Online, Vox Populi Can Roar News Channel Sees Site as a Place to Vent By Howard Kurtz Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, March 30, 2009; C01 Fox Nation, an opinionated Web site that launches this morning -- and really, what other network would name a country after itself? -- is based on a gut-level appeal: "It's Time to Say NO to Biased Media and Say YES to Fair Play and Free Speech." Biased media are in the eye of the beholder, and with a site built around such high-decibel stars as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, Fox is hoping to leverage its brand online, especially among conservative true believers. "We felt that giving people a real destination to go and express themselves would give them a feeling of belonging," says Senior Vice President Joel Cheatwood. "People feel they're dictated to a lot by the media." The launch comes as Fox News Channel is touting its aggressive approach to the Obama administration, which has led to rising ratings after eight years in which the network's top commentators often sided with the Bush White House. Hannity, who had been balanced by liberal co-host Alan Colmes, is flying solo this year, ripping the president for "socialist" policies and calling for the firing of his Treasury secretary, "Turbo Tax Cheat Tim Geithner." Beck, hired away from HLN (Headline News), has been an instant smash, railing against "the people who are betraying you over and over and over again and lying to us in Washington." Mike Huckabee, the former GOP governor of Arkansas, holds forth on a weekend show. Night after night, Fox's top commentators are former White House aide Karl Rove, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris, the onetime Clinton strategist turned debunker of Democrats. Another contributor, Michael Steele, recently left to become Republican Party chairman. And while Democratic analysts hired during the campaign, such as former Hillary Clinton advisers Howard Wolfson and Lanny Davis, have left the network, Fox is beefing up its conservative ranks, recently hiring National Review's Jonah Goldberg. The Web site will attempt to emulate the social aspects of Facebook -- as well as MySpace, which, like Fox, is owned by Rupert Murdoch -- by encouraging readers to post comments and argue with one another. And the hook will be columns, blogs and videos from the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Greta Van Susteren and Hannity, which will likely draw their strongest followers. "I don't think this is going to be limited to die-hard Fox News fans," Cheatwood says. When registration begins in two months, users will be asked to abide by "core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse and fair and balanced coverage of the news," with insulting comments deleted. "If they're critical of Fox News, that's fine," Cheatwood says. "You just can't say anything that's hateful or hurtful to someone else." Fox has been losing the online wars. The new site would be linked to FoxNews.com, which drew 16 million unique visitors in February, trailing MSNBC.com (41 million visitors) and CNN.com (36 million). Liberal outlets thrived during the last administration, when those who couldn't stand the president gravitated toward the strongest Bush critics. MSNBC gained in the ratings by moving sharply left, installing Air America's Rachel Maddow in the hour after Keith Olbermann last fall. A right-leaning brand may be a similar asset in the Obama era. The Washington Times is creating a conservative opinion site, and last week announced that its newsroom is launching a syndicated show on Talk Radio Network, which carries such conservative hosts as Laura Ingraham and Michael Savage. Some skeptics said Fox News, which enjoyed easy access to top Bush administration officials, might suffer under a Democratic president. But the ratings don't bear that out, with Fox now the second-ranking channel in cable land, behind the USA Network. So far this year, Fox News ratings are up 26 percent compared with the same period last year, CNN up 17 percent and MSNBC up 20 percent. The Fox average, 1.2 million, is roughly equal to its two rivals combined. "The O'Reilly Factor" is drawing nearly 3.4 million viewers, a 26 percent jump over last year. In that 8 p.m. hour, Olbermann's MSNBC show is averaging 1.4 million (up 37 percent); HLN's Nancy Grace, 1.2 million (up 80 percent); and CNN's Campbell Brown 1.1 million, up 4 percent. "Hannity" is averaging 2.7 million viewers, 40 percent higher than the old show with Colmes. He is trailed by CNN's Larry King, with 1.4 million (up 20 percent); and MSNBC's Maddow with 1.2 million (up 133 percent from the old Dan Abrams program). News anchor Bret Baier, who succeeded Brit Hume, has even boosted Fox's numbers at 6 p.m. Obama refused to appear on Fox News during the campaign until a confidential meeting in June, when Chairman Roger Ailes told him the network would be fair but not "in the tank" for him. The president recently told House Republicans, "Go ahead and whack me, I'll watch Fox News and feel bad about myself." He dismissed that as a joke in an interview with Fox's Chris Wallace. Fox executives maintain that the channel's reporting is aggressive but not ideological. Senior Vice President Bill Shine says that "our reporters, people like Major Garrett, have been asking tougher questions" than their rivals, such as scrutinizing efforts to increase White House involvement in the 2010 Census. As for the commentators, Shine says Hannity still has some liberal guests and that Beck has "a very populist message -- he's mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. There's anger and fear out there and he's giving people an outlet for that." Such people could become charter members of Fox Nation if the Web site catches on. Says Shine: "We're calling it a mix between the Huffington Post and Drudge."