The Gang of 8 Lobbies Fox News

Ryan Lizza has a behind-the-scenes article about immigration reform in the New Yorker, based mostly on interviews with members of the Senate's Gang of Eight, which shows some of the personal aspects of how big legislation can get accomplished. For instance, John McCain, ever the prima donna, comes across as seething with resentment that Marco Rubio has gotten more attention on the issue than he has. And the part that may get the most notice is the blunt words of an unnamed Rubio aide, who in regard to the question of whether certain immigrants take jobs from Americans, says, "There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can't cut it...There shouldn't be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can't get it, can't do it, don't want to do it. And so you can't obviously discuss that publicly." Hey dude, guess what: you just did! But in any case, here's the part that interested me:

Fox News has notably changed its tone since the election. A Democratic policy staffer who worked on the issue in 2007 and has helped write the current bill said, "NumbersUSA and FAIR"—two groups that want to dramatically limit immigration—"managed to convince Fox News back then to be their twenty-four-hour news channel of the anti-immigrant point of view. Fox has now totally bought in to the idea that we just need to figure something out." Rush Limbaugh, who fiercely opposes the bill, has come to sound resigned. "I don't know if there's any stopping this," he said on January 28th, the day the Gang held the press conference announcing its framework for the legislation. "It's up to me and Fox News, and I don't think Fox News is that invested in this."

McCain told me, "Rupert Murdoch is a strong supporter of immigration reform, and Roger Ailes is, too." Murdoch is the chairman and C.E.O. of News Corp., which owns Fox, and Ailes is Fox News's president. McCain said that he, Graham, Rubio, and others also have talked privately to top hosts at Fox, including Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Neil Cavuto, who are now relatively sympathetic to the Gang's proposed bill. Hannity voiced support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which he previously dismissed as "amnesty," on the day after the 2012 election. "God bless Fox," Graham said. "Last time, it was 'amnesty' every fifteen seconds." He said that the change was important for his reëlection, because "eighty per cent of people in my primary get their news from Fox." He added that the network has "allowed critics to come forward, but it's been so much better."

This shows Fox not as a journalistic organization making news judgments, but as a group that gets targeted for (and responds to) lobbying, much in the same way as Congress. It also shows how attuned powerful Republicans are to what is being discussed on Fox. I suspect Graham's assessment of the viewing habits of South Carolina Republicans is overstated, but that's the perception he gets from where he sits. I've mentioned this before, but people outside of Washington may not be aware of the strange habit that many inside the Beltway have of keeping televisions on inside their offices all day long, tuned to cable news. At the offices of Republican members of Congress or conservative groups it'll probably be Fox on those TVs, which over time naturally makes them think that what gets said on Fox is really important to the whole country, whether it actually is or not.

I'm sure that some liberals will be inclined to shout "Collusion!" at the news that Republican senators are sitting down with Fox hosts to talk about how they should talk about important issues on the air, but I'm not particularly outraged. If we were talking about Brian Williams, Scott Pelley, and Diane Sawyer, there would be reason to be mad, but we aren't. O'Reilly, Hannity, and Cavuto aren't journalists. They host opinion shows. No one expects anything objective from them. And Fox News is, for all intents and purposes, an organ of the Republican party, and nobody really believes otherwise. Yes, that oversimplifies things a bit. The different personalities take slightly different approaches—O'Reilly occasionally finds areas where he disagrees with the GOP line, which Hannity will always support whatever the party is supporting. Advancing the interests of the party is only one of two goals the network has (the other being making money), and Roger Ailes' genius has always been to maintain a near-perfect balance between the two.

If there were consensus on immigration reform within the GOP like there is with most issues, there would be no need to lobby Fox; they'd know exactly what they're supposed to say. But because the party is divided, the network isn't sure where exactly it should come down. And in the end, it probably still ends up reflecting the views of the GOP elite: leaning in the direction of reform, but conflicted, with anti-reform voices still hanging around. Which, as Graham says, is good enough.

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