November 18, 2017

Media Memo: A Rightward Tilt and Big Ratings at Fox News

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Media Memo

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Sean Hannity, right, interviewing Stephen Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and the executive chairman of Breitbart News, last month.CreditCraig Ruttle/Associated Press

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Nov. 12, 2017

Roy S. Moore seemed to be squirming as the interviewer dug in.

Did he recall dating girls as young as 17? “Not generally, no,” Mr. Moore, the embattled Republican Senate nominee in Alabama, replied haltingly. So why had The Washington Post found numerous people who said otherwise? “You understand this was 40 years ago,” Mr. Moore replied, “and after my return from the military, I dated a lot of young ladies.”

Sean Hannity, who conducted the interview for his syndicated radio show on Friday, seemed unsure about how to proceed on his Fox News show later that night. “What if, in fact, he was just inarticulate?” the host asked, after starting things off with a replay of his interview with Mr. Moore. “Throwing it out. Devil’s advocate.”

Mr. Hannity rarely extends this kind of generosity to the usual, liberal-leaning targets of his hit prime time show, which, since moving to 9 p.m. this fall, has reclaimed the No. 1 spot in cable news.

But his handling of Mr. Moore — tough questions, followed by the benefit of the doubt — reflects a moment of uncertainty for the conservative media, as it confronts deep divisions within the American political right.

The Moore scandal has become a proxy battle of sorts between bomb-throwers like Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and the executive chairman of Breitbart News who has vehemently defended Mr. Moore, and establishment Republicans like Senators Mitch McConnell and John McCain, who have called on Mr. Moore to withdraw.

President Trump, the catalyst for this disruption, is a bit of a wild card, perhaps explaining Mr. Hannity’s equivocation: Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Moore’s primary opponent, Luther Strange, but then cheered Mr. Moore’s victory and erased his pro-Strange Twitter posts. On Saturday, the president said of Mr. Moore: “I’d have to look at it and I’d have to see.”

In the past, conservative lodestars like Fox News’s prime time hosts and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal would most likely be in lock step with Republican Party leadership in denouncing a candidate with such serious allegations against him.

On Friday, The Journal’s editorial board stopped short of asking Mr. Moore to withdraw, while calling the charges against him “disqualifying,” if “unprovable at this remove.” At Fox News, the hosts were more sanguine.

On the Friday edition of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the 8 p.m. show on Fox News, the host referred to The Post as “a paper I never read” before making his main point about the allegations against Mr. Moore. “Some of it sounds true to me actually,” Mr. Carlson said. “The problem is that I, and I think a lot of other people, so distrust the media that even when maybe what they’re reporting is correct, it’s hard to know, exactly.”

Laura Ingraham, who was recently given the network’s 10 p.m. slot, said with a smirk that “establishment media figures are salivating over the scandal,” before ticking off liberals like Louis C. K. and Harvey Weinstein who have also been accused of sexual misconduct. To Democrats, she warned, “I don’t think you want to go there. I’ve got two words for you: Bill Clinton.”

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Laura Ingraham, Fox News’s latest primetime host, spoke at an event for a Republican senate candidate, Kelli Ward, in Arizona last month.CreditLaura Segall for The New York Times

It seems there has been a shift at Fox News since 2015, when its anchors like Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly subjected Mr. Trump to tough questions about his statements and conduct. Bill O’Reilly, who was then the channel’s 8 p.m. host, was also occasionally skeptical of the upstart candidate. And when Mr. Trump attacked Ms. Kelly in sexist terms — suggesting her tough questions to him were a result of “blood coming out of her wherever” — the channel’s then-chairman, Roger Ailes, denounced Mr. Trump’s comments as “unacceptable” and “disturbing.”

Two years later, the prime-time Fox News lineup is a Trump safe space, with a dose of Bannonist populism once considered on the fringe. Days before her debut on Oct. 30, Ms. Ingraham, who also spoke at the convention when Mr. Trump received the Republican nomination, stood beside Mr. Bannon at political rally in Arizona as the Breitbart head warned of a coming war against elites.

How is this playing with viewers? Superbly. After falling behind MSNBC on weeknights among the sought-after 25-to-54 demographic, Fox News has surged back. And Ms. Ingraham pulled 2.7 million total viewers her first week, nearly half a million more than her competition on MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell. Mr. Hannity beat Rachel Maddow on MSNBC last week by about 300,000 viewers.

Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer and former editor at large at Breitbart, noted that Fox News was forced to remake its prime time after Ms. Kelly defected to NBC News and Mr. O’Reilly was fired amid a sexual harassment scandal.

“Some of this is happenstance, and some of this is that Trump enjoys a 80 percent approval rating among Republicans,” Mr. Shapiro said. “So if you’re a conservative news outlet, what are you going to do — get somebody that’s anti-Trump?”

Still, David Frum, a conservative writer and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, said that the old reflexes of right-wing media were being tested by increasingly outlandish scenarios, like the allegations against Mr. Moore.

“What you’re seeing in conservative media are standard templates, into which is being plugged ever more extreme content,” said Mr. Frum, who is a vocal critic of Mr. Trump. “Rush Limbaugh’s defense of Roy Moore is exactly the same defense he’s given every Republican sex scandal since he went on the air.” (Mr. Limbaugh, on his radio show, suggested that Democrats in sex scandals like Mr. Clinton were treated better than Mr. Moore.)

“What you see there is just how out-of-date the reflexes are,” Mr. Frum said.

Breitbart remains more militant than older-school right-wing outlets: On Sunday, the site claimed it had discovered “false reporting” by The Post because of an apparent discrepancy over whether one of Mr. Moore’s accusers had a telephone in her childhood bedroom. The story appeared to be part of Mr. Bannon’s effort to prop up Mr. Moore’s candidacy.

Still, some conservatives were stunned last month when The Journal’s editorial page — known for its gray-flannel boardroom conservatism — called for the resignation of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. At least four editors and columnists who were seen as critics of Mr. Trump have left The Journal in recent months.

Given Fox News’s ascendant ratings, it seems clear that hard-line views attract a big audience. Last week, though, in a speech that flew under the radar, Chris Wallace, the anchor of “Fox News Sunday,” startled some guests at a journalists’ gala by stating, flatly: “President Trump is engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on a free press in our history.”

His words marked a departure from the media-bashing that is now a regular feature of the network’s prime time lineup, buttressed by recent hires like Sebastian Gorka, the former White House aide and Breitbart editor.

On Friday, Mr. Hannity ended his show by asking Mr. Gorka about Mr. Moore.

“His media appearances have to be judged in light of his background, that he isn’t somebody who’s lived in the swamp for 30 years,” Mr. Gorka said. “If anything inappropriate happened, it should be investigated. But again, it’s a presumption of innocence.”

“Presumption of innocence, don’t rush to judgment,” Mr. Hannity replied. “The media has been so wrong, so often. We’re just going to pursue the truth here. That’s our promise. More Hannity straight ahead.”

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Beverly Young Nelson, left, and her lawyer, Gloria Allred, at a news conference on Monday in New York. Ms. Nelson has accused Roy S. Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, of attacking her when she was 16 and he was a prosecutor in Etowah County, Ala.
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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/12/business/media/fox-news-roy-moore.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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