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Online, Vox Populi Can Roar
News Channel Sees Site as a Place to Vent

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

Fox Nation, an opinionated Web site that launches this morning -- and really, what other network would name a country after itself? -- is based on a gut-level appeal:

"It's Time to Say NO to Biased Media and Say YES to Fair Play and Free Speech."

Biased media are in the eye of the beholder, and with a site built around such high-decibel stars as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, Fox is hoping to leverage its brand online, especially among conservative true believers. "We felt that giving people a real destination to go and express themselves would give them a feeling of belonging," says Senior Vice President Joel Cheatwood. "People feel they're dictated to a lot by the media."

The launch comes as Fox News Channel is touting its aggressive approach to the Obama administration, which has led to rising ratings after eight years in which the network's top commentators often sided with the Bush White House.

Hannity, who had been balanced by liberal co-host Alan Colmes, is flying solo this year, ripping the president for "socialist" policies and calling for the firing of his Treasury secretary, "Turbo Tax Cheat Tim Geithner." Beck, hired away from HLN (Headline News), has been an instant smash, railing against "the people who are betraying you over and over and over again and lying to us in Washington." Mike Huckabee, the former GOP governor of Arkansas, holds forth on a weekend show.

Night after night, Fox's top commentators are former White House aide Karl Rove, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris, the onetime Clinton strategist turned debunker of Democrats. Another contributor, Michael Steele, recently left to become Republican Party chairman. And while Democratic analysts hired during the campaign, such as former Hillary Clinton advisers Howard Wolfson and Lanny Davis, have left the network, Fox is beefing up its conservative ranks, recently hiring National Review's Jonah Goldberg.

The Web site will attempt to emulate the social aspects of Facebook -- as well as MySpace, which, like Fox, is owned by Rupert Murdoch -- by encouraging readers to post comments and argue with one another. And the hook will be columns, blogs and videos from the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Greta Van Susteren and Hannity, which will likely draw their strongest followers.

"I don't think this is going to be limited to die-hard Fox News fans," Cheatwood says. When registration begins in two months, users will be asked to abide by "core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse and fair and balanced coverage of the news," with insulting comments deleted.

"If they're critical of Fox News, that's fine," Cheatwood says. "You just can't say anything that's hateful or hurtful to someone else."

Fox has been losing the online wars. The new site would be linked to FoxNews.com, which drew 16 million unique visitors in February, trailing MSNBC.com (41 million visitors) and CNN.com (36 million).

Liberal outlets thrived during the last administration, when those who couldn't stand the president gravitated toward the strongest Bush critics. MSNBC gained in the ratings by moving sharply left, installing Air America's Rachel Maddow in the hour after Keith Olbermann last fall.

A right-leaning brand may be a similar asset in the Obama era. The Washington Times is creating a conservative opinion site, and last week announced that its newsroom is launching a syndicated show on Talk Radio Network, which carries such conservative hosts as Laura Ingraham and Michael Savage.

Some skeptics said Fox News, which enjoyed easy access to top Bush administration officials, might suffer under a Democratic president. But the ratings don't bear that out, with Fox now the second-ranking channel in cable land, behind the USA Network.

So far this year, Fox News ratings are up 26 percent compared with the same period last year, CNN up 17 percent and MSNBC up 20 percent. The Fox average, 1.2 million, is roughly equal to its two rivals combined.

"The O'Reilly Factor" is drawing nearly 3.4 million viewers, a 26 percent jump over last year. In that 8 p.m. hour, Olbermann's MSNBC show is averaging 1.4 million (up 37 percent); HLN's Nancy Grace, 1.2 million (up 80 percent); and CNN's Campbell Brown 1.1 million, up 4 percent.

"Hannity" is averaging 2.7 million viewers, 40 percent higher than the old show with Colmes. He is trailed by CNN's Larry King, with 1.4 million (up 20 percent); and MSNBC's Maddow with 1.2 million (up 133 percent from the old Dan Abrams program). News anchor Bret Baier, who succeeded Brit Hume, has even boosted Fox's numbers at 6 p.m.

Obama refused to appear on Fox News during the campaign until a confidential meeting in June, when Chairman Roger Ailes told him the network would be fair but not "in the tank" for him. The president recently told House Republicans, "Go ahead and whack me, I'll watch Fox News and feel bad about myself." He dismissed that as a joke in an interview with Fox's Chris Wallace.

Fox executives maintain that the channel's reporting is aggressive but not ideological. Senior Vice President Bill Shine says that "our reporters, people like Major Garrett, have been asking tougher questions" than their rivals, such as scrutinizing efforts to increase White House involvement in the 2010 Census.

As for the commentators, Shine says Hannity still has some liberal guests and that Beck has "a very populist message -- he's mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. There's anger and fear out there and he's giving people an outlet for that."

Such people could become charter members of Fox Nation if the Web site catches on. Says Shine: "We're calling it a mix between the Huffington Post and Drudge."

Pulling the Plug

CNBC's Larry Kudlow, who had been flirting with a Senate campaign, is staying put.

After talking with Connecticut Republicans about a possible run, Kudlow now says "it was never really a serious proposition." The liberal advocacy group Media Matters had pressed CNBC to disclose whether the talk-show host planned to challenge Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd.

Following in the footsteps of Chris Matthews, who signed a new deal at MSNBC rather than run for the Senate Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania, Kudlow told viewers last week: "In my heart I know that I belong right here at CNBC. This is my love."

Raising Suspicions

Federal authorities have denied an al-Qaeda terrorist access to a potentially dangerous weapon.

Mohamed al-Owhali, serving a life sentence in Colorado for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, tried to subscribe to The Washington Post's weekly edition. The papers were blocked, with the Federal Bureau of Prisons declaring: "This information has been determined to be detrimental to the security, good order and discipline of the institution."

And here we thought it was a nice family newspaper.

Bureau spokeswoman Traci Billingsley says "it's not The Washington Post per se" and that prison officials examine each edition and may have objected to "just one article." Thirteen issues were returned to The Post.

Arianna's Army

With the newspaper industry in deep distress, Arianna Huffington says she's riding to the rescue.

The co-founder of the liberal Huffington Post site says she is teaming with Atlantic Philanthropies to launch a $1.75 million investigative fund to hire 10 reporters to focus, for now, on the economy. Atlantic describes itself as "bringing about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people" -- which more or less describes many journalists these days.

Huffington, who hopes to draw from the ranks of laid-off reporters, said in a statement yesterday that "the importance of investigative journalism cannot be overstated -- especially during our tumultuous times." The project will be headed by Nick Penniman, who has worked for such liberal magazines as the Washington Monthly and American Prospect and the progressive Campaign for America's Future. But Penniman told the Associated Press: "We care about democracy, not Democrats."

Stirring Motto

New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who last week laid off 100 employees and told the rest that their salaries would be cut by as much as 5 percent this year, is using a new slogan, according to the May issue of Vanity Fair. In this time of industry turmoil, it is "W.S.L." -- for "we suck less."

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