When the Nielsen ratings for the second quarter of 2006 came in, FOX News Channel got some bad news. The network's entire weekday lineup -- every show -- had lost viewers from the first quarter of the year. Special Report with Brit Hume, down 19 percent. The Big Story with John Gibson, down 13 percent. The O'Reilly Factor, down 8 percent. And in nearly every case, the drop in ratings was even more severe among what television insiders call “the demographic” -- viewers between ages 25 and 54.
If we look beyond quarters and compare this year to last year, things look just as bad. While both CNN and MSNBC's ratings were up from June 2005 to June 2006, FOX's overall ratings fell 13 percent (and by 22 percent among the 25 to 54 demographic). In contrast, the one cable show hosted by a progressive, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, while still trailing some of its conservative competitors, experienced a 30 percent growth in the last quarter in the 25 to 54 demographic. And as The New York Times recently reported, the median age of Olbermann's viewers is a sprightly 59, compared to O'Reilly's 71.
Conservatives on the other networks are not exactly setting the cable world on fire, either. The latest right-wing talker to be given his own cable show, Glenn Beck, averaged a paltry 165,000 viewers for CNN's Headline News in his first two months on the air. After watching The Situation With Tucker Carlson float in the ratings toilet for the first year of its existence, MSNBC execs recently decided to overhaul the show, now named simply Tucker (presumably on the theory that what the program needed was more Tucker).
Do these numbers portend the decline of conservative media? In the autumn of the Bush administration, are Americans getting a little tired of the relentless cheerleading of the right-wing squawkers, the protestations that things are going great in Iraq, that we're all enjoying the fruits of trickle-down economics, that under Republican rule America basks in a glow of happiness and virtue?
The numbers seem to suggest as much. But before we start celebrating, we should stop and consider that the current historical moment provides a poor context for conservative talk shows. Their biggest problem is that their arguments necessarily grow more strained the longer Republicans hold power.
Among the core leitmotifs of conservative media is the idea of conservatives as underdogs -- the notion that the real power out there rests not with the leaders of government or the captains of industry, but with a sinister cabal of liberals who somehow manage, through nefarious techniques seldom fully revealed, to control our lives and subvert our country. These liberals wage war on Christmas, they undermine our brave boys overseas, they infect our children's minds with anti-Americanism, they keep good honest hardworking folk down. Only the undaunted courage of people like Bill O'Reilly, unafraid to stand up to these vicious despots, stands between us and national oblivion. (In September, O'Reilly will release his new book, Culture Warrior, which will no doubt prove to be a measured and thoughtful discussion of our contemporary social conflicts.)
This posture made sense (from a conservative point of view) during the early years of the Clinton administration, when conservatives could more plausibly argue that the liberals bent on destroying America actually had the means to do so. And indeed, that was the period when Rush Limbaugh and his imitators experienced their explosive rise.
But pushing the line of liberal perfidy is no easy task when your party controls all three branches of government. Since 2001, conservatives have been fighting a desperate campaign of misdirection, waving their arms furiously to keep their followers' gaze somewhere other than at those who actually hold power. This is certainly Beck's shtick; in his time on the air at Headline News, Beck has compared Al Gore to Adolf Hitler and called Hillary Clinton the Antichrist. In the past on his radio show he has said, “I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore,” called Mexico a “dirtbag country,” and noted that it “took me about a year to start hating the 9-11 victims' families.”
This kind of talk, while disgusting, is by now old hat, which only serves to make the point: The right-wing cable fulminators are over-dogs. Last March, during an appearance on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, I got tired of the host's complaints about the “elite media” and finally said, “You know who the elite media is, Joe? It's you. You have your own television show.” The expression on his face made clear that he thought I was insane. Then this past January, movie critic Richard Roeper responded to Bill O'Reilly's complaints that the “elite media” were ignoring the war on Christmas by saying much the same thing. “Bill, you are the elite media, you are the mainstream media,” Roeper said. “You have a syndicated column, you've got The Radio Factor, you've got your TV show, you got your books. You're the biggest guy in the media.” O'Reilly's response? “Yeah, but I'm still an outsider and a maverick.”
Even when they are in power, conservatives feel the need to convince themselves, and anyone else who will listen, that they are terribly oppressed by the enemy within, nearly helpless before the liberal Brobdingnagians holding them down. In a recent column, Ann Coulter said liberal complaints about constant conservative accusations of treason are “like listening to the Soviet Union complaining about the intimidation coming from Finland.” That's right, the liberals are the mighty Soviet Union, and the conservatives are tiny Finland.
If you really believe this to be true, the fact that your friends are holding power makes both the ever-impending national moral catastrophe and your own suffering no less pressing. But there's the rub: Only the truest of true-believing conservatives could actually believe such a thing.
So should power in Washington change hands, O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Hannity, and the rest of the conservative media elite will no doubt be breaking out the champagne. Democrats with power, particularly a Democratic president, will give them an enemy whose “crimes” will fill the airwaves for as long as they can talk. They hated Clinton mostly because he kept beating them, and reality was no bar to the creation of faux scandals too numerous to mention. No matter which Democrat gets elected, he or she will come under the same assault. However absurd the attacks grow, they'll make for a good show, and the conservative media will likely gain back whatever audience they've lost. The more important question is, what will happen to the left?
At the moment it seems a reasonable possibility that Democrats could take one or both houses of Congress this November, then follow that up by winning the White House in 2008. Should that occur, not only would George W. Bush -- who inspires more antagonism on the left than any president in memory -- be gone, but Democrats would be the dominant party in Washington. Progressives would then find themselves in much the same situation conservatives do today.
Would the left lose the energy of the past few years, its empowering anger fading to the kind of mild disappointment so many felt during the Clinton years? As the urgency of defeating your enemies is replaced by the necessary but sometimes dreary task of propping up your sometime-allies, will progressives grow tired and complacent? And what effect would that have on the emerging progressive media?
One of the key differences between the rhetoric of conservative media and that of progressive media is that being aggrieved plays a far less central role in the latter. Without too much exaggeration one can trace the entire contemporary conservative worldview to the fact that back in the 1960s, the upper ranks of today's conservative movement felt left out and scorned by the cool kids who were getting high and getting laid. That period has come to symbolize all that conservatives believe about our culture: the idyllic prelapsarian age (the 1950s) displaced by a dark descent into the moral sewer, with the nightmarish effects still being felt.
The idea of their own oppression has been far less central to progressive rhetoric in recent years. Progressives don't need to be told that someone is trying to destroy their way of life in order to get riled up; indeed, they tend to be less concerned with their own oppression than with the fact that somebody else is being oppressed. But as a consequence, unlike conservatives, they don't have a ready narrative that structures their understanding of the political and social world no matter who is in charge.
And as we've seen over the past six years, anger is a powerful motivator. Anger at Bush and the Republican Congress was the critical factor that fed the rise of the progressive blogosphere, the most dynamic, growing part of the progressive media. Nonetheless, bloggers have worked hard to sow the seeds of a genuine, lasting progressive movement, one that transcends a given election and is concerned as much with long-term change as short-term victories. There seems little risk that the progressive blogosphere in a time of Democratic dominance would simply devolve into the kind of mindless cheerleading that currently characterizes so much of the conservative blogosphere. The denizens of the left blogosphere value their independence too much, and have gotten too used to seeing the Democratic establishment less as an ally than as an impediment.
But for all the left blogosphere's success, its audience is still relatively small. Conservatives, on the other hand, succeeded in bringing to their media not only hardcore right-wingers but a healthy number of political independents (and even a few liberals) as well. They listen to Rush because he's entertaining, or watch O'Reilly because they like to see him shout down some “pinhead.” Even if some of that audience is drifting away, what remains is still a healthy-sized group. If progressives want their media to grow as large and influential, the first thing they'll have to figure out is what to do when their side is on top.
Paul Waldman is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America and a senior contributor to the Gadflyer.