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Roger Ailes’ FNC Retooling Catches Romney Off Guard

Spotting the reporter, Mr. Romney’s aides sprang into action, asking where he worked and what he was doing there, and then insisting that he not physically approach Mr. Romney before or after he was questioned on television by the attorneys general and Mr. Huckabee. [...] Mr. Gingrich, coming out of the studio after a tough round of questioning from the attorneys general, had an opposite reaction. – Behind the Scenes at a Forum for Republican Candidates

No one in the political media is quicker to assess a problem and faster at shifting when they do than Roger Ailes. When the Tea Party reigned, it was Sarah Palin leading the Fox stars, along with Glenn Beck. But once the wind changed, so did Mr. Ailes, not missing a beat. Bret Baier is the latest example of what happens when Republican candidates walk into an interview expecting the usual FNC Sean Hannity softballs.

Burned by wacky Glenn Beck, with Sarah Palin’s popularity having plummeted, as has her relevancy to the right, Roger Ailes is once again proving why he beats CNN.

As for MSNBC, they’re not even in the game. While Ailes was rebranding, MSNBC was having an identity crisis and trying to suck up to the White House by making Cenk Yugur an offer he had to refuse, replacing him with Al Sharpton, flipping Lawrence O’Donnell with Ed Schultz, because they let Keith Olbermann get away. Even their star, Rachel Maddow, took a ratings hit because of MSNBC’s identity crisis.

Over at Fox, Ailes was doing the unexpected by going back to the roots of traditional journalism, even if most everything else on FNC is anything but unbiased.

So, since the moves by Ailes, the “Fox News Primary,” with Republican presidential candidates competing for the FNC audience, is running into some surprises. Everyone knows FNC has a right wing tilt, but the New York Times‘ Jeff Zeleny on the “Fox News Sunday” panel is one example that reveals something that would never have happened this time last year.

Mr. Ailes is not afraid to do whatever is necessary to help the Republican brand, which means keeping FNC on top, keep his audience, perhaps grow it, even if it throws some of his own off stride. As you’ll see below, Ailes’ new mission revealed Mitt Romney and his team once again running from reporters.

The Fox News Candidate Is … Fox News

…When six GOP primary contenders descended on Fox News’ midtown headquarters for a “candidates forum” with a trio of red state attorneys general on Saturday night, the candidates probably expected tough questions about their positions. But they certainly didn’t expect to find a New York Times reporter roaming backstage.

Fox’s decision to allow Times scribe Jim Rutenberg into the building to confront the candidates in person threw campaign aides off guard, especially in the Romney camp, which went into “defensive mode immediately, insisting that the reporter stay far away,” as Rutenberg later wrote.

But the decision was just the latest example of what Fox head Roger Ailes recently called a “course correction” in an interview with Howard Kurtz of Newsweek. The Romney team’s debate-night tussle was the second embarrassing episode suffered by the candidate at the hands of Fox News in a week, after Bret Baier conducted a hard-hitting interview with Romney on November 29 that made news for several days. (After the contentious interview, Baier told Bill O’Reilly that Romney privately called his questions “overly aggressive” and “uncalled for.”) The network has also taken on the other GOP primary contenders. In July, Chris Wallace pointedly asked Michele Bachmann, “Are you a flake?” And in November, Fox gave a platform to Herman Cain accuser Sharon Bialek and her attorney Gloria Allred.

With both Republican and Democratic parties seen as the problem, Ailes obviously sees an opening to cast them as the public sees them, with FNC’s history of being pro-Republican as a foundation so that his network now appears truly “fair and balanced” as he invites the traditional media “enemy” into his camp.

It’s a brilliant marketing strategy as we look to 2012. Especially since MSNBC being wrapped around the White House’s little finger from the beginning to the end of primetime has sidelined them permanently as a player. It leaves a lot of open space for viewers to roam, which Ailes knows would be to CNN.

Why bother? Partly as a preemptive measure against CNN. While CNN has slipped again to third place in the cable ratings race, Fox recognizes that the network still poses the biggest threat if it gets its act together. During the 2008 election, Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer surged to the top of the ratings for their respective time slots and CNN scored wins on big news events. Since then, CNN has flailed and ratings have dived. But CNN’s brand remains powerful at big newsmaking moments – and presidential elections are about as big as they get. Which partly explains why Fox wants to distance itself from the overt championing of tea-party politics that defined its post-2008 coverage of Obama. Dominating as much of the election as possible means appealing to viewers beyond the conservative base and being perceived as a credible news outfit. That means pushing the network’s journalists, as when Fox allowed Kurtz to shadow Baier, Wallace, and senior Washington producer Marty Ryan before the September debate in Orlando.

Now if Ailes could only do something about Sean Hannity, clearly the worst host anywhere on the dial. But I guess he’s got to keep someone on FNC like him, considering the far right prefers their politics spoon-fed.

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