- - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The ongoing divide between grassroots conservatives and the Republican Party establishment seems to have a new battlefront — Fox News.

It’s an increasingly common complaint within the conservative grassroots, but is it true that Fox News is in the tank for the Republican Party establishment, and the fix is already in for Jeb Bush 2016 on the network conservatives depend on? Many grassroots conservatives I know think the answer is “yes.”

For example, when I posed the question “is Fox News in the tank for the GOP establishment” within my own network the past several days the results weren’t even close. On my website at SteveDeace.com a whopping 80 percent of respondents said yes, Fox News is in the tank for the GOP establishment.

On my personal Facebook page, more than 300 grassroots conservatives I’m friends with, many of whom are actual activists/candidates/campaign workers, responded to this question. More than 200 of them answered yes.

I also asked the question on my public Facebook page so any everyday conservative, not just activist friends of mine, could respond. While the percentage dropped some, more than 60 percent of the people still said yes.

What is happening here? How is it one of the most successful cable networks in history regardless of format, which largely attained that success thanks to widespread support from conservatives, now finds itself on the outs with some within its core audience?

First and foremost, in the interests of being fair and balanced (to borrow a famous phrase), it should be noted that Fox News is taking names right now.

It just finished its 13th consecutive year atop the cable news ratings in 2014, nearly tripling its closest competitor. In weekday prime time, Fox was the No. 2 cable network overall last year, trailing only ESPN. Just how far out in front is Fox? It owned the top 14 spots on the list of highest-rated cable news programs.

Not to mention imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Now that Fox has proven there is a market for non-statist approved news, other big names in conservative media like Newsmax and The Blaze have emerged to launch competing networks.

However, now that we’re at the precipice of another Republican presidential primary, the Fox News complaints in my email inbox and social media timelines are starting to ramp up. Herein lies the origin of the angst, in my opinion.

“Let’s face it, Fox is allowing Karl Rove to use their network for his own political purposes, and they were outright campaigning for Mitt Romney last time,” one well-respected GOP strategist told me recently. “One example is the way they handled Newt Gingrich’s candidacy. They consistently asked his people harder and more skeptical questions on the air than any other network did.”

Apparently the former House speaker agrees.

Real Clear Politics reported that Mr. Gingrich “lambasted” Fox News in a private meeting with tea party activists during his 2012 presidential run. They quoted Mr. Gingrich as saying the following:

“I think Fox has been for Romney all the way through. We are more likely to get neutral coverage out of CNN than we are of Fox, and we’re more likely to get distortion out of Fox. That’s just a fact. I assume it’s because (Rupert) Murdoch at some point said, ‘I want Romney,’ and so ‘fair and balanced’ became ‘Romney.’ There’s no question that Fox had a lot to do with stopping my campaign because such a high percentage of our base watches Fox.”

Mr. Gingrich wasn’t alone in his criticism of Fox.

Campaign rival Rick Santorum, who like Mr. Gingrich was also once a Fox News contributor, told me a month before the 2012 Iowa caucuses he eventually won that Fox was the only network that wouldn’t send an embedded reporter to cover him. Later in the campaign, Mr. Santorum told Fox personality Brian Kilmeade that Mr. Romney has “Fox News shilling for him every day.”

“We all know it’s true Fox is slanted against conservatives, especially social conservatives, when it comes to primary politics but most of us are afraid of saying so on the record,” another conservative strategist told me. “When you consider that becoming a Fox News contributor is the ultimate aspiration of almost every conservative media flack such as yourself, I’m surprised you’re writing this column.”

As the 2016 cycle gets underway, one little birdie with close ties to the Reagan Revolution told me he expects to see Fox become the “Jeb Bush Network.”

“So many of Fox’s key faces are people I like and respect to varying degrees like Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, Dana Perino, and Bill Kristol,” he said. “Then there are people on Fox I neither like nor respect like Karl Rove. What do all of these people have in common? They’re all Bush people – Bush loyalists or they have past connections to the Bush family and the GOP establishment. I don’t know if it’s on purpose or not, but the end result is they totally outnumber those on the network who actually have current ties to the conservative grassroots.”

One of the most frequent Fox News complainers in my inbox are Mike Huckabee supporters, which is ironic when you consider how much money Mr. Huckabee made hosting a successful weekly show on Fox for six years.

For years I’ve gotten emails from Huckabee supporters noting how often Fox refused to acknowledge him as a potential future presidential candidate, or failed to recognize the fact that he was actually the 2008 runner-up to John McCain and not Mr. Romney. Last week, one of Mr. Huckabee’s closest loyalists emailed me a clip from Fox discussing who would step up once Mr. Romney announced he wasn’t running again in 2016. The clip included a graphic of the latest Fox News poll showing Mr. Huckabee ahead of Jeb Bush, yet the Fox host mentioned every name on the graphic except Mr. Huckabee.

When I asked Mr. Huckabee about all this, he was having none of it.

“I don’t think Fox is in the tank for anyone, but like with any channel clearly some hosts like some people better,” Mr. Huckabee told me. “I would stress that the true news side is quite different from the programming side. The news folks I found to be real pros that played it straight. It was actually a great place to work and the culture of the channel was very professional and sought to be ‘fair and balanced.’ I have nothing but the highest respect for (Fox News head honcho) Roger Ailes for my time there.”

It’s clear there’s a disconnect here. Is Fox News really in the tank for the GOP establishment? Or is this simply sour grapes from conservatives who backed the wrong horse?

Regardless of the answer, one thing is for certain. Fox generated almost $800 million in advertising revenue in 2013, which was more than twice its closest cable news competitor. So until such complaints start negatively impacting its bottom line, they’re likely to fall on deaf ears.

(Steve Deace is a nationally syndicated talk show host and also the author of the new book “Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again.” You can “like” him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @SteveDeaceShow.)

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