With precious little time remaining until the election, last week I sat down to watch as much Fox News as I reasonably could over a 24-hour period. As one might expect with Barack Obama so close to the presidency, the channel is in full nuclear meltdown mode; I was afraid the stench of desperation would waft out of the television set and into my studio apartment. Fox is going ballistic for good reason: These days, absolutely nothing is going right--in both declensions of the word. The paroxysms I witnessed hinted at an answer to a critical question: What will the opposition media look like during an Obama administration?
In this hour of GOP discontent, a split has occurred in the American right. It roughly looks like this: One group of conservative intellectuals--David Frum and David Brooks come to mind--has argued that the Republican Party is out of step with the country and unwilling to advocate an agenda for middle-class Americans. For its troubles, this faction has been attacked by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, who accuses Barack Obama of fomenting racism and lately seems to exist, along with his 20 million listeners, in his own universe. Limbaugh and his ilk (Andrew McCarthy and Mark Steyn on National Review's The Corner, radio host Mark Levin, and others) think the Republicans have run a weak campaign, and need to exhibit more anger and aggression in their confrontations with Democrats and the media. (Signs of clique membership: adoring Sarah Palin; cursing McCain for not bringing up Jeremiah Wright.)
As the right's main television outlet, Fox News's role in this debate--which is certain to become more heated after Tuesday--will heavily influence conservatism's next four years. And if my marathon watching session is any indication, Fox has chosen its side in the conservative civil war. Not so much partisan as simply angry, Fox looks to be cocooning itself: Boosting McCain's policies and character has taken a backseat to chronicling the obsessions of right-wing talk radio and blogs. (This is the crucial difference between Fox and MSNBC, which is remarkably good at staying on Obama's message.) To watch the channel in the final days of Decision 2008 is to enter a world where ACORN, media bias, Obama's campaign financing, and Fox News itself are the central storylines of the election. Once the network of optimistic, flag-waving jingoism, Fox has become a beacon of sky-is-falling fury.
My Fox watching began with cable's highest-rated news program, "The O'Reilly Factor." On this night, the subject of Bill O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo," his nightly address on an issue he deems important, was media bias and Fox News. The rest of the press was in the tank for Obama, O'Reilly argued, and because FNC was treating the candidates fairly and evenhandedly, the Obama campaign and various liberal commentators were out for blood. McCain went almost unmentioned. His first guest was Fox morning anchor Megyn Kelly, who defended herself and her network regarding the abrasive interview she conducted with Obama aide Bill Burton the day before. After the topic reached a point of diminishing returns, two equally urgent issues presented themselves: a California resident's decision to hang a Sarah Palin dummy by a noose (grave head-shaking all around) and efforts by homeless people in Ohio to register to vote (the nerve!). The show progressed, with O'Reilly mentioning the economy only as an excuse to bash Barney Frank (for running a campaign ad bashing O'Reilly and Fox). Then it was time for another whole segment on Fox News's fairness and the liberal media's bias.
On other programs, too, I was surprised at how often McCain campaign talking points were disregarded and how eagerly aggrieved solipsistic self-reference and far right-wing obsessions were indulged. Take, for example, Brit Hume's 6 p.m. show, "Special Report," which always ends with a panel of pundits discussing what they believe to be the two biggest issues confronting the nation. After a day in which the McCain people had been hitting Obama on taxes repeatedly, Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, and Charles Krauthammer discussed media bias and Obama's record-breaking (and promise-breaking) fundraising over the past few months.
Even the network's policy discussions seemed to go off-rail. Earlier in the afternoon, Shepherd Smith, the relatively straight-shooting host of two news programs, conducted a down-the-middle discussion with Fox reporters Major Garrett and Carl Cameron about each candidate's tax plan. But then, a few minutes into a conversation, Smith reported on Joe the Plumber's campaigning in Florida. It was almost as if the race now had a legitimate third-party candidate. The tax discussion reconvened, but was then interrupted again by Joe the Plumber talk. Smith had gotten word that Joe would be appearing within the hour on the program. You could sense the excitement in the studio; Smith would mention the upcoming event a few more times before it actually occurred. At this point, however, I began to wonder how happy the McCain camp could be with this turn of events. A discussion about taxes and the two candidates that was on relatively favorable ground for the Republican was shunted aside to focus on the man who has become a much bigger right-wing folk hero than McCain could ever dream of being. Sean Hannity's continuing obsession with Bill Ayers presents the same problem: The McCain campaign has tried to move on to more fertile ground (the Ayres attack backfired in the polls), but right-wingers like Hannity will not get off the case. Moreover, Smith was forced to bring up Joe's affirmation of a voter's charming comment that a vote for Obama was a vote for the death of Israel.
While other news sources covered Ted Stevens's felony conviction and the credit crisis, "Fox & Friends" remained fixated on a bizarre local interview Joe Biden gave over three days before, in which he was asked, "How is Obama not being a Marxist?" The midday shows focused obsessively on ACORN and media bias. Sean Hannity's Bill Ayers mania continued. Fox truly felt like an alternate universe. Instead of being a cheerleader for John McCain or the Republican Party or the United States, the channel appeared interested only in raising conservatives' blood pressure. With conservatism fighting for its life, one of its key outlets spends its days venting to the like-minded. It's hard to imagine that the movement will re-emerge stronger for its time in the cocoon.
Isaac Chotiner is a frequent contributor to The New Republic.