In July, Beck’s now-infamous reference to Obama as “a racist” spurred Color Of Change, an activist group co-founded by Jones, to launch a call for advertisers to boycott Beck’s popular show. In response to the initiative, Beck dedicated an increasing amount airtime to examining Jones’s political past, and questioning his legitimacy as a presidential adviser. On Sept. 6th, Jones stepped down, explaining, “I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past.”
Van Jones’ resignation is the latest in a series of incidents that highlight Fox News’ growing influence on political discourse and raises questions about how much influence a cable news network can hold in governmental affairs. The network is more popular than ever with ratings up 11% since last year. In the last week of August, Glenn Beck’s show drew more viewers on average (2.79 million) than such cultural institutions as “The Tonight Show” (2.78). This summer Fox News has often drawn more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined and in the most recent ratings report, FNC was the third highest cable network, behind two entertainment channels, USA and TNT. (CNN held the 22nd spot, MSNBC the 25th).
With the Republican party without a clear leader, Fox News has become the de facto popular voice of conservatives opposing the policies of the Obama Administration. The Jones resignation is merely the latest example of how the network has used its clout to affect government policy.
In early August, a Fox News report that the White House was sending citizens unsolicited emails pitching its healthcare policy prompted government officials to issue a statement agreeing to implement “measures to make subscribing to e-mails clearer, including preventing advocacy organizations from signing people up to our lists without their permission when they deliver petition signatures and other messages on individual’s behalf,” and apologizing for the “inconvenience.”
In his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, President Obama criticized “cable talk show hosts” for facilitating “bogus claims” and said that “confusion has reigned” over his health care reform initiative. Obama’s words were in response to Fox News’ continued primetime criticism of his health care plan. Over the summer, the network reported from dramatic town hall meetings and endlessly analyzed the specifics of a plan that may or may not include the implementation of so-called death panels (In August, Glenn Beck devoted an entire program to examining eugenics).
Media watchdog groups have concluded that Fox News’ coverage of the health care town halls focused overwhelmingly on the negative. According to a study by Media Matters, all the cable news channels featured more anti-reform soundbytes than pro, but Fox News led the pack, airing 22 clips against reform, and none for it. It seems not just a coincidence then that as Fox News has ramped up its coverage of the health care debate, Obama’s approval rating has declined. According to a recent CBS News poll, on health care, only 40% approve of the president’s job performance, and 47% disapprove, which is nearly the reverse of July’s figures, when 46% approved and 38% disapproved.
At the beginning of the year, when Glenn Beck was just settling in as a Fox News host, some media critics wondered whether the cable news channel would maintain its high ratings with a popular Democrat in the oval office. It is unequivocal that Obama’s presence in the White House has helped Fox News, what still remains to be seen is exactly how much Fox News can continue to influence government policy.