You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Decline of the Fox News Liberal Pundit

Progressive opinions on the network are rarer and weaker than ever. Rush Limbaugh says that's cause for celebration—for liberals.

Getty Images

Fox News’ firing of Bob Beckel last week was hardly a crushing loss for liberalism in the public discourse. As co-host of The Five from 2011 to 2015, and again this year, the Democratic commentator routinely disgraced the progressive cause. He once proudly declared, “I’m an Islamophobe.” He repeatedly made misogynistic comments and dropped racial slurs on air. Just earlier this month, he complained that Democrats talk too much about being “the party of labor, women, minorities, you know, LBGT, whatever,” when they should be focused on “working people.” Fox says it terminated Beckel “for making an insensitive remark to an African-American employee,” but any network that valued progressive ideas would have permanently cut ties with him long ago.

Of course, Fox News has never valued such ideas. The network has a long tradition of bringing aboard liberals who are either poorly equipped for televised combat with conservatives, or are willing, as Beckel was, to validate right-wing narratives. While he’d toe the Democratic line on health care and push back on climate change denial, his anti-Muslim rantings and other offensive and antiquated views kept conservatives comfortable. “That’s the challenge of being the Fox News liberal,” said Marc Lamont Hill, a progressive contributor to Fox in the early Obama years. “You have to concede something you shouldn’t have to in terms of being seen as reasonable as a long-term presence there.” But as Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple told me, the Beckel model is the ultimate way to advance the Fox News agenda. “For Fox News, you can’t ask for a better liberal than that,” he said.

And yet, the network used to feature better left-of-center voices. Though he was maligned as a milquetoast patsy, Alan Colmes’s run as the original Fox News liberal looks better in retrospect. Kirsten Powers, who left for CNN last year after more than a decade at Fox, held her own in any debate. “She’s a ferocious advocate for her points of view,” Wemple said. “I do think she was tremendously effective in rebutting Bill O’Reilly.” He called Hill, another frequent O’Reilly sparring partner, “one of the great TV polemicists of all time.” Sally Kohn, a contributor from 2012-2013, brought a remarkably left-wing perspective that often went viral online. “I felt like I was making a difference,” Kohn told me.

Today, Fox News is facing an existential crisis. Founder and CEO Roger Ailes was forced out amid allegations of serial sexual harassment, as was O’Reilly, Fox’s biggest star. (Ailes has since died.) Bill Shine, a Fox executive close to Ailes, was elbowed out, too. Megyn Kelly left for NBC News, Greta Van Susteren for MSNBC. The network that dominated cable-news ratings for years recently fell to third place, behind CNN and MSNBC. Amid this wreckage, Fox News must figure out how to carry on without the (white) men who built it, how to compete with increasingly prominent right-wing outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars, and how to position itself with regard to President Donald Trump.

One thing’s sure, though: liberalism has never been more poorly represented on the network. “It’s virtually unwatchable,” Hill told me. The notion of a Fox News liberal, he added, is “almost an oxymoron at this point.” This may seem like a lesser concern right now, given the aforementioned turmoil, but the decline of liberal opinion on Fox News and the network’s broader struggles go hand in hand.

It’s not often that Rush Limbaugh and Media Matters agree on something, but even these mortal enemies concur about the sorry state of Fox News within the political landscape.

“When Fox was ruling the roost, everybody wanted to go there, despite what these liberals say about Fox this and Fox that,” the conservative host said Tuesday on his show. “You will know as well as I do that many liberal Democrats, guests and otherwise, showed up on Fox all the time despite the things they were saying about it. Why? ’Cause that’s where the eyeballs were. CNN and MSNBC, zero. I mean, they had asterisks. They had so few viewers it made no sense to go there. It made sense to go to Fox.” But the network’s ratings nosedive changes that calculus. “With Fox no longer ruling the roost, these people will not have to pretend to take Fox seriously any longer,” he said. “They will not have to acknowledge that Fox is credible as their reason for going on, and what’s gonna happen is they’re now gonna calculate, many of these people, that MSNBC and CNN are the best places to go to get face time.”

“I would say Fox News liberals these days are auditioning for a job at CNN,” Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, told me. It’s “a total breakdown of not just the Fox liberal but the Fox business model.”

The downside is that Fox viewers may have an increasingly warped understanding of what progressives believe. Sean Hannity invited contributor Dennis Kucinich on his show last week and promised that the former Democratic congressman from Ohio “is making major news.” Kucinich unleashed an extraordinary rant, putting a veneer of bipartisanship to the notion that “our country itself is under attack from within.” “You have a politicization of the agencies,” he said, “that is resulting in leaks from anonymous, unknown people, and the intention is to take down a president. This is very dangerous to America. It’s a threat to our republic. It constitutes a clear and present danger to our way of life.” “You’re saying President Trump is under attack by the deep state intelligence community?” Hannity later asked. “I believe that,” Kucinich replied.

Kucinich is among the most recognizable liberal regulars on Fox these days, and his frequently pro-Trump posture reflects the sad state of progressive representation of the network. Kucinich has heaped praise on Trump’s dystopian inaugural address, saying “there might be some way we can bring this country together on the kind of principles he laid out.” He has volunteered that “Donald Trump didn’t create these wars. Wars create refugees, and President Obama both in Syria and in Libya backed conflicts which created refugees.” He even agreed when Bill O’Reilly said to him, “When you say you don’t want Americans abroad, you have more in common with Trump than you do Obama, because Trump doesn’t want to go into these countries.”

The quality of progressive discourse on Fox has never been comparable to liberal or even centrist media outlets, but Carusone says it’s fallen even further since the Obama era. In 2014, Columbia Journalism Review described “an increasingly prominent group of news analysts at the conservative network—those on its left wing. Call them punching bags, foils, or the engines of honest debate, Fox’s flock of liberal commentators lay out the nation’s partisan battles in real time—on a network where coastal elites would argue that no dissenting voices exist.” The piece cited Kohn, Powers, and Tamara Holder. James Carville, Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign strategist and once the liberal half of Crossfire, had signed as a Fox News contributor. None of them work there anymore—and Holder settled with Fox for $2.5 million after allegations of sexual assault.

In their place, Carusone observes, are lesser-known “Democratic strategists” or one-off guests. Tucker Carlson, recently given a primetime show, frequently invites liberal guests—“to debate them or berate them,” Carusone said. Wemple, who has sparred with Carlson on TV and online, said the show “exists in large part to ridicule or bloody liberals or critics of Donald Trump.” “He’s basically ‘slay the liberals, embarrass them, mistreat them,’” Wemple said.

There is some new liberal blood on the network, like Jessica Tarlov, in addition to longtime Fox personalities like Jehmu Greene and Juan Williams. But Tarlov is often brought on to play the Reasonable Liberal—the one who’s willing to agree with Sean Hannity and Tomi Lahren that Samantha Bee shouldn’t mock a man with cancer or NBC News’ Trump tax returns “scoop” was disappointing. It’s not that she doesn’t disagree or make her case; sometimes she even scores points. It’s just that, all too often, the die is cast with the framing of these segments—a two-on-one pile-on against Tarlov.

Williams, meanwhile, is another classic example of the Fox News liberal dynamic. “Juan Williams is a moderate Republican to me, not an actual Democrat,” Hill said. (Indeed, Williams said late last year that he could see himself joining the GOP someday.) Fox might bring on Kucinich to trash Trump’s enemies, but, Hill said, when it’s time to bring him on to argue why we shouldn’t have intervened in Iraq, why we should denounce settlement expansion in the West Bank, and why we should have a public opinion in health care, it’s like, ‘We don’t need him for that; let’s call Juan.’”

Carusone attributes the lack of liberal opinion on Fox to its current woes. “I think that’s why you haven’t seen a ton of new people added to that crop,” Carusone said. “They’re in that weird limbo.” As Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, told me in an email, “Right now, Fox is a little like a wounded animal, trying to recover from its recent wounds.” But he preached patience, saying Fox will bring aboard more liberals in due time. “Fox needs a few liberals in its contributor heap for comic relief, to spar with,” he said. “That it might not be as adventurous in its programming may be disappointing to the [Media Matters] people, but I suspect as the wreckage clears they might return to their old programming practices.”

Carusone doesn’t think Fox’s long-term strategy will mirror its old one, but he’s surprisingly hopeful about the network’s role in the broader media landscape. Since Fox is now having to compete with a growing far-right media pushing conspiracy theories, he said turning Fox into a channel focused on even-handed coverage would be “the fastest way for them to shed themselves of all this baggage.” “I don’t think Fox News can survive serving up leftover right-wing chicanery,” he said. “At some point, there’s going to be demand again for just some damn news.” (This tension is already manifest at Fox; many in its news division are striving for serious coverage of the Trump administration, and news staffers were embarrassed by Hannity’s recent peddling of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.)

But Limbaugh, of all people, has the most hopeful take for the left: that the dearth of liberals on Fox News could be good for American liberalism overall. On Tuesday, he warned his audience that if progressives shun the network, “the extreme liberalism and anti-American leftism is going to get louder, it is going to become more common, it’s gonna be all over the place.” If that’s true—a big “if”—then we shouldn’t lament the decline of the Fox News liberal at all. We should, like a growing number of Americans, simply change the channel.