The 2012 election season proved to be more than simply red versus blue, or Obama versus Romney. It was also a battle between Fox News and MSNBC. Media networks played a central role in the electoral process, and they have been for years. To many conservatives, Fox News Channel is a “safe space,” a space free from the influence of the liberal media, a place where faith and freedom intersect for many viewers. Since its first day on the air in 1996, Fox News has consistently employed conservative figureheads that galvanize the Republican base. Two on-air personalities in particular, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, have helped attract and maintain a dedicated conservative viewership, and have helped place Fox News in a prominent spot of power in American political discourse.
Fox host Bill O’Reilly began his career on The O’Reilly Report (now known as The O’Reilly Factor) in 1996. By 2009, it boasted 3.1 million viewers, and became the #1-ranked cable news show for 106 consecutive weeks. This confirms in numerical terms what many know in anecdotal terms to be Bill O’Reilly’s expansive influence on American politics. O’Reilly’s approach to politics comes from a center-right populist perspective and he differs from other Fox hosts such as Mike Huckabee, as he does not put much focus on issues that appeal to social conservatives, helping to draw in the widest possible conservative audience. Admittedly, O’Reilly believes that he and Fox News are at the cutting edge of television journalism, and that their political ideology doesn’t prevent them from reporting on stories that many other media outlets often miss (which there is some truth to, as the 2012 elections were a more hyperpartisan time for rival network MSNBC than Fox). O’Reilly consistent tackles topics that excite his conservative viewers and irritate the American left. This has proven to be a successful strategy, as Fox viewership is at an all-time high.
Sean Hannity, host of shows such as Hannity and Colmes, has also proven to be an important component of Fox News’ influence. Much like O’Reilly, controversy has proven to be a great asset in generating publicity for conservative causes. In 2013, Sean Hannity caused controversy during his response to President Obama’s remarks on the Trayvon Martin case, suggesting that the president's comparison of Martin to himself was equivalent to admitting that the president had “smoked pot and did a little blow” in his teenage years. This served to enrage the left and unite the right on an issue that was already quite divisive. Events like these have helped solidify Sean Hannity in his 9 p.m. time slot, consistently beating out ideological opposites like Rachel Maddow or Piers Morgan.
Fox News, like the national Republican Party, has realized that it cannot survive by playing to a base comprised mostly of Baby Boomers, and have taken steps to replace Sean Hannity in his 9 p.m. time slot. In his place will be Megyn Kelly, a conservative firebrand who isn’t afraid to show her independence. Fox News executives hope that the shifting away from Hannity, who has been perceived as socially conservative, and moving towards Megyn Kelly will help with the crucial demographics of women and millennials. In this regard, Fox News and the RNC are employing efforts to broaden their appeal to conservatives less concerned about social issues, and independents who have previously felt alienated by hosts such as Hannity, who is seen as a Republican standard-bearer. Only time will tell if this re-branding of Fox News helps to change the network's image as a network by and for old white men, but as has been a recurring theme on the right, the battle for ideological dominance in today’s Republican Party is brilliantly illustrated in the changing of the guard at Fox News.
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