Fifteen years ago this month, the Fox News Channel went on the air. Promising to be “fair and balanced,” it was a direct challenge to the dominant television networks, which, by implication, were neither fair nor balanced. In the years since, there have been enormous changes in television news, including Fox that have dramatically altered the media landscape. These changes now have very important political implications that even many media professionals are unaware of.
For decades, Republicans had complained that the mainstream media was biased against them. Polls of journalists in all areas routinely showed that the vast bulk were Democrats or liberal independents. Although the journalists just as routinely denied that their personal political opinions affected their reporting, not one Republican anywhere believed it.
My experience is that it was harder to interest mainstream reporters in writing about issues of interest to conservatives, that research from conservative think tanks was held to a higher standard than that from liberal think tanks, that statements by liberals were often taken at face value while one from a conservative always had to be balanced by one from a liberal, and so on.
Talk radio opened up listeners to a range of conservative news, research and reportage that they never would have been aware of from the mainstream media up through the 1980s. In other words, an important reason for the rapid popularity of talk radio among conservatives was that they heard news they would never have heard elsewhere, not just opinions that reinforced their own.
Of course, the Internet further opened the door to a broad range of conservative news outlets, think tanks and commentary. With the establishment of Fox News in 1996, it was now possible for conservatives to get 100 percent of their news from an outlet friendly to their philosophy.
conservative than it
was in the beginning
because the rest of
the media tilted left.
Unfortunately, over time, this has created a bubble in which conservatives are shielded from facts that contradict their worldview or hear them only when accompanied by a commentary that explains them away. This is why crazy conservative ideas continue to circulate long after they have been definitively refuted. The myth that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, for example, still continues to be believed by many conservatives despite the release of his birth certificate by the state of Hawaii.
During the time Fox has been on the air, it has transformed from a balanced network that gave equal time to conservative news and other viewpoints to one that is primarily just conservative. In the beginning it seemed more conservative than it was because the rest of the media tilted left. Thus just being in the center of the political spectrum put one to the right of the major media.
Partly because of Fox, however, the major media shifted more toward the middle than they used to be. This led Fox to move further to the right to maintain the space between itself and its competitors. Consequently, it has ceased being fair and balanced and is, essentially, the Republican news network. Academic studies show that those who watch Fox regularly become much more likely to vote Republican.
Consequently, Fox has become the Republican kingmaker. It has even employed many current and former Republican presidential candidates including Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Those seeking the GOP nomination routinely make pilgrimages to New York to seek the blessing of Fox News president Roger Ailes and its owner Rupert Murdoch, who also exercises powerful political influence through his ownership of the Wall Street Journal and New York Post.
How Fox Filled a Void
Most young people today probably have no idea how restricted the news business was in the pre-Internet, pre-cable era. There were three 30-minute broadcast news programs and almost every adult watched one of them every night. This is where most people got the bulk of their news. People who really cared about the news read newspapers or one of the three major weekly news magazines. That was basically it.
Limbaugh were quick
to recognize that there
was an unfilled market
for opinionated political talk.
Talk radio was the first major challenge to this news oligopoly. AM radio had been dying for some time as people preferred the signal quality of FM for music. Then in 1987, the Reagan administration withdrew the “fairness doctrine,” which had limited political talk on radio and television because equal time had to be given to opposing views. Rather than do that, most radio and TV stations simply avoided expressing explicit political opinions about anything.
Ailes and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh were quick to recognize that there was an unfilled market for opinionated political talk and that the AM radio dial was the perfect place for it. In 1988, Limbaugh went national with his radio show, quickly growing to hundreds of stations nationwide. It was much cheaper for radio stations to run syndicated programming like Limbaugh’s than pay their own disk jockeys or local talk show hosts. As a consequence, AM radio suddenly became very profitable.
In 1991, Ailes created a syndicated television program for Limbaugh. Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, it led Murdoch to hire Ailes to create the Fox News Channel in 1996. It was the fulfillment of a dream Ailes had had since the 1960s, when he tried to convince Richard Nixon to help create a conservative news network to compete with ABC, CBS and NBC.
Now that conservatives have the television news network of their dreams, one question is whether liberals ought to have one of their own. MSNBC has attempted to stake out this position, but so far has not come close to having Fox’s impact. One reason is that Fox’s conservatism permeates its entire schedule, while MSNBC’s liberal programming runs only in the evening. And the fact is that Fox does what it does much better than MSNBC does.
I think it’s dangerous for democracy when so many members of one political party self-propagandize themselves by walling themselves off from any view or fact other than those they already know and believe. But there's no easy remedy. Bringing back the fairness doctrine is a bad idea and the First Amendment protects Fox’s right to present whatever news it feels like, with whatever bias it wants. But just because something is permissible doesn’t make it right.