Fox News is usually dinged by the left, so when a guy who worked for Reagan (and George H.W. Bush, Ron Paul and Jack Kemp) does it, it's noteworthy. But it's not unheard of. Bartlett cited some anti-Fox comments from noted Republicans in his paper; Newt Gingrich characterized the network as biased during a private meeting in 2012, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Fox made it hard for him to pass immigration reform in 2011, and last year, now-former Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) said Fox is "totally not fair and totally not balanced." But typically, GOP politicians play nice with the network. It's a no-brainer for politicians courting GOP primary voters. The channel occupies the top of the ratings — not just among cable news channels, which it consistently does, but sometimes all of cable TV. And going on Fox is speaking to the GOP base.
The media landscape for Republicans that Barlett outlines is pretty bleak. Fox News is a giant that's ruining everything, he argues, but with its audience and reach, you deride it at your own peril. But is it really that serious? Jack Shafer noted for Politico that Fox is "better at employing presidential candidates than electing them" (Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, among others, have all been on the Fox payroll, but none of them have been president). And the network's biggest show, "The O'Reilly Factor," has as many as 3.3 million viewers, which are numbers MSNBC would love to have, but in the context of a voting-age population of more than 234 million, it's less significant.
But Fox has proven it can influence elections. It went on the air in October 1996, and by June 2000, 17.3 percent of Americans said they watched it regularly. It wasn't available nationwide, so researchers tracked 2000 election results in towns where it was and wasn't available, with controls for demographics and geography. In a study on their findings, published in 2006, the researchers found that Fox had had "a significant impact" on the election, and towns where it was available saw anywhere from a 0.4 to 0.7 percent increase in the Republican vote share — or about 200,000 votes nationwide. Its influence was less pronounced in rural areas and Republican congressional districts and the South, which they believed was because voters there already voted Republican, and thus there was a smaller portion of the population that could be persuaded to do so. Towns with more cable channels, and thus more competition for eyeballs, also saw less effect.
A lot has happened since 2000. Fox News is now a frequent target and running joke for liberal pundits and comedians such as Jon Stewart, and on-air gaffes have become viral Internet mainstays, even when the gaffe is from a local Fox affiliate and not the actual Fox News. (Remember the to-do over "Fox News Censors Picasso Painting" story this month? Yeah, that was Fox 5 in New York City, not Roger Ailes's Fox News. See every tweet embedded here and the correction at the bottom.).
Obviously, there's no way that after all those times Stewart DESTROYED, DEMOLISHED and OWNED Fox that it could sway voters today like it did in 200o, right? Not so fast. A 2014 Pew study found that the network was "more trusted than distrusted" by people who identified as in the ideological middle (i.e. neither liberal nor conservative) — something "The Daily Show" can't say. And a 2012 Pew study found that a majority of Fox's audience wasn't even Republican; 33 percent identified as independent and 22 percent identified as Democratic.
Attacks on Fox News tend to target its openly conservative opinion anchors, like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, but often left out is the fact that Fox does straight news, too. Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace often take on Republican candidates. The question about whether Jeb Bush would invade Iraq, for example, came from Kelly.
Without another study, it's hard to gauge exactly how much effect Fox has on our elections — or to evaluate the point raised by Bartlett with any conclusiveness — but there is one point from the 2000 election study that seems relevant today. In the study, Fox News had less of an effect in towns with more cable channels; the more competition for attention, the less weight Fox had.
Today, Fox News might be in more households, but there's a lot more competition — and not just from cable channels. Its median prime-time viewership has declined since 2009, though it still towers over its competition. The explosion of online new media, and particularly sites targeting conservatives, eats away at the time people might otherwise spend watching Fox.
The network is different things to different people. For some, it is the media. For others, it's a punchline. For Bartlett, it's an anchor around the GOP's neck, holding it back from expanding the GOP brand to new constituencies. But increasingly, Fox News is one player in a growing conservative media landscape that it pioneered.