In a way, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tun that in) isn't really about the religion angle in a major mainstream news story. No, this episode is a lot stranger than that.
Here are the two key equations at the heart of my latest conversation with host Todd Wilken.
First of all, millions and millions of Americans watch talk-TV commentary shows -- usually the ones featuring hosts with political and cultural views that mirror their own -- and it appears that they think they are watching the news. This happens on the left (think MSNBC and most of CNN) and it also happens, of course, on the right with Fox News.
The bottom line: Millions of Americans do not know the difference between basic news and advocacy news and commentary. They don't understand that many journalists are still committed to keeping bias, opinion and open advocacy out of their news work. This is having a serious impact on public discourse.
Meanwhile, there is this second fact: Millions of moral, cultural and religious conservatives are watching Fox News day after day, night after night, without giving any thought to what BRAND of conservatism is driving the particular commentary show that they are watching. (NOTE: Fox News does have one or two news shows left, such as Special Report, that mix basic news reports with commentary, often from panelists on the left, right and middle. It is interesting that this show was originally created by Brit Hume, a religious and cultural conservative with a long and solid background in mainstream news.)
Truth is, the whole Fox News operation has never been all that interested in the role that religion plays in America and the world, other than a few segments dedicated -- think "Christmas wars" -- to hot-button topics. Yes, commentator Todd Starnes focuses on religion quite a bit in his opinion pieces and analysis work on radio, but that isn't hard news or prime-time material.
So why would Fox News have little or no interest in religion?
In a post this week -- "Tale of two Foxes: What kind, or kinds, of conservative values drive Fox News?" -- I noted that, in the whole Roger Ailes era, the dominant stream of conservative thought at Fox appeared to be a kind of muscular Libertarian mindset, with lots of conservative views on economics, foreign policy, Nativism, etc. The emphasis was on personal freedom, success and power, as opposed to community, morality, faith and culture.
The poster child for this radical individualism, especially in the ratings, was Bill O'Reilly. As I wrote, concerning the New York Times coverage of the hurricane of sexual harassment claims and settlements surrounding the Fox superstar:
What is missing, in my opinion, is any hint that there is a major division inside Fox News -- not just between news people and opinion people, but between people who get religion and those who have little or no interest in doing so. Does this have anything to do with a divide between clashing conservative camps, with O'Reilly and the country-club Republicans on one side and the heartland, cultural conservatives on the other? Does this have anything to do with O'Reilly and all of those claims about his, well, anti-Billy Graham Rules way of life?
The final question, as the O'Reilly sex-gate scandals have rolled on during the week, is how many cultural conservatives who loyally watch this celebrity horndog's show realize that his track record shows -- to say the least -- that he is not one of them? Will the tsunami of social media and mainstream news media attacks on O'Reilly make many of these viewers like him even more?
The Washington Post condensed all of that into one blunt question:
Is Bill O’Reilly too big to fire?
The question wouldn’t even have been asked just a few days ago. The most popular attraction on cable, O’Reilly seemed to be Fox News Channel’s indispensable man, the embodiment of its pugnacious identity. With record ratings behind him, he re-upped at Fox only last week, reportedly for a knee-buckling $18 million a year.
Now? The question is plausible, but the likely answer is unsatisfying: It depends. ...
For the Post, everything depends on economic and political dynamics -- which are very real. At the same time, as Fox leaders try to figure out how to move into the future, I would ask another question: At what point will cultural and religious Fox viewers start paying attention to what O'Reilly is selling, when it comes to his beliefs and actions?