< Fox News Asking the Tough Questions

Transcript

Friday, December 09, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Jamison is not alone in detecting a new tougher approach to GOP candidates from Fox News Channel. Gabriel Sherman, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, says the less kind, less gentle interviewing of Republican hopefuls is, in part, a marketing strategy, conceived by Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.

GABRIEL SHERMAN:

What Roger Ailes has successfully done is allowed this Republican primary to take place almost entirely on Fox News. The candidates show up in the morning on Fox & Friends, they do interviews during the day. They appear in the prime time at night. They've allowed candidates a platform to air their proposals, critics would say without scrutiny. But they've also knocked them around.

BOB GARFIELD:

For Fox News to move center, it first has to have been on the right. The daily marching orders from editorial management, previously John Moody, now Bill Sammon, has been in lockstep with the messaging of the Republican National Committee. And these are marching orders not for the punditry but for the news side of the organization.

GABRIEL SHERMAN:

From my sources at the network, Bill Sammon's presence has been very controversial and, in fact, there are journalists inside Fox News who have been uncomfortable with Sammon's hands-on and unsubtle attempts to steer coverage rightward. This gets to the heart of what the network is trying to do now.

For a bit of context, it's really important to look at the fact that prior to the Obama election, Fox News' ratings were down considerably. And so, you know, Roger Ailes looked at the landscape in 2008 and said, what can I do to reenergize conservatives and increase ratings on my network. And he hired a whole stable of former Republican candidates and politicians. Those decisions created an environment where Fox News tapped into this populist fervor that was sweeping the country. And ratings exploded.

Fox News became a active participant in the storyline that was developing from 2008 through the 2010 midterms, that there was this populist, anti-government, anti-Obama movement sweeping the country.

That achieved what Roger Ailes had wanted, which was to revive the network and dominate the cable news ratings race, which translates into roughly about a billion dollars in profit annually.

BOB GARFIELD:

What changed his mind and made him drift at least in the direction of the center?

GABRIEL SHERMAN:

The short answer is Roger Ailes couldn't control Glenn Beck. In the opening months of the Obama presidency, Glenn Beck's ratings exploded from roughly about a million to over two million. Glenn Beck's no longer on the network.

I think Ailes realized that Glenn Beck was becoming the public face of Fox News. He needed to remind both his audience and the rest of the media that Fox News was not Glenn Beck.

BOB GARFIELD:

So this journalism offensive has manifested itself recently in an interview with Republican Mitt Romney, in which anchor Bret Baier on healthcare, having as a governor of Massachusetts instituted a health care program much like Fox boogyman Obamacare:

BRET BAIER:

Do you still support the idea of a mandate? Do you believe that that was the right thing for Massachusetts? Do you think a mandate, mandating people to buy insurance, is the right tool?

MITT ROMNEY:

Bret, I don't know how many hundred times I've said this too. This is an usual interview. [LAUGHS] All right, let's do it again. Absolutely. What we did in Massachusetts was right for Massachusetts I've said that time and time again.

GABRIEL SHERMAN:

Bret Baier told Bill O'Reilly in a subsequent follow-up interview that Romney said he thought his questions were overly aggressive and uncalled for.

Now, it's also fascinating to see that Fox News, which is a very difficult institution to penetrate, allowed Howard Kurtz of Newsweek to roam around and interview their producers at a debate in Orlando, and recently at a Fox News forum in Manhattan, allowed Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times to roam around backstage. And it was another embarrassing moment for the Romney campaign because they tried to shield Romney from The Times reporter.

BOB GARFIELD:

So the frontrunner Republican candidate goes into what he thinks is the citadel and finds out that it is in no way a safe haven. What is Ailes up to?

GABRIEL SHERMAN:

It's important to look at Fox News as a product, packaged and sold every day to millions of people. Coming out of the 2010 midterms, Fox News realized that its product was potentially liable for the incendiary rhetoric that was making its way onto the channel and that they needed to rebrand themselves.

That is why you are seeing The New York Times allowed to interview Republican primary candidates in a venue that no journalist would get access to.

BOB GARFIELD:

What can go wrong?

GABRIEL SHERMAN:

A lot can go wrong. Fox faces a, a risk if they push this idea that they are moving to the middle too far. They could alienate their conservative base that has been such a foundation of their rating success.

BOB GARFIELD:

Fantastic, Gabe. Thank you.

GABRIEL SHERMAN:

Thank you.

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Gabriel Sherman is a contributing editor for New York Magazine.