GOP Sen. Tom Coburn scored a perfect 100 on the American Conservative Union's rankings for lawmakers last year. That makes him one of the last people you'd expect to criticize what liberals see as the GOP's most notable media mouthpiece, Fox News, but that's exactly what he did at a recent town-hall meeting in Oklahoma. When an audience member fretted about going to prison for not buying health insurance, Coburn responded, "The intention is not to put anyone in jail. That makes for good TV on Fox, but that isn't the intention." When discussing disagreements with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he described her as a " nice lady" and warned the jeering crowd to be civil and to get their news from more than one source: "Don't catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody is no good."
Coburn's calling out of Fox was notable precisely because it's rare for Fox and Republicans to find their messages out of sync. The image of Fox that one gets from liberal critics such as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart is that it parrots Republican talking points, pushes conservative ideas into the mainstream, and keeps the base animated. But some conservatives are asking whether the news channel has become too extreme and whether, by angering and agitating the base, it may be making it harder, rather than easier, for Republicans to win elections.
David Frum, a prominent conservative pundit and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, led the charge last month when he lambasted Republicans’ handling of health-care reform. In a piece about the health-care vote titled “Waterloo,” Frum wrote, "We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat. There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible…By mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead." On Nightline, Frum noted, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering we work for Fox…The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican Party."
A Fox News representative declined to comment for this story. Despite the criticism, Fox News is hardly suffering. It has seen its best quarter yet in terms of ratings, even as CNN suffers a steep decline in viewership At the National Press Club last week, Rupert Murdoch was asked if it was appropriate for Fox News to be promoting tea-party events, including—according to one questioner—one Fox business host's directing viewers to a tea-party Web site to buy merchandise. "No, I don't think we should be supporting the tea party, or any other party," Murdoch responded, adding that he would investigate the tea-party coverage.
Fox's promotion of tea-party protests might be a case in point. While publicizing anger at President Obama may have seemed to serve the GOP's short-term interests, there are now prominent Republican officeholders with strong chances in a general election, such as Charlie Crist and John McCain, battling in competitive primaries against tea-party favorites who might be less likely to win over Democrats and independents this fall.
Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, notes that when Fox News first began airing, it presented itself as a counterweight to the left-leaning mainstream media, but as the mainstream media moved more to the center in recent years (CNN, for example,just hired prominent right-wing blogger Erick Erickson), Fox, to maintain its distance, moved further to the right. "I have no problem with a network that wears its politics on its sleeve," says Bartlett. "What bothers me is [Fox] pretends not to be that." With so many conservatives watching only Fox, says Bartlett, "people are wearing blinders; they hear no fact that conflicts with their world view. All day long their views are reinforced that Obama is a socialist crackpot."
And, as Coburn and others have recently learned, Republicans who challenge Fox may be picking a fight they cannot win. GOP Rep. Bob Inglis was booed by the crowd at a town-hall meeting in South Carolina last August when he suggested people turn off their TVs when Glenn Beck comes on. Beck's adoption of fringe claims seems to particularly irk moderate, establishment Republicans. "Bill O'Reilly might look like a clown compared to a traditional news anchor," says Bartlett, "but compared to Glenn Beck he looks like Edward R. Murrow."
Bartlett wonders if ultimately "an inherent conflict of interest is growing, in which the very success of Fox makes it harder for Republicans to get out of the echo chamber, to have arguments that go beyond their base, and to reach out to independents and Democrats who might vote for them."
At least one Republican seems unwilling to surrender to Fox just yet. John Hart, a Coburn spokesman, explained the senator's comments at that town-hall meeting and hardly backed off: "A lot of politicians are afraid of offending or alienating people who cater to their base. Coburn is one of the few people in Washington who says what he really believes." And, Hart added, "he wishes that other senators would spend more time on the floor and less time on talk shows."