In November 2008, many thought the Republican Party had collapsed. Two years later, such theories were a distant memory. (More)

The Fox Effect, Part II: The Fox Party

This week Morning Feature looks at the just-released book The Fox Effect, by David Brock, Ari Ravin-Havt, and the staff at Media Matters for America. Yesterday we considered the Fox News motto ‘Fair & Balanced’ through conservative frames. Today we examine their emerging role as a Republican Party campaign organization. Tomorrow we conclude with Fox News’ consistent and too-often effective six-step strategy for attacking opponents, including the authors and Media Matters.

About the authors: David Brock is the founder of Media Matters, and the author of five books including his memoir Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. Ari Rabin-Havt is the vice president of research and communication at Media Matters.

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Mark Twain was not dead in May of 1897. He wasn’t even ill. A cousin had been ill and, as Twain famously penned, “The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

In November 2008, the Republican Party seemed in disarray. President Obama had won a 365-vote Electoral College landslide. Having taken the House and split the Senate in 2006, Democrats in 2009 held 257 House seats and would hold 58 seats in the Senate after Al Franken’s victory in Minnesota was confirmed. Independent Senators Bernie Sanders (VT) and Joe Lieberman (CT) caucused with Democrats, suggesting a “filibuster-proof supermajority.” Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party was one of many epitaphs describing a party that had fallen from holding the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2003 to seeming irrelevance in just six years.

Unlike Twain, the Republican Party was ill. But like Twain, the reports of its death were exaggerated. In the next two years, Republicans would stall and weaken the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Acts. They would block the Employee Free Choice Act, and any meaningful legislation on immigration or climate change. And while Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would be repealed, that would happen only in a lame duck session and in exchange for continuing the 2001 Bush tax cuts … after a midterm “red tide” swept Republicans into control of the U.S. House and into governors’ mansions and state legislatures across the U.S.

Some of that GOP recovery owed to exaggerated interpretations of the 2006 and 2008 elections. Some of it was merely statistical regression toward the mean, boosted by technical factors such as the number of seats in play for each party. Some of it voters’ sincere frustration with a still-anemic economy. But some of it was a real political rebound, driven in large part by the emergence of Fox News as a Republican Party campaign organization.

“I’m gonna start organizing.”

Thus announced CNBC reporter Rick Santelli in his now-famous rant against the stimulus bill on February 19, 2009. Santelli decried the “moral hazard” of proposals to aid distressed homeowners, and called for a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest the Obama administration.

Yet while Santelli said “I’m gonna start organizing,” CNBC quickly blocked such direct activism, according Chris Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt report in The Fox Effect:

The network was caught off guard as well. Despite advocating a pro-business point of view, CNBC was no place for rowdy activists. Indeed, it depended on its reputation as a high-minded business network to maintain its elevated ad rates based on catering to an elite market. Investors who were often glued to CNBC did not want bombastic political commentary mixed with the news while the markets were open.

Instead, Fox News picked up the Tea Party banner:

When CNBC quashed Santelli’s activism, Fox News was ready to pounce. As conservative activists began to schedule Tea Parties across the country, the network became their primary organizing and promotional agent. In the months following Santelli’s original rant, Fox News aired scores of promos and segments on the movement, and even graphics declaring the events “[Fox News Channel] Tax Day Tea Parties.”

Like the Iraq War protests of 2003 and the Occupy movement of 2011, the Tea Party movement included tens of thousands of grassroots activists. But unlike the Iraq War or Occupy protests, the Tea Party movement had a major cable news network as a sponsor and publicist. In August 2009, as members of the House and Senate went home to meet with constituents and discuss the proposed health care reform bills, Fox News encouraged Tea Party groups to flock to the town halls and shout down other speakers. In contrast to polls – which showed strong support for health care reform – videos of rowdy town halls suggested a nation united in outrage against a “government takeover of health care.”

The Affordable Care Act passed in February 2010, but the Tea Party had revived the Republican Party … and Fox News had taken center stage in the party power structure.

“… they can go to …”

On January 8, 2010, Scott Brown appeared on Fox News’ Hannity to discuss his run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy. As part of his pitch to viewers, Brown said:

If people are kind of fed up with the way things are going, they can go to, and they can make a difference and they can stop the business as usual – not only in Massachusetts, but more important, nationally.

Thus began what the authors describe as “a glorified telethon” for Brown. As they note:

While other networks discouraged candidates from explicitly promoting their websites or fund-raising on the air, no such rules existed at Fox News.

“How can I help you raise money?”

Brown wasn’t the first candidate for whom Fox News had raised funds. In 2009, New York congressional candidate Doug Hoffman, New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie, and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell were given a total of 16 interviews and almost two hours of air time. In each appearance, the candidates asked viewers for contributions. As their elections neared, the network also directed viewers to virtual phone-banks for the candidates.

Nor would Brown be the last such candidate, as the authors report:

Over the course of the 2010 election cycle, more than thirty Fox News employees endorsed, raised funds, or campaigned for over three hundred Republican candidates and organizations.

Fox News hosts’ activities included appearing at fund-raisers and introducing candidates at stump speeches, often with announcements touting the host’s connection to Fox News. In October 2009, Glenn Beck asked Rep. Michele Bachmann on the air: “How can I help you raise money?” and added “We should have a fund-raiser for you, Michele.” Meanwhile, MSNBC suspended both Joe Scarborough and Keith Olbermann for making political donations.

The authors describe the days leading up to the November midterms:

Now all that was left was the counting. For two years, Fox had worked toward this moment. It had served as the communications hub of the Republican Party, contributed more than two million dollars and raised tens of millions more, and used the Tea Parties to build a movement that supplied bodies for the Republican field operation. Now it was time to see the fruits of that labor materialize.

The media wrote about the impact of the Tea Party, and the revival of the Republican Party.

Both were, in fact … the Fox Party.


Happy Friday!