Fox News enjoys healthy ratings

Glenn Beck (above), Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity have fueled Fox News’s rising viewership this year. Glenn Beck (above), Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity have fueled Fox News’s rising viewership this year. (Associated Press/Evan Agostini/File)
By David Bauder
Associated Press / August 18, 2009

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NEW YORK - Bob Inglis, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, frustrated by a restive crowd at a recent forum to discuss health care changes, suggested people turn off the TV when Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck came on.

Big mistake.

Judging by the escalating boos and catcalls, squirting lighter fluid on burning coals would have been wiser. Beck is a hero to many people who are not buying the Age of Obama, and so is Fox. The network was already on pace for its best ratings year even before the health care debate sent viewership jumping in a traditionally slow month for news.

How emboldened is Fox? After Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s press secretary, warned against “cable news’’ derailing health care plans, Bill O’Reilly assumed he was referring to Fox and seemed ready for a fight.

“Who’s that going to help?’’ O’Reilly said. “Us, that’s who. Our ratings are already soaring because we don’t denigrate the protesters, the way a lot of other TV news organizations do. They’re dying. We’re on fire.’’

Fox’s strong year hasn’t come without controversy. Some critics worry about overheated rhetoric - Beck has called Obama a racist and joked about poisoning Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi - and they suggest Fox has helped lead, instead of just following, the president’s opponents.

Fox’s viewership is up 11 percent over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. CNN and MSNBC, which benefited from interest in the campaign last year, are down. O’Reilly (who already had cable news’s most popular show), Beck, and Sean Hannity lead the way.

“Fox is much more firmly established than it has ever been,’’ said Eric Burns, former host of Fox’s “News Watch’’ media criticism show. “It has been in existence for 13 years. It knows its base. And it knows its base is bigger than CNN or MSNBC.’’

Roughly three times as many Republicans said in a June survey that they regularly get news from Fox, as opposed to CNN or MSNBC, reported the Pew Research Center. The three networks had about the same number of Independent followers, and Fox had more Democratic followers than CNN and MSNBC had GOP fans.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group that is busing demonstrators across the country to health care forums held by members of Congress, said other news organizations seem more interested in who is helping to organize protests. Fox doesn’t ignore the protesters’ concerns, he said.

“Is Fox more critical of Obama than MSNBC? Of course,’’ Phillips said. “But when you look at what is happening, Fox is actually covering it.’’

Fox’s critics question its balance. Fox aired comments from 63 opponents of health care change on Monday and Tuesday, and only 10 supporters, the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America said. Fox also cut away from Obama’s New Hampshire town hall after only two questions, saying it would return if it got contentious. It didn’t.

Some advertisers are boycotting Beck because of his remarks about the president, although Fox quickly distanced itself with a statement by network executive Bill Shine saying it was Beck’s opinion, not Fox’s. A call and e-mail to Fox for comment were not immediately returned. Fox also declined to make an executive available to be interviewed for this story.

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