With two decades of experience under his belt, US journalist Bret Baier is a veteran in his field. Yet hardly anyone has ever accused him of being particularly fair or balanced. Baier is, after all, a host on Fox News, the most important television network for American conservatives. And he knows where he needs to stand -- when in doubt, lean to the right.
When former President George W. Bush was still in office, Baier flattered him with questions about his ranch in Texas and his favorite hiking trail. He has been less chummy with Bush's successor, Barack Obama. In an interview, the Fox host interrupted the president 16 times in 20 minutes.
It has now been a month since Baier, 41, sat across from Mitt Romney, the favorite to become the Republican nominee for president. Romney is not fond of speaking with the media. But Fox isn't just any network; it's the most powerful political television station in America. Fox News wants to drive Obama out of the White House, and Romney is seen as the Republican contender most likely to defeat the president in the November 2012 election. So what could possibly go wrong in an interview with Fox News?
But suddenly Romney was faced with several unpleasant and, apparently, unexpected questions. Baier grilled him about instances during his political career when he had changed his mind, on such issues as healthcare reform, immigration policy and abortion. Romney has often been accused of flip-flopping, but Baier's questions were so pointed that the former governor of Massachusetts came across as a ruthless opportunist -- and someone a true conservative would never vote for.
Romney, seemingly helpless in the face of such devastating questions, tried to laugh them off, but he sounded artificial. He would later complain that Baier had been "too aggressive," but this only made it seem as if he were lamenting the fact that Baier's questions had not been agreed to in advance, and that putting such questions to friends is unseemly.
Romney knows what's at stake. The 24-hour network has about 2 million loyal viewers, many of whom never change the channel. The Fox community consists almost exclusively of white Americans, often older, who don't think much of gays and foreigners. Many of them believe that Obama is secretly a Muslim and was not born in the United States. It is precisely these viewers who will ultimately decide the Republican primary.
Shortly after Romney's interview fiasco, he was ousted as the frontrunner in the polls by Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives. But by the time the Iowa caucuses arrived on Tuesday, Gingrich had slipped considerably in the polls and wound up in fourth place with 13.3 percent of the vote.
The decision over who will challenge Barack Obama in November 2012 has become a circus in which the star attraction is constantly changing. Months ago, the frontrunner was Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite whose voice cracks whenever she launches into one of her diatribes against gays, government employees or Democrats. The next frontrunner was Rick Perry, a Texan's Texan with a big swagger and a slim educational pedigree. After that came Herman Cain, the former head of a pizza chain and an alleged womanizer and two-timer. Despite the ongoing game of musical chairs in the field of Republican candidates, the small group of political journalists who seem to be driving the candidates and setting the agenda -- Baier and his colleagues at Fox News -- has remained the same.
They have more power than Germany's two major public television networks, ARD and ZDF, combined. Bachmann, a fundamentalist Christian tax attorney, had hardly risen in the polls before Fox hosts began wondering out loud whether she was perhaps too superficial to be taken seriously. Soon Bachmann's ascent was interrupted.
The Greatest Hope?
When Cain began appealing to right-wing voters with his plan for a radical tax reform, Fox conducted an interview with a woman who had accused him of sexual harassment. Cain's candidacy quickly became history. For weeks, Texas Governor Perry had to defend himself against accusations that he might lack the intellectual capacity to be president.
Then the conservative network deprived Romney of his mystique -- Romney, the man who had felt so secure in his position as frontrunner, and who many conservatives still believe is their greatest hope in the 2012 presidential election. According to the latest polls, Romney's chances are improving once again. But the speed at which his poll ratings declined after the disastrous interview with Baier highlights the power of Fox News, a power that can be wielded with devastating force by this family-values network. "Hardly anyone can become the candidate of the conservatives against Fox News," says Fred Barnes, the executive editor of the conservative opinion magazine The Weekly Standard.
Fox promotes a unified and better world, the kind of world that Walt Disney created in less turbulent times, an America in which optimism prevails and money is seemingly irrelevant. But, in reality, Fox's world is controlled by Fox News Channel President Roger Ailes, and money is his agenda.
Ailes, 71, is a bald, heavyset man who looks like an ill-humored brother of Alfred Hitchcock. He has a dark political past. As a young PR assistant to Richard Nixon, he advised the then presidential candidate to learn how to use television to seduce his voters. He made campaign ads for former President George H.W. Bush that helped pave his way into the Oval Office but also exposed Bush to accusations of appealing to voters' racist sentiments.
Ailes' financial results are considerably brighter. Under his leadership, soon after it was founded in 1996, Fox News ousted market leader CNN. In 2010, the cable channel reportedly raked in $800 million (€615 million) in profit for archconservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, while Ailes was rewarded with an annual salary of $23 million. Fox has become particularly important as a source of revenue since Murdoch's empire lost public approval worldwide following the scandal over the illegal tapping of telephone conversations in Great Britain.
Like a Dictator
Fox News needs sensationalism to maintain its ratings, which is why the Republican candidates cannot expect preferential treatment this year. Because hatred of Obama and the left has become old news, Fox has turned its focus to transforming the Republican primaries into a circus -- fueled by Ailes, the Republicans' shadow leader, who at times wields his power like a dictator.
For instance, Ailes was partly responsible for a sharp increase in the number of televised debates among the Republican candidates. In these debates, Ailes has unleashed up to four Fox hosts on the candidates for the White House, with the hosts usually sitting down while the candidates are forced to stand, like students at a flag ceremony. The current leader in the polls is usually placed in the middle of the lineup, while those closer to the bottom are placed on the sides of the stage, where the camera rarely pans.
Serious discussions of the issues are not seen as important, because they could put off viewers. What is more important to Fox is choreographed conflict, as Howard Kurtz, a media columnist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, observed in a rare behind-the-scenes visit at Fox. During the visit, one host advised a colleague to ask Perry for comment on accusations that he might be too lenient on illegal immigration, and then to cut directly to one of Perry's rivals and ask: Is Perry really too soft? On-stage argument helps inflame passions.
If the debate is sufficiently lively, Kurz wrote, Ailes calls his subordinates immediately after the show and crows: "Tell the team we've been kicking ass in these debates." He is probably making a lot of these calls at the moment, with up to 5 million Americans tuning in to the Republican debates on Fox. This is an unusually large number of viewers on US cable TV, much larger than in previous years. The 2012 Republican primary could end up being a ratings success for Fox, much like the talent search show "American Idol."
The channel is now in the process of chipping away at Newt Gingrich, by characterizing him as an unreliable conservative. But who is left to play the role of frontrunner in the campaign?
"Fox wants these people to tear each other up," says radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, a conservative who once tried to set the tone for Republicans.
Democratic President Obama stands to benefit from this divisiveness among the Republican candidates. Recent polls show Obama winning an election against any conceivable challenger. Even Fox head Ailes is now worried that the Republican candidates could already come across as too damaged to prevail against Obama. There are rumors that he is looking around for other candidates, such as current CIA Director and proven war hero David Petraeus. But Petraeus seems to have little interest in being the new attraction in Fox's shrill drama.
The presidential contenders can hardly afford to challenge the Murdoch powerhouse. Many of the Republican candidates have worked as commentators for Fox in the past, and if they hope to do the same in the future, they have to play Fox's game. But in doing so, they are also disqualifying themselves for the country's highest office.