October 11, 2013
Values Voter Summit attendee Andy Forbes (Erik Wemple Blog)
Values Voter Summit attendee Andy Forbes (Erik Wemple Blog)

Executives at Fox News Channel could call off their audience-growth strategy sessions if only there were more folks out there like Cheryl Lee. A 54-year-old registered nurse, Lee resides in Auburn, Indiana, where she runs a firm that helps companies with their benefits plans, including health insurance. And where she watches a very great deal of Fox News programming.

The regular viewing starts in at around 6 p.m. with “Special Report with Bret Baier.” From there, Lee will watch the entire Fox News prime time lineup. Has she had enough by 11 p.m.? Nah: She’ll stay tuned in to the “O’Reilly Factor” repeat at 11 p.m. and beyond. “I watch till 2 a.m.,” says Lee, an attendee at this year’s ongoing Values Voter Summit, a conference of conservatives at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. “From Bret Baier all the way through.”

Thanks to her work at her Insurance Resource Group, Lee is that exotic category of news consumer who often knows more than the TV experts on the technicalities of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known on Fox News and many other places as Obamacare.

Thus arises a compelling little clash. In recent weeks, Fox News host Sean Hannity has busied himself promoting one of 2013′s great pieces of anti-Obama propaganda, arguing that Congress has somehow “exempted” itself from Obamacare. Water-tight fact-checks have established that far from exempting itself from the program, Congress will be wading into it as of Jan. 1, while maintaining the employer healthcare contribution that it has long received.

Cheryl Lee is a big fan of Hannity’s, and she’s impeccably informed about the nitty gritty of the “exemption” fable. “If anything, those congressional staff will have diminished” healthcare benefits, says Lee, noting that the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program from which the staffers will be booted is far preferable to what they’ll find on Obamacare’s exchanges.

So what does she say about Hannity’s insistence on “exemption.” “I don’t think he’s making a clear position on exactly what it is that they’re exempt from and the American public doesn’t understand,” says Lee. When asked if Hannity’s lack of clarity bothers her, Lee says, “I don’t think he’s being specific.”

That’s a charitable and diplomatic way of putting things. The Erik Wemple Blog prefers an alternate explanation emphasizing Hannity’s opportunism and populism, imperatives that are served well by a myth that fat-cat congressional types are dealing themselves a choice hand on healthcare. It’s willful recklessness.

When asked why she gives Hannity a pass on a subject in her wheelhouse, Lee responds, “He has a voice….I think he’s taking on other positions that he’s more knowledgeable about than the American public. He can’t be an expert in all things.” Plus, she says, Hannity didn’t go to school to be a journalist, not to mention the fact that the people invited onto “Hannity” to refute his talk of an “exemption” “do an absolutely lousy job as well.”

The Erik Wemple Blog interviewed Lee as part of our third annual survey of attendees at the Values Voter conference. It’s a time to get away from the pundits and get into long discussions with those who watch them. And with this crowd, talk often drifts toward Fox News. The first year’s survey vouched for the brilliance of Fox News’s “fair and balanced” motto. The second year’s survey found support for “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning program.

A broader theme in this year’s discussions was tough to tease out, given the massive discrepancies among the surveyees. Examples: One attendee likes to watch the enemies on MSNBC and the purported middle-of-the-roaders on CNN. Another doesn’t have a TV. Yet another has started deserting Fox News because of concerns over its ownership.

If there is a common denominator, however, it’s an elastic generosity of spirit toward Fox News among conservative attendees. The network may not always please them; it may not always echo their particular brand of conservatism; but it’s there, 24-7 on the cable dial, always ready to bash Obamacare, attack the government’s social programs and satirize the latest in political correctness. Conservatives are delighted it’s there.

So delighted, in fact, that they have no problem with Fox News placing former daytime host Megyn Kelly, who’s perceived moderately conservative or — yikes — even centrist, in the fire-breathing 9:00 p.m. timeslot of Hannity (who has moved to 10 p.m.). “Megyn Kelly’s good stuff,” says Adam Headlee of Columbus, Ohio. Headlee is 17 years old, precisely the sort of viewer that Fox News wants to see turning into Kelly’s program, which debuted in prime time on Monday night. On the other hand, George Washington University students Michael Viviano, 19, and Joseph Rogus, 17, had no idea that Kelly had jumped to the dark side. “Shows how disconnected we are,” said Rogus. Follow Mediaite, guys!

Vernon Robinson, 58, took a hard-line view on Kelly’s move: “Fox is a money-making operation,” said Robinson, who is working to draft recently signed Fox News contributor Ben Carson to run for president. “She’s a little left of me, but that’s OK,” said Robinson.

Grant Eckhardt, a home-schooled 16-year-old from Miami, said that he can “guess” that Kelly is “conservative but not terribly radical.”

Lee wasn’t concerned that Kelly had bumped Hannity to 10 p.m. because she watches everything anyway, yet she’d be “absolutely” upset if Hannity were dropped from the lineup altogether. Because Kelly has a law degree, says Lee, she “gets to the facts.”

Andy Forbes, a 30-year-old political consultant from Herndon, Va., admires Kelly. “Hard news,” he says. “I think she’s fair and balanced,” says Forbes, comparing her to Fox News Sunday host and all-around interrogator Chris Wallace.

Emily Hannaman, 23, surmises that Kelly “leans conservative” a bit but bores in on her rep as an impartialist: “That’s one of the things I like about her. She asks direct questions,” says Hannaman

Brandi Bohannon, 26, called Kelly “average,” an opinion far less interesting than her take on a rival cable network. CNN, claimed Bohannon, shows off its liberal bias by “trying to make us feel sympathetic” for illegal immigrants.

And Courtney Holloway, 30, credited Kelly for having “brains” but suggested she was a touch moderate on some social issues.

Such testimony scares a guy like Simon Maloy of Media Matters for America, who contends that underneath Kelly’s reputation as a straight shooter lurks a partisan and misleading news host. We’ve indeed witnessed a great deal of partisanship from Kelly in the past, like the time that she introduced a discussion on immigration by running a nearly minute-long rant by Rush Limbaugh. When people praise her middle-of-the-roadness, they tend not to take into account such incidents.

Whatever. The testimony above suggests that Fox News, like a really good politician, knows how to keep its base happy. No matter when you turn on the network, you can find the same conservative themes, and that includes Kelly’s “straight-shooting” program. More corroboration for the “plug-in network.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.