There now appears to be a healthy debate going on in Republican circles about the problems created by the information cocoon in which conservatives have embedded themselves in recent years (I wrote about this last week). That's good for them, but I doubt it's going to work. My guess is that a couple of years from now, the conservative media's rhetoric will be just the same as it is now—just as angry, just as prone to race-baiting, just as unwilling to acknowledge reality when it conflicts with their beliefs. Jonathan Martin of Politico took the time to interview a bunch of younger Repbublican operatives and thinkers, and they all seem to be in agreement that something has to change. But the right has a real generational problem, and it isn't about their leaders. It's about their audience.
Conservative media is a political force, but first and foremost it's a business. And that business' primary customers have grown used to a particular product. Those customers are, above all, older white men, and the product is that particular combination of anger, resentment, and contempt for people outside the tribe that has characterized conservative media for so long. Fox News has the oldest audience of any of the cable channels, and they like what Hannity, O'Reilly, and the rest of the gang have been giving them just fine. They like hearing that Barack Obama is a socialist America-hater destroying our country. They like the culture war. It keeps them coming back. So if you were Sean Hannity, and you understood that perfectly well, what incentive would you have to change?
MSNBC is finding success with its turn toward a more explicitly liberal lineup of programs, and they've done it by understanding their audience as well. Yes, there are some hosts on MSNBC who resemble their Fox counterparts in their stridency. But the network's biggest star is Rachel Maddow, who is smart, thoughtful, and unfailingly polite to conservatives (watch her deliver an eloquent plea to Republicans to come back to reality for the good of democratic debate and the entire country). Up With Chris Hayes is miles more substantive and interesting than any of the network Sunday shows. These programs appear on MSNBC because that's what liberals find appealing, and it just so happens that they don't create the same kind of reality-denying bubble that so many on the right live in. Though Fox's overall audience is still much larger, MSNBC sometimes beats Fox in what television people call "The Demo," adults between 25 and 54, which is pretty striking given Fox's longstanding dominance.
So conservatives and liberals are both getting what they want from their media, and both sides' media are making money. There's a nice little anecdote in Martin's story about Trey Grayson, the establishment figure who was Mitch McConnell's pick to become Kentucky's junior senator in 2010. During the primary, McConnell called Roger Ailes to complain that Grayson wasn't getting nearly the airtime on Fox as his opponent, libertarian lunkhead Rand Paul. "Ailes, who consulted on McConnell's first Senate race, had tough news for his old friend: Paul was just a better draw." And that's what will always come first, even if it hurts the GOP in the end.