This week, Fox News fired Dick Morris, the former polling guru for Bill Clinton who has since reinvented himself as a Republican analyst and operator. Morris loudly predicted a landslide victory for Mitt Romney in the run-up to the November election, one of several ridiculous prophecies that quickly made him the laughingstock of his profession. As David Weigel at Slate writes, "No single human made as many wrong, botched, bogus, and stupid predictions about the 2012 election as Dick Morris."
Morris's ouster, which followed Fox ditching Sarah Palin, is being seen as evidence that the network — once happy to depart from the political narrative told by other mainstream media outlets — is concerned about its trustworthiness. The channel suffered a precipitous drop in ratings in January, and a recent poll by the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 46 percent of respondents do not trust the network. According to Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen at Politico:
For Fox, it’s about credibility: The cable network, while still easily the top-ranked in news, has seen its ratings dip since the election, in part, conservatives tell us, because a lot of Republicans felt duped by the coverage. [Politico]
Fox's ratings dip could be explained by other factors, such as the fact that conservative viewers may have tuned out President Obama's inauguration — which was a ratings boon for liberal MSNBC. Furthermore, Morris was a peculiar case, in that he used his platform at Fox to solicit money for his super PAC. "In the end, it became too obvious that Dick Morris wasn't working for the betterment of the conservative movement, or the Republican Party, or Fox News," says Paul Waldman at The American Prospect. "He was working for the betterment of Dick Morris."
Still, it's clear that head honcho Roger Ailes is moving in a new direction. The highly polarizing Sarah Palin is out, while Scott Brown, the moderate former senator from Massachusetts, is reportedly in talks to join the network. In addition, Fox stalwarts like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity have suddenly expressed openness to the idea of immigration reform, which would have been unthinkable before Romney was routed. Pundits "whose response to just about everything is to offer up red meat to the fringe of the party isn't exactly what Roger Ailes and co. are looking for anymore," says Matt Taylor at The Daily Beast.
The changes at Fox mirror an ongoing shift in the GOP, whose leaders are seeking to reform the party in the wake of Romney's defeat. According to VandeHei and Allen:
One high-profile Republican strategist, who refused to be named in order to avoid inflaming the very segments of the party he wants to silence, said there is a deliberate effort by party leaders to "marginalize the cranks, haters and bigots — there’s a lot of underbrush that has to be cleaned out." [Politico]
And so, once again, we return to the question of whether the changes at Fox, as well as the Republican Party as a whole, are merely cosmetic or real. Jonathan Chait at New York is skeptical, citing the moderate wing's unwillingness to challenge hardcore conservative beliefs:
In order to purge a party of crankish and bigoted sentiments, you would need to identify what those sentiments are. Climate-change denial? Opposition to gay marriage? "Self-deportation"? Railing against food stamps? Supply-side economics? …Moderate Republicanism is a secret creed — a set of beliefs that is expressed anonymously, but lacks any public standing to openly engage in a battle of ideas within the party. [New York]
But there are members of the GOP who are beginning to challenge conservative orthodoxy. More Republicans by the day are coming out in support of a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky gave a foreign policy speech yesterday in which he moved to the left of Obama on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. These seem to be seedlings of change. And that is where Fox and the GOP diverge: While the cable channel can change at Ailes' whim, the Republican Party's metamorphosis will be far slower.