bloody murder and threaten to cancel — and that would be the end of Fox’s revenue stream.

FWIW, this kind of financial scaffolding is also the case with other right-wing talk shows. Advertising on Rush Limbaugh’s show is similarly in a tailspin, owing to almost all the top companies pulling out in protest over the stances he’s taken on things like climate change and abortion and the attacks he’s launched on everyone from Obama to Sandra Fluke. He’s holding on mainly by taking “corporate welfare” — right wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Freedomworks are bailing him out. So much for “free market” principles.

Ailes, who has always been active in the GOP, made his network the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, attracted a loyal group of viewers from a small and dwindling sliver of the country, made pots of money and, given his girth and age, will likely not live to see it die on its own sword. Fox News’ audience isn’t going to change their attitudes or beliefs. Fox can’t change its orientation. Limbaugh is mired in the qucksand of ignorance he shares with his listeners. It’s all very Shakespearean, the traits that make for greatness hold within them a calamitous end.

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