The curtain has dropped on the tale of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher famous for refusing to pay grazing fees for use of public land. He became a hero to anti-government zealots who oddly failed to see this second helping of taxpayer largesse (the modest fees he didn’t pay already reflected a government subsidy) as the action of a taker, not a maker.
But Bundy provided an especially picturesque story custom-made for conservative Fox News. Here was a rancher on a horse, mad at the government and surrounded by a band of do-not-tread-on-me-or-my-Medicare-benefits supporters. All this and heaven, too.
Liberal cable networks are not above flogging minor stories with mind-freezing repetition. But Fox News Channel excels at the political freak show and is extra-careful not to bore viewers with facts.
Because both Fox and Republican politicians want to appeal to people who think themselves conservative, the politicos often think they are in the same business. They are not. Cable channels want viewers. Politicians want voters.
Car wrecks attract spectators, not approval. Thus, Fox can be a trap for serious Republicans. This is something many of my conservative friends understand and liberal ones, seeing Fox as a threat, do not.
Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and likely presidential candidate, thought he could get an easy Fox pat on the back by hopping on the Bundy stagecoach. But just as he settled in to his seat, the horses broke away with the rancher’s primitive comments on race.
Paul quickly distanced himself from Bundy. So did Fox News host Sean Hannity, abruptly denouncing the remarks as “ignorant, racist, repugnant, despicable.” But they experienced very different outcomes from the story.
Paul had made the rookie mistake of prematurely embracing a right-wing passion du jour, without contemplating the possible downside. Anyone who spent 10 minutes considering Bundy’s radical anti-government rant would have recognized the great risk of far less popular views leaking out of the package. Paul showed bad judgment and saddled himself with Bundy quotes for years to come.
Hannity, by contrast, did just fine. Whether Hannity was on the Bundy up escalator or the down escalator didn’t matter in gauging his metric for success. He rode the Bundy story to the top of the tea party hit charts. Then his vividly abandoning the rancher raked in more attention than did his previous support.
Several things happened. When Bundy’s daughter Shiree Bundy Cox accused Hannity of ditching her father to protect his ratings, she was right on both accounts — though her notion that he had dumped her father solely over his racist comments was overly simple. Yes, Hannity didn’t want to be associated with them, but yes, executing that about-turn in such gaudy fashion made Hannity himself the news for a cycle.
And some of his boost came courtesy of the liberal media. Wow, even Hannity couldn’t support Bundy anymore, they said with great self-satisfaction. They also took comfort in the repudiation as an attack on Hannity’s credibility, as though creditability were one of his most closely guarded treasures.
Hannity is an accomplished storyteller and fanner of emotions. That’s what he does, and he does it well.
As the next presidential election gathers steam, Fox is on the hunt for more spectacle. It will be Photoshopping the most ordinary controversies into lurid panoramas of injustice against the sort of people who tune in.
Again, liberal outlets have their broken-record tales of right-wing infamy, often accompanied by minimal reportage; there aren’t many Rachel Maddows out there, alas. But on whipping up the faithful, Fox News has no equal. And that’s not always good for the Republican side.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.