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The Idiot Box

And the winner of the Fox News primary is...

It was a self-inflicted, eye-glazing marathon—50 hours in late August spent watching a full sampling of the Fox News lineup. Looking back, it seems like a nine-day hallucination of strident voices, blonde hair, and more pitchmen hawking gold coins than at any time since the heyday of King Midas.

Why did I volunteer for this ordeal when a rational person would have been at the beach? Not to belabor the predictable liberal lament that Fox News fails to uphold the high TV journalistic traditions of Edward R. Murrow and Eliot Spitzer. Rather, I wanted to know how the leading cable news network was deploying its unprecedented powers in its coverage of the 2012 GOP presidential race.

Few Republican voters outside Iowa and New Hampshire will glimpse a presidential contender on anything other than a TV screen. And that TV screen is apt to be tuned to Fox. According to a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of Republicans habitually watch Fox News. Bill O’Reilly alone regularly attracts 21 percent of Republicans. It is a safe guess (although Pew did not ask the question directly) that more than half the activists who will be voting in the GOP primaries are Fox faithful. There is no equivalent thumb-on-the-scales force on the Democratic side—not even if you combine MSNBC, NPR, and The New York Times. And, as it turned out, the lesson of my TV marathon was unambiguous: The Fox News primary already has a winner.

LET’S START WITH the long shots. No Republican makes Fox squirm like Ron Paul. The network’s pundits and personalities were obviously defensive about accusations that they had neglected the Iowa Straw Poll’s runner-up. (An easy explanation for their discomfort: Paul acolytes are rabid Fox News viewers.) Neil Cavuto, the host of “Your World,” paused during an interview with Paul to note that he had appeared on his show 28 times since the 2008 election. “You could practically be my co-anchor,” Cavuto gushed. “I wanted to let your people know that we love having you on.”

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were each granted a single, respectful, prime-time interview and were otherwise mercifully left on the cutting-room floor. Herman Cain was invited on Sean Hannity’s show solely to refute comedian Janeane Garofalo’s absurd claim that he was running only to protect the GOP from charges of racism.

Jon Huntsman might welcome this sort of benign neglect. Cavuto began a Huntsman interview by highlighting his microscopic poll ratings and grilling him about his call for “shared sacrifice.” “A lot of Tea Partiers read that, sir, to say, well, maybe they should pay more in taxes,” Cavuto said accusingly. And what Fox commentators had to say about Huntsman behind his back was worse. To Michelle Malkin, a Huntsman profile in a glossy women’s magazine provided evidence of his liberal leanings. Appearing on the midday show “America Live,” she snapped, “The only [Republicans] that these liberal media people think are smart [are] the ones who are trashing conservatives and getting their pictures taken in Vogue magazine by”she hissed“Annie Leibovitz.”

When I began this undertaking, I was braced for a bacchanalia of Michele Bachmann coverage. Less than two weeks earlier, she had been the toast of conservatives after winning the Iowa Straw Poll. But I had failed to appreciate just how quickly the enthusiasms of Fox News would shift. Without a major gaffe or gotcha moment, Bachmann was almost entirely absent, like a Red Army general excised from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia after being purged by Joseph Stalin. She was almost never pictured on screen, even though she was on a four-day campaign swing through Florida. When her name came up, it was usually coupled with a glib dismissal of her chances.

The only extensive discussion of Bachmann I saw was on “The Five,” a late-afternoon political roundtable that I found oddly addictive. The theme was summarized by the on-screen crawl, “BACHMANN FOR OIL DRILLING IN THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES.” The panel’s token Democrat, Bob Beckel, chortled at the radicalism of this position: “I think that you are asking for a trip to the psychiatric ward early.” I expected former Bush White House Press Secretary Dana Perino to leap to Bachmann’s defense, but instead she piled on: “In Florida, which is a swing state, you’ve got to deal very carefully with off-shore oil drilling and the Everglades.”

With hours of air time to fill, there was no reason for the network to prematurely airbrush Bachmann out of the picture, but that’s exactly what happened. Did this have an effect? Possibly. A Fox News poll at the end of my viewing period showed her with just 4 percent support, her weakest showing since early June. That poll then cemented the new Bachmann-is-irrelevant story line.

The Bachmann blackout was, of course, the direct result of Rick Perry pandemonium. More rapidly than the rest of the press corps, Fox News simplified the GOP battle to Perry versus Mitt Romney. Eric Bolling, one of the regular panelists on “The Five,” captured the glow surrounding Perry, saying, “We have had this discussion every day since Perry got in the race—that he is the real deal.” O’Reilly, equipped with the biggest megaphone in cable TV news, explained that, because of Perry’s large lead in the polls, he is now “a big target for those who do not like the GOP.” In that spirit, the network was all over a Politico article provocatively headlined, “IS RICK PERRY DUMB?” I saw this article denounced on four separate shows. Hannity, for instance, heatedly declared, “The mainstream media have set their sights on Rick Perry and are determined to take him down.” Meanwhile, on “Fox & Friends,” Steve Doocy disparaged Politicowhose only ideology is a short attention spanas “a lefty website.”

Where does Romney fit into the prevailing Perrymania? Awkwardly. Romney has not been ignored like Bachmann, since every two-man race needs a second banana. Nor is he currently being attacked for ideological indiscretions such as the Massachusetts health care law. Perhaps because he could still be the GOP nominee next year, Romney is being treated gingerly. As O’Reilly put it, “The truth is that both Romney and Perry have many things in common, including good hair.”

Still, it wasn’t hard to infer where the preferences of most Fox personalities lie. Late-night Fox host Greg Gutfeld offered the most memorable summary on “The Five.” “Mitt Romney is like somebody you hook up with periodically until you get serious and you want to meet somebody serious,” he said. “He [is] friends with benefits. And Perry is marriage material.” Yikes.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New RepublicFollow him on Twitter. This article appeared in the October 6, 2011, issue of the magazine.