Fox Media Review Essay

Years ago, Republican party chair Rich Bond explained that conservatives’ frequent denunciations of “liberal bias” in the media were part of “a strategy” (Washington Post, 8/20/92). Comparing journalists to referees in a sports match, Bond explained: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.”

Rupert Murdoch (photo: Monika Flueckiger/World Economic Forum)

But when Fox News Channel, Rupert Murdoch’s 24-hour cable network, debuted in 1996, a curious thing happened: Instead of denouncing it, conservative politicians and activists lavished praise on the network. “If it hadn’t been for Fox, I don’t know what I’d have done for the news,” Trent Lott gushed after the Florida election recount (Washington Post, 2/5/01). George W. Bush extolled Fox News Channel anchor Tony Snow–a former speechwriter for Bush’s father–and his “impressive transition to journalism” in a specially taped April 2001 tribute to Snow’s Sunday-morning show on its five-year anniversary (Washington Post, 5/7/01). The right-wing Heritage Foundation had to warn its staffers not to watch so much Fox News on their computers, because it was causing the think tank’s system to crash.

When it comes to Fox News Channel, conservatives don’t feel the need to “work the ref.” The ref is already on their side. Since its 1996 launch, Fox has become a central hub of the conservative movement’s well-oiled media machine. Together with the GOP organization and its satellite think tanks and advocacy groups, this network of fiercely partisan outlets–such as the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative talk-radio shows like Rush Limbaugh’s–forms a highly effective right-wing echo chamber where GOP-friendly news stories can be promoted, repeated and amplified. Fox knows how to play this game better than anyone.

Yet, at the same time, the network bristles at the slightest suggestion of a conservative tilt. In fact, wrapping itself in slogans like “Fair and balanced” and “We report, you decide,” Fox argues precisely the opposite: Far from being a biased network, Fox argues, it is the only unbiased network. So far, Fox‘s strategy of aggressive denial has worked surprisingly well; faced with its unblinking refusal to admit any conservative tilt at all, some commentators have simply acquiesced to the network’s own self-assessment. FAIR has decided to take a closer look.

Roger Ailes at Fox Anniversary Event/Photo: AP/Jim Cooper

Fox‘s founder and president, Roger Ailes, was for decades one of the savviest and most pugnacious Republican political operatives in Washington, a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan campaigns. Ailes is most famous for his role in crafting the elder Bush’s media strategy in the bruising 1988 presidential race. With Ailes’ help, Bush turned a double-digit deficit in the polls into a resounding win by targeting the GOP’s base of white male voters in the South and West, using red-meat themes like Michael Dukakis’ “card-carrying” membership in the ACLU, his laissez-faire attitude toward flag-burning, his alleged indifference to the pledge of allegiance–and, of course, paroled felon Willie Horton.

Described by fellow Bush aide Lee Atwater as having “two speeds–attack and destroy,” Ailes once jocularly told a Time reporter (8/22/88): “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.” Later, as a producer for Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived TV show, he was fond of calling Bill Clinton the “hippie president” and lashing out at “liberal bigots” (Washington Times, 5/11/93). It is these two sensibilities above all–right-wing talk radio and below-the-belt political campaigning–that Ailes brought with him to Fox, and his stamp is evident in all aspects of the network’s programming.

Fox daytime anchor David Asman is formerly of the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page and the conservative Manhattan Institute. The host of Fox News Sunday is Tony Snow, a conservative columnist and former chief speechwriter for the first Bush administration. Eric Breindel, previously the editorial-page editor of the right-wing New York Post, was senior vice president of Fox‘s parent company, News Corporation, until his death in 1998; Fox News Channel‘s senior vice president is John Moody, a long-time journalist known for his staunch conservative views.

Fox‘s managing editor is Brit Hume, a veteran TV journalist and contributor to the conservative American Spectator and Weekly Standard magazines. Its top-rated talkshow is hosted by Bill O’Reilly, a columnist for the conservative WorldNetDaily.com and a registered Republican (that is, until a week before the Washington Post published an article revealing his party registration–12/13/00).

The abundance of conservatives and Republicans at Fox News Channel does not seem to be a coincidence. In 1996, Andrew Kirtzman, a respected New York City cable news reporter, was interviewed for a job with Fox and says that management wanted to know what his political affiliation was. “They were afraid I was a Democrat,” he told the Village Voice (10/15/96). When Kirtzman refused to tell Fox his party ID, “all employment discussion ended,” according to the Voice.

Catherine Crier, who was perceived as one of Fox‘s most prestigious and credible early hires, was an elected Republican judge before starting a career in journalism. (Crier has since moved on to Court TV.) Pundit Mara Liasson–who is touted as an on-air “liberal” by Fox executives–sits on the board of the conservative human-rights group Freedom House; New York magazine (11/17/97) cited a Fox insider as saying that Liasson assured president Roger Ailes before being hired that she was a Republican.

Brit Hume/Photo: School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University

The most obvious sign of Fox‘s slant is its heavily right-leaning punditry. Each episode of Special Report with Brit Hume, for example, features a three-person panel of pundits who chat about the day’s political news at the end of the show. The most frequent panelist is Fred Barnes, the evangelical Christian supply-sider who edits the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. He sits proudly on the rightward flank of the Republican party (and often scolds it for slouching leftwards).

The next most frequent guest is Mort Kondrake, who sits in the middle of the panel. Politically, Kondrake falls at the very rightward edge of the Democratic party– if not beyond it. As he famously explained in a 1988 New Republic essay (8/29/88), he is a Democrat who is “disgusted with the Democratic Party” and whose main reason for not defecting to the Republicans is that they “have failed to be true to themselves as conservatives.” (He was referring to Reagan’s deficit spending.)

Rounding out the panel is its third-most-frequent pundit, Mara Liasson, who sits on the opposite side of the table from the conservative Barnes, implicitly identifying her as a liberal. But her liberalism consists of little more than being a woman who works for National Public Radio; she has proposed that “one of the roots of the problem with education today is feminism” (Talk of the Nation, 5/3/01); she declares that “Jesse Jackson gets away with a lot of things that other people don’t” (Special Report, 6/21/00); she calls George W. Bush’s reversal on carbon dioxide emissions “a small thing” (3/14/01), campaign finance reform “an issue that . . . only 200 people in America care about” (3/19/01) and slavery reparations “pretty much of a non-issue” (3/19/01).

Less frequent Special Report panelists include conservative Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon, centrist Fortune writer Jeff Birnbaum and NPR host Juan Williams. Williams, the only guest who could plausibly claim to be a liberal, was so outraged over attacks on his friend Clarence Thomas that he declared that “liberals have become monsters” (Washington Post, 10/10/91), denouncing the “so-called champions of fairness: liberal politicians, unions, civil rights groups and women’s organizations.” Indeed, Fox‘s crew of “liberal” pundits seems almost calculated to be either ineffective left-of-center advocates or conciliatory moderates. Ironically, perhaps the only Fox commentator who consistently presents a strong progressive perspective–that is, critical of corporate power and militarism, and sympathetic to progressive social movements–is FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, a weekly panelist on the weekend media show Fox News Watch.

Meanwhile, Barnes and Kondracke –the conservative Republican and conservative Democrat–make up the entire political spectrum on Fox‘s weekend political show, The Beltway Boys, where they are generally in agreement as they discuss the week’s news.

Sean Hannity at Iowa State Fair 2011/Photo: Jerry Ranch

Even Fox‘s “left-right” debate show, Hannity & Colmes–whose Crossfire-style format virtually imposes numerical equality between conservatives and “liberals”–can’t shake the impression of resembling a Harlem Globetrotters game in which everyone knows which side is supposed to win.

On the right, co-host Sean Hannity is an effective and telegenic ideologue, a protégé of Newt Gingrich and a rising star of conservative talk radio who is perhaps more plugged into the GOP leadership than any media figure besides Rush Limbaugh (Hannity reportedly received “thunderous applause” when he spoke at a recent closed-door House Republican Conference meeting that is usually closed to the media–U.S. News & World Report, 5/7/01.)

On the left is Alan Colmes, a rather less telegenic former stand-up comic and radio host whose views are slightly left-of-center but who, as a personality, is completely off the radar screen of liberal politics. “I’m quite moderate,” he told a reporter when asked to describe his politics (USA Today, 2/1/95). Hannity, a self-described “arch-conservative” (Electronic Media, 8/26/96), joined Fox when the network was started, and personally nominated Colmes to be his on-screen debating opponent (New York Times, 3/1/98). Before the selection was made, the show’s working title was Hannity & Liberal to Be Determined–giving some idea of the relative weight each host carries, both on-screen and within the network. Fox sometimes sends a camera down to Hannity’s radio studio during the network’s daytime news programming, from which he holds forth on the news of the day. Needless to say, Colmes does not receive similar treatment.

Fox has had trouble at times hiding the partisanship of its main news personalities. In 1996, while already a Fox anchor, Tony Snow endorsed Bob Dole for president in the Republican National Committee magazine Rising Tide (New York, 11/17/97). A former speech-writer for the elder Bush, Snow often guest-hosts the Rush Limbaugh show and wrote an unabashedly conservative weekly newspaper column until Fox management recently pressured him to drop it to avoid the appearance of bias (Washington Post, 5/29/01).

Tony Snow/Photo: National Center for Policy Analysis

At the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, Snow–ostensibly present as a journalist covering a news event–jumped onstage to give a speech to the Republican Youth Caucus after organizers asked him to fill in for a speaker who couldn’t make it. (He was later reprimanded by his bosses.) Trent Lott, whose speech directly followed Snow’s, began with a cheer of “How about Tony Snow in 2008?” (New York Daily News 8/2/00; Federal News Service, 8/1/00).

Just three days earlier, near the GOP convention, Bill O’Reilly gave the keynote speech at David Horowitz’s conservative “Restoration Weekend” event, where he was introduced by Republican congressmember Jack Quinn. Fox‘s Sean Hannity also spoke at the gathering, described by the Washington Times (6/30/00) as the “premiere political event for conservative thinkers.” O’Reilly has had Horowitz on his show six times–to talk about everything from National Public Radio‘s “left” bias (12/20/00) to Hillary Clinton’s “sense of entitlement” (6/22/00) to Horowitz’s book on race relations, >Hating Whitey (10/4/99).

Some mainstream journalists have suggested that Fox‘s “straight news” is more or less balanced, however slanted its commentary might be. “A close monitoring of the channel over several weeks indicates that the news segments tend to be straightforward, with little hint of political subtext except for stories the news editors feel the ‘mainstream’ press has either downplayed or ignored,” wrote Columbia Journalism Review‘s Neil Hickey (3-4/98). The fact that Fox‘s “chat consistently tilts to the conservative side,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz (2/5/01), “may cast an unwarranted cloud on the news reporting, which tends to be straightforward.”

When a New York Times profile of Fox News ran with a headline calling it a “conservative cable channel” (9/18/00), the paper quickly corrected their “error” the following day, explaining that in “attributing a general political viewpoint to the network, the headline exceeded the facts in the article.”

Putting aside the question of what genuine “balance” means, there are undoubtedly a few reporters in Fox‘s Washington bureau–such as White House correspondent Jim Angle–whose stories are more or less indistinguishable from those of their counterparts at the mainstream networks.

But an attentive viewer will notice that there are entire blocks of the network’s programming schedule that are set aside for conservative stories. Fox‘s website offers a regular feature on “political correctness” entitled “Tongue-Tied: A Report From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars,” whose logo is a scowling “PC Patrol” officer peering testily through a magnifying glass. It invites readers to write in and “keep us up on examples of PC excess you come across.”

Recently the network debuted a weekly half-hour series–Only on Fox–devoted explicitly to right-wing stories. The concept of the show was explained by host Trace Gallagher in the premier episode (5/26/01):

Gallagher then introduced a series of stories about one conservative cause after another: from white firefighters suing Boston’s fire department for discrimination, to sawmill workers endangered by Clinton-Gore environmental regulations (without comment from a single supporter of the rules), to property owners who feel threatened by an environmental agreement “signed by President Clinton in 1992.” (The agreement was actually signed by George Bush the elder, who was president in 1992–though that didn’t stop Fox from using news footage of a smiling Bill Clinton proudly signing an official document that was supposed to be, but wasn’t, the environmental pact in question.)

Fox‘s news specials are equally slanted: Dangerous Places (3/25/01), a special about foreign policy hosted by Newt Gingrich; Heroes, an irregular series hosted by former Republican congressmember John Kasich; and The Real Reagan (11/25/99), a panel discussion on Ronald Reagan, hosted by Tony Snow, in which all six guests were Reagan friends and political aides. Vanishing Freedoms 2: Who Owns America (5/19/01) wandered off into militia-style paranoia, suggesting that the U.N. was “taking over” private property.

There is a formula to Fox‘s news agenda. “A lot of the people we have hired,” Fox executive John Moody explained (Inside Media, 12/11/96) when the network was launched, “have come without the preconceptions of must-do news. There are stories we will sometimes forego in order to do stories we think are more significant. The biggest strength that we have is that Roger Ailes has allowed me to do that; to forego stores that would be ‘duty’ stories in order to focus on other things.”

These “other” stories that Moody has in mind are what make up much of Fox‘s programming: An embarrassing story about Jesse Jackson’s sex life. The latest political-correctness outrage on campus. A one-day mini-scandal about a Democratic senator. Much like talk radio, Fox picks up these tidbits from right-wing outlets like the Washington Times or the Drudge Report and runs with them.

To see how the formula works, consider the recent saga of right-wing activist David Horowitz and his “censored” anti-slavery reparations ad. When some college newspapers refused to carry the ad, and some campuses saw protests against it, the case instantly became a cause celebre on the right. It was the perfect story for Fox: The liberal academic establishment trampling on the free speech of a conservative who merely asked that his views be heard. Within less than a month, Horowitz was on nearly every major Fox show to discuss the issue. (See sidebar.)

Former CBS producer Don Dahler resigned from Fox after executive John Moody ordered him to change a story to play down statistics showing a lack of social progress among blacks. (Moody says the change was journalistically justified–New York, 11/17/97.) According to the Columbia Journalism Review (3-4/98), “several” former Fox employees “complained of ‘management sticking their fingers’ in the writing and editing of stories to cook the facts to make a story more palatable to right-of-center tastes.” Said one: “I’ve worked at a lot of news organizations and never found that kind of manipulation.”

Jed Duvall, a former veteran ABC reporter who left Fox after a year, told New York (11/17/97): “I’ll never forget the morning that one producer came up to me, and, rubbing her hands like Uriah Heep, said, ‘Let’s have something on Whitewater today.’ That sort of thing doesn’t happen at a professional news organization.” Indeed, Fox‘s signature political news show, Special Report with Brit Hume, was originally created as a daily one-hour update devoted to the 1998 Clinton sex scandal.

One of the most partisan features on Fox is a daily segment on Special Report called “The Political Grapevine.” Billed as “the most scintillating two minutes in television,” the Grapevine is a kind of right-wing hot-sheet. It features Brit Hume at the anchor’s desk reading off a series of gossipy items culled from other, often right-wing, news outlets.

The key to the Grapevine is its story selection, and there is nothing subtle about it. Almost every item carries an unmistakable partisan message: Democrats, environmentalists and Hollywood liberals are the perennial villains (or the butts of the joke), while Republicans are shown either as targets of unfair attacks or heroes who can do no wrong. Political correctness run amok, the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media and the chicanery of civil rights groups all figure prominently.

When Rep. Patrick Kennedy tussled with airport security (3/21/01), Democrat Pete Stark used intemperate language (4/18/01) and California Gov. Gray Davis uttered a string of curse words (4/18/01), it made it onto the Grapevine. When the Sacramento Bee ran a series on the shortcomings of the big environmental groups, its findings earned a mention on the Grapevine (4/21/01). When it emerged that Al Gore booster Ben Affleck didn’t bother to vote in last year’s election, you heard about it on the Grapevine (4/25/01).

Republicans are treated differently. “Since [New York’s] Rudolph Giuliani became the mayor,” one item cheered (4/24/01), “the streets are cleaner and safer, and tourism reigns supreme in Times Square.” When George W. Bush ordered men to wear a coat and tie to enter the Oval Office, Grapevine (5/14/01) noted that “his father had a similar reverence for the office,” while “President Clinton used to come into the Oval Office in running shorts . . . and sometimes he did not remain fully clothed while he was there.”

The success of the Grapevine has apparently inspired a spin-off on Fox‘s Sunday morning show. Fox News Sunday anchor Tony Snow recently inaugurated “Below the Fold,” a weekly roundup of “unheralded political stories” that is basically identical to Grapevine, including the conservative spin. When one Below the Fold item (4/15/01) mentioned that Barbra Streisand was reportedly thinking of starting up “a cable TV network devoted exclusively to Democratic viewpoints,” Snow couldn’t resist adding that the singer came up with the idea “apparently believing such a thing doesn’t exist already.”

To hear the network’s bigwigs tell it, it’s not Fox that’s being biased when it puts conservative fare on heavy rotation. It’s the “liberal media” that are biased when they fail to do so. Fox‘s entire editorial philosophy revolves around the idea that the mainstream media have a liberal bias that Fox is obligated to rectify.

In interviews, Ailes and other Fox executives often expound this philosophy, sometimes with bizarre results. Ailes once told the New York Times (10/7/96) that he and Fox executive John Moody had both noticed a pattern in the weekly newsmagazines: They often cover religion, “but it’s always a story that beats up on Jesus.” “They call him a cult figure of his time, some kind of crazy fool,” Ailes continued. “And it’s as if they go out and try to find evidence to trash him.” Moody added that two recent Time and Newsweek articles on Jesus “really bordered on the sacrilegious.”

But the core of Fox‘s critique is the notion that the mainstream media just don’t tell the conservative side of the story. This is the premise Fox executives start from when they defend their own network: If Fox appears conservative, they argue, it’s only because the country has grown so accustomed to the left-leaning media that a truly balanced network seems to lean right. “The reason you may believe it tips to the right is you’re stunned at seeing so many conservatives,” Ailes once told a reporter (Washington Post, 2/5/01).

But Ailes and his colleagues have trouble backing up these claims with actual facts. He’s fond of calling Bob Novak the only conservative on CNN–“that’s the only guy they hired that was to the right!” (Charlie Rose, 5/22/01) –but he ignores Tucker Carlson, Kate O’Beirne and Mary Matalin (who recently left for the White House), not to mention past conservative stars such as Lynne Cheney, Mona Charen, John Sununu and, of course, Pat Buchanan, perhaps the most right-wing figure in national politics and an 18-year veteran of Crossfire (minus the occasional hiatus to run for president).

Bill O’Reilly on Election Night 2010/Photo: FoxNewsInsider

According to Bill O’Reilly, Fox “gives voice to people who can’t get on other networks. When was the last time you saw pro-life people [on other networks] unless they shot somebody?” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/10/01). O’Reilly’s question is easily answered; in the last three years, the National Right to Life Committee’s spokespeople have appeared on CNN 21 times (compared with 16 appearances for their main counterpart, the National Abortion Rights Action League).

In a 1999 Washington Post profile (3/26/99), Ailes offered another example. He said he was particularly proud of a three-part series on education that Fox had recently aired, which reported that “many educators believe self-esteem teaching is harmful” to students. “The mainstream media will never cover that story,” Ailes told the Post. “I’ve seen 10,000 stories on education and I’ve never seen one that didn’t say the federal government needed to spend more money on education.”

But just weeks prior to Ailes’ interview, CNN‘s weekly Newsstand series (2/28/99) aired a glowing profile of an upstate New York business executive who had turned around a troubled inner-city elementary school “by bringing the lessons of the boardroom into the classroom.” CNN‘s report came complete with soundbites from a conservative education advocate (“the unions are a major impediment to education reform”) and lines from host Jeff Greenfield like, “Critics have said that for decades, the public education system has behaved like an entrenched monopoly with little or no incentive to improve its performance.” The piece would have warmed the heart of any conservative education reformer.

The difference between the two networks is that while such conservative-friendly fare airs on CNN some of the time, Fox has oriented its whole network around it. Contrary to what Ailes and other right-wing media critics say, the agenda of CNN and its fellow mainstream outlets is not liberal or conservative, but staunchly centrist. The perspectives they value most are those of the bipartisan establishment middle, the same views that make up the mainstream corporate consensus that media publishers and executives are themselves a part of. It’s politicians who stake out centrist, pro-business positions within their parties who win the adulation of the Washington press corps, like John McCain and Joe Lieberman during the 2000 campaign. Both parties are constantly urged by the media to “move to the center.”

Defenders of Fox might argue that its brand of conservative-tilted programming fills a void, since it represents a form of ideologically hard-edged news seldom seen in the centrist media. But the same point could be made on the other side of the spectrum: Just as conservative stories don’t always make it onto CNN, neither do stories that matter to the left. A left-wing version of Fox might run frequent updates on the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, the dangers of depleted uranium weapons or the benefits of single-payer health care. That would contrast sharply with CNN–but it wouldn’t justify calling CNN “right-wing” or “conservative.” Fox‘s “leftist” accusations are equally unfounded.

At about the same time that Fox was taking a deep interest in the David Horowitz ad controversy, the Boston Globe refused to run an ad criticizing the office supply company Staples for its use of non-recycled paper. Though the Globe is arguably a more important venue for debate than any number of college papers, the case was not reported by either Fox or CNN. Indeed, until a FAIR letter-writing campaign forced the Globe ombudsman to address the issue (6/11/01), only one publication in the Nexis news database reported it at all (Sacramento Bee, 4/12/01).

Fox is sometimes forced to juggle two identities–Republican and conservative–that are not always the same. A recent example was the standoff over the downed American spy plane in China. Following appearances on Special Report by conservatives William Kristol (4/9/01) and Fred Barnes (4/11/01), who were critical of Bush for his unexpectedly conciliatory handling of the crisis, Fox (4/13/01) was quick to run a slew of letters from outraged Republican viewers accusing the pundits of trying to “undermine a president of their own party.” They “never cut him a bit of slack,” one viewer wrote. “Who needs Dan Rather when you have Mr. Kristol to bring down our president?”

Fox‘s sensitivity to Republican complaints came into the open during the 2000 presidential campaign when Tony Snow was the target of a barrage of criticism from posters to the far-right website FreeRepublic.com, who accused him of being too negative about the Bush campaign in his columns and on Fox News Channel.

Snow responded to the Freepers, as the site’s conservative contributors call themselves, with a long and detailed apologia, highlighting every pro-Bush aspect of his work in excruciating detail. Discussing his syndicated conservative column, he wrote:

In response to a writer who was irate at a video clip showing a Bush gaffe, Snow replied: “Yes, we carried a Bush gaffe at the end. It was funny, not damaging to the candidate.”

And perhaps most tellingly, he described the strategy he had recently used on Fox News Sunday (9/10/00) to interview a pair of guests about the presidential campaign– the first an aide to Bill Clinton, the second the Republican governor of Pennsylvania:

In other words, Snow admits he was trying to put the Democratic guest on the defensive about Clinton–while goading the Republican into playing offense against Clinton. (The episode is a perfect example of Fox‘s notion of balance: attacking Democrats and liberals on substance while challenging Repub-licans and conservatives only on tactics.) In closing the memo, Snow wrote, “Parting thoughts: I made fun of the United Nations.” He concluded: “I have a hard time finding anything in that lineup that Freepers would consider treasonous.”

Some have suggested that Fox‘s conservative point of view and its Republican leanings render the network inherently unworthy as a news outlet. FAIR believes that view is misguided. The United States is unusual, perhaps even unique, in having a journalistic culture so fiercely wedded to the elusive notion of “objective” news (an idea of relatively recent historical vintage even in the U.S.). In Great Britain, papers like the conservative Times of London and the left-leaning Guardian deliver consistently excellent coverage while making no secret of their respective points of view. There’s nothing keeping American journalists from doing the same.

If anything, it is partly the disingenuous claim to objectivity that is corroding the integrity of the news business. American journalists claim to represent all political views with an open mind, yet in practice a narrow bipartisan centrism excludes dissenting points of view: No major newspaper editorial page opposed NAFTA; virtually all endorse U.S. airstrikes on Iraq; and single-payer health care proposals find almost no backers among them.

With the ascendance of Fox News Channel, we now have a national conservative TV network in addition to the established centrist outlets. But like the mainstream networks, Fox refuses to admit its political point of view. The result is a skewed center-to-right media spectrum made worse by the refusal to acknowledge any tilt at all.

Fox could potentially represent a valuable contribution to the journalistic mix if it admitted it had a conservative point of view, if it beefed up its hard news and investigative coverage (and cut back on the tabloid sensationalism), and if there were an openly left-leaning TV news channel capable of balancing both Fox‘s conservatism and CNN‘s centrism.

None of these three things appears likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

SIDEBAR: Toeing the Line on Special Report

For some, the free market is a religion. That seems true for Fox News reporter Brit Hume, who has made no secret of what he thinks about the idea of caps on wholesale electricity prices in California. Hume commented on Fox (5/29/01) that “no one with an economics degree that I know” would support price caps for California.

In fact, 10 prominent mainstream economists wrote a letter to George W. Bush endorsing the idea. “We are mindful of the potential dangers of applying a simple price cap,” they wrote (New York Times, 5/30/01). “But California’s electricity markets are not characterized by effective competition.” The letter added that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “failure to act now will have dire consequences for the state of California.” Paul Krugman, one of the country’s most prominent economists, had by that point written six columns in the New York Times calling for energy price caps.

But on Fox, laissez-faire orthodoxy was enforced. When Jeff Birnbaum, Washington bureau chief of Fortune magazine and a frequent guest on Special Report with Brit Hume, suggested (5/29/01) that price caps “might help the blackouts through this summer,” this view was rejected by both of the other panelists, Morton Kondracke and Bill Kristol. Hume, acting as moderator, derided Birnbaum for his deviation: “Did you ever have any economics in college? . . . There are books . . . that could help you.”

A day later (5/30/01), Birnbaum came on the show to deliver what can only be described as a recantation: “I consulted my Economics 101, and I made a mistake last night when I spoke,” he said. “Price caps are definitely the wrong economic answer. It could lead to a spreading energy gap and problem beyond California’s borders and a long-term energy problem that would clearly be a serious political and substantive problem for the Bush administration.”

“No apology required,” was Hume’s response. But one got the definite impression that toeing the ideological line is required on Special Report.

–Peter Hart

SIDEBAR:An Obsession That Only Goes So Far

David Horowitz giving a lecture titled: “Intellectual Terrorism: The Left’s War on Free Speech” at UCLA/Photo: Marc Langsam

One of Fox News Channel‘s favorite recent stories involved a newspaper ad that claimed African-Americans benefited from slavery, and owed America for the favor. The ad’s author, conservative activist David Horowitz, claimed to be a victim of censorship and “political correctness” because a number of college newspapers refused to publish his ad, which argued against the idea of slavery reparations. Fox saw this as a major issue: Horowitz and his ad were mentioned at least 21 times on the network between March 6 and April 3.

On Fox News Sunday (3/25/01), the network’s Sunday-morning equivalent of Meet the Press, interviews with Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Sen. Joseph Lieberman were incongruously followed by a segment featuring a largely unknown reparations activist and David Horowitz, in a Crossfire-style debate about Horowitz’s rejected ad.

On Special Report with Brit Hume, the Horowitz ad became the subject of at least nine “Grapevine” items in less than a month. The ad was also the subject of Hume’s lead question to conservative columnist John Leo when he appeared for a one-on-one interview (3/23/01). Afterward, Hume put the Horowitz issue to the show’s all-star panel of pundits; all three pundits agreed that campus liberals were squelching debate. Mara Liasson argued that reparations are “pretty much of a non-issue” and Horowitz’s ad was not “nearly as bad as the kind of hate speech you hear about in other cases,” while Mort Kondracke explained that “there’s nothing racist in this.”

On Hannity & Colmes (3/26/01), the issue was: “Has David Horowitz’s freedom of speech become a victim of political correctness?” On The O’Reilly Factor (3/6/01), it was Horowitz and host Bill O’Reilly interrogating a reparations activist from Mobile, Alabama. (“That’s my tax money!” O’Reilly exclaimed.) The Edge with Paula Zahn brought Horowitz on three times within a month to discuss the same subject.

But there was one twist to the Horowitz story that Fox couldn’t be bothered to report. When Horowitz’s ad was offered to the Daily Princetonian in April, the paper ran it–along with an editorial (4/4/01) describing its ideas as racist and promising to donate the ad’s proceeds to the local chapter of the Urban League. Horowitz, the free-speech crusader, refused to pay his bill unless the paper’s editors publicly apologized for their hurtful words: “Its slanders contribute to the atmosphere of intolerance and hate towards conservatives,” a statement from his office read.

Suddenly Fox lost interest in the Horowitz case. After a month of running twice-weekly updates about college papers that were refusing the ad, Special Report with Brit Hume ignored the Princeton episode. None of the network’s major shows transcribed in the Nexis database reported Horowitz’s tiff with the paper. No editor from the Princetonian was invited on The O’Reilly Factor to debate whether or not Horowitz was being a hypocrite. When their favorite free-speech martyr suddenly looked like a censor, it was a story Fox just didn’t want to pursue.

–Seth Ackerman

See also the other two articles in FAIR’s special report onFox:

Fox‘s Slanted Sources: Conservatives, Republicans far outnumber others– a comparison of Special Report with Brit Hume with CNN‘s Wolf Blitzer Reports.

Bill O’Reilly’s Sheer O’Reillyness: Don’t call him conservative– but he is.

I am pleased to introduce to Big Picture readers Bruce Bartlett, who worked for Congressmen Ron Paul and Jack Kemp, and in the Office of Policy Development in the Reagan White House, and at the Treasury Department for George H.W. Bush. He is now a political independent. Enjoy.

~~~~

 

How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics
Bruce Bartlett

 

The creation of Fox News in 1996 was an event of deep, yet unappreciated, political and historical importance. For the first time, there was a news source available virtually everywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a conservative tilt. Finally, conservatives did not have to seek out bits of news favorable to their point of view in liberal publications or in small magazines and newsletters. Like someone dying of thirst in the desert, conservatives drank heavily from the Fox waters. Soon, it became the dominant – and in many cases, virtually the only – major news source for millions of Americans. This has had profound political implications that are only starting to be appreciated. Indeed, it can almost be called self-brainwashing – many conservatives now refuse to even listen to any news or opinion not vetted through Fox, and to believe whatever appears on it as the gospel truth.

When Fox News went on the air in 1996, it advertised itself as “fair and balanced,” which implied that its competitors were neither. At the time, there was unquestionably a liberal bias in the major media; not a huge one, but it was pretty consistent across the three major networks, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and the rest of the elite media. As Dartmouth communications professor Jim Kuypers put it in a 2002 study, “There is a demonstrable liberal bias to the mainstream press in America.”[1]

Surveys regularly showed that very few reporters were Republicans; the bulk said they were independents, with a large percentage belonging to the Democratic Party.[2] Journalists argued that their professionalism kept bias out of their reporting and that, insofar as there was apparent bias, it was due to the nature of the news itself and the discipline of fact-based reportage. But even if the reporting itself was free of bias, there is no question that the issues that most interested reporters tended to be ones more likely to be liberal in nature than conservative. As the late journalist Michael Kelly once explained, “What journalists choose and how journalists frame inescapably arises out of what journalists believe. And, as a group, journalists believe in liberalism and in electing Democrats.”[3] In any event, the view that the media was generally liberal was widespread among the public.[4]

Liberal media Dominance

Liberal media dominance arose from several factors. One was simply the fact that liberal views were dominant in the country from the Great Depression through the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The conservative view on civil rights, that racial segregation and discrimination were not problems justifying federal contravention of states’ rights, was deemed to be illegitimate among the vast bulk of Americans after being exposed to police brutality against civil rights demonstrators and details about the reality of racism. The Vietnam War and Watergate made the media’s liberal bias even more pronounced even as the country had started to move to the right in many ways.

Another factor is that big cities, where the major newspapers have always been located, tend to be more liberal than small towns and rural areas. This is especially true for New York and Los Angeles, where the major networks and media companies are based. In part, big city liberalism is just a function of their nature, but also because liberally-minded people gravitate there from the more conservative countryside. This has been true forever.

It should be added that liberally-minded people have long tended to gravitate as well to journalism, just as conservatives are attracted to careers in the military, law enforcement and business. Newspapers have long complained that the liberalism of their reporters was less intentional than due to the lack of conservatives getting degrees in journalism and seeking careers as reporters.

A final factor contributing to liberal bias is that newspaper consolidation tended to eliminate ideological competition in the industry. As a competitive business, politics and ideology were ways in which newspapers differentiated their product and attracted readers wanting to read news and commentary friendly to their point of view. Thus in any 2-newspaper town, one would generally be conservative if only for competitive advantage.[5] For historical reasons, the afternoon paper was usually the conservative one. But as growing traffic congestion made it harder and harder to deliver afternoon papers in a timely manner and work and lifestyle changes reduced demand for them, afternoon papers began to die out. This gave the morning paper, which was usually the more liberal, a dominant position in many markets.

The loss of competition from the right reinforced the liberalism in already liberal newsrooms. As former Washington Post editor Richard Harwood noted in the mid-1990s, after the first big wave of media consolidation:

One of the most interesting aspects of today’s premier news corporations – the ones with the rich editors, officers and shareholders – is the counterintuitive fact that almost without exception they have encouraged or acquiesced in the leftward drift of their newspapers over the past quarter-century.[6]

And even in cases where the dominant morning paper was the conservative one, loss of competition tended to push it toward the left; that is, leftward toward the center from a position on the right. The reason is that monopoly newspapers often sought to be all things to all people and therefore as inoffensive as possible. The Gannett chain was known for shaving the rough political edges off all the papers it acquired, giving them a mushy liberal sameness in every market.

Of course, there was demand for conservative media. But prior to the expansion of cable television and the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, there was simply no easy way to satisfy it. There were only three networks that broadcast just half an hour of news each day, and they tended to take their cues from the major newspapers, adding only video to more or less the same reporting one got in the papers. Magazines filled the gap to some extent and competition continued to provide conservative alternatives. Among the news weeklies, Newsweek tended to be liberal, Time was centrist, and U.S. News and World Report was moderately conservative. One could subscribe to explicitly conservative publications such as National Review and Human Events, as well as the liberal New Republic and left-wing Nation magazines. But the lead time for printing and distributing magazines, which tended to be monthlies or semimonthlies, made them unsatisfying for those craving immediate news with a political or ideological edge.

Radio and television were also subject to the “fairness doctrine,” which said that equal time needed to be provided whenever a political opinion was expressed.[7] This tended to eliminate the expression of any opinions at all unless they were so close to the conventional wisdom it was difficult to take issue with them.[8] While the fairness doctrine, which was a Federal Communications Commission regulation, didn’t apply to print media, it nevertheless had a spillover effect that reinforced the moderate liberalism of most newspapers.

The Rise of Talk Radio

In August 1987, under pressure from Ronald Reagan’s drive for deregulation, the FCC abolished the fairness doctrine. A local radio broadcaster in Sacramento, California, named Rush Limbaugh quickly recognized the opportunity this afforded. A strong conservative, he realized that he could now do an entire show consisting of nothing but controversial opinions, without the burden of offering equal time to other views. His program went national in 1988, based at WABC in New York City, which had a signal powerful enough to reach 200 miles beyond Manhattan.

Limbaugh’s move was fortuitous. At the exact moment he launched his show, the AM band on the radio dial was essentially dying. Since the late 1960s, music programming and listeners had deserted AM radio in droves. The FM dial provided a better signal and could broadcast in stereo, which became increasingly important as musical styles changed. Unable to compete by broadcasting music, AM stations searched for alternative programming. Talk proved to be very viable. Soon there were talkers across the AM dial, many expressing a conservative viewpoint.[9]

There are many reasons why conservative talk radio worked so well.[10] One is that conservatives finally had a news source that fed their philosophy. Another is that conservatives viewed themselves as outsiders and were attracted not only to the philosophy of conservative talk radio, but its tone and articulation of outrage toward liberals that many listeners themselves had long felt.[11]

In his early years, much of Limbaugh’s program, which ran 3 hours a day, consisted of news that conservatives were unable to read in their local paper or hear on television.[12] Conservatives in Congress, at think tanks and other activists saw there was now an outlet for their legislation and studies and eagerly provided them to Limbaugh, who gave them priceless publicity to a highly receptive audience.

As time went by, Limbaugh had many imitators, but no real competitors. For all his faults, he has a great voice and a genuine knack for radio broadcasting; his venture into television never worked. Limbaugh is also entertaining, a fact that even his critics acknowledge.[13] Eventually, many local radio stations decided it was cheaper to buy Limbaugh’s syndicated show rather than pay a local talker. His broadcast reach broadened and his power grew.

Among Limbaugh’s friends and admirers was Roger Ailes, a Republican political consultant and producer who had long dreamed of a conservative television network. In 1970, he worked with the Nixon White House to bring such a network into being.[14] The idea didn’t go anywhere, but Ailes continued to work on it, convincing beer baron Joseph Coors to bankroll a conservative news service called TVN in the mid-1970s. That effort failed as well, but Ailes learned a lot about how to make a conservative network succeed.[15] Finally, in the mid-1990s, he convinced Australian newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch to let him build the news network Ailes had always dreamed of.

The Origins of Fox News

Ailes recruited conservative broadcasters wherever he could find them, sometimes on the fringes of the industry; one of his stars, Bill O’Reilly, got his start doing gossip for “Inside Edition,” a syndicated tabloid-style program. According to a Fox producer, all the top people at Fox were conservative or did a good job of playing the part:

The ideology at Fox was strictly a top-down affair. Roger [Ailes] was a conservative. All of his deputies were conservatives. Most of the hosts were conservatives, or at least were good at pretending to be while on television, if they knew what was good for them….The VPs, as near as I could tell, were all staunch conservatives, too. Whether by coincidence or design, Roger had effectively surrounded himself with fellow travelers.[16]

In its early years, Fox only needed to be in the objective center to be to the right of the other major networks, because they tilted to the left.[17] But Fox viewers were very right-wing from the start.[18] Numerous surveys show that Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly favor Fox in their news viewing. A 2010 Pew survey found that Republicans and conservatives favored Fox over all other news sources except Rush Limbaugh. The survey also revealed that Fox had fewer well-educated (college graduate) and well-to-do ($75,000+/year income) viewers than other news sources.[19] A 2015 PPP poll found that for 56 percent of Republicans, Fox was their most trusted news source.

Table 1

Most Trusted Media Outlet, 2015

(percent)

Most Trusted OutletRepublicansDemocrats
ABC1014
CBS811
CNN1021
Comedy Central06
Fox5611
MSNBC26
NBC26
PBS718
Other67

Source: Public Policy Polling[20]

 

 

 

 

 

Table 2

Audience Profiles: Party and Ideology

(percent)

Percent of each audience who areRepublicanDemocratIndependent
Rush Limbaugh631023
Sean Hannity62629
O’Reilly Factor541032
Glenn Beck53933
Fox News442128
Wall Street Journal362241
USA Today332635
News blogs283434
Daily paper283433
Local TV news253532
TOTAL253334
Sunday shows243732
Network evening243534
Morning shows234330
News magazines224034
CNN174731
MSNBC145330
Daily Show144138
NPR144041
Colbert Report143944
Hardball135129
Rachel Maddow125034
New York Times94939
Countdown36029

Source: Pew Research[21]

A 2014 poll showed that Fox’s popularity among Republicans has only grown, especially among seniors.[22] Fox has a very old viewership; according to Nielsen, its median viewer is 68 years old – great for ratings, but bad for advertising.[23] Companies tend to shun programs with an older demographic because seniors are assumed to be set in their ways and unlikely to be swayed by advertising to buy different products from those they are already using.[24]

Studies show that Fox viewers have a distinct set of political attitudes and voting patterns that are as much anti-liberal as they are conservative. Indeed, they have a different perception of political reality than those of all other television news viewers.[25] As media critic Michael Wolff put it early in the Fox era:

Fox is not really about politics….Rather, it’s about having a chip on your shoulder; it’s about us versus them, insiders versus outsiders, phonies versus non-phonies, and, in a clever piece of postmodernism, established media against insurgent media.[26]

Fox Moves Rightward

In the George W. Bush years, however, and especially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, there was a noticeable shift in tone at Fox. Rather than being satisfied with a position relatively to the right of the other news networks, it began objectively tilting well to the right of center. The shift was immediately noticed by media observers.[27] Whether driven by politics and ideology or simply by ratings, the shift proved highly successful.[28] As Harvard press analyst Alex Jones observed:

In a conservative time, a time of war, Fox viewers like their news from a strong American perspective, with flags rippling in graphics and a pugnacity toward the nation’s critics – the people John Gibson, host of Fox’s nightly ”Big Story,” referred to last week as the peanut gallery. Such blunt speaking is a point of pride at Fox, which, for example, reports on “’homicide bombers”’ in Israel, rather than “suicide bombers.”[29]

Economists and political scientists began studying the “Fox News Effect,” in which the introduction of Fox News on a cable system had a significant impact on voting for Republican candidates in that area.[30] It also caused both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to increase their support for Republican policies.[31]

Buoyed by its success as an explicitly conservative network, it appears that right-wing bias, including inaccurate reporting, became commonplace on Fox. For example:

  • A study of network coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2005 found that Fox was alone in supporting the Bush administration during a period when the wars were going badly by any objective standard. It concluded that “scholars should consider Fox as alternative, rather than mainstream, media.”[32]
  • Fox instructed its on-air talent to avoid using the term “public option” when discussing health reform and are required to say that global warming is merely a theory “based on data that critics have called into question.”[33]
  • A 2010 study found that Fox actively spread rumors and inaccurate information about a proposed mosque planned for lower Manhattan.[34]
  • A 2012 study found that Fox takes a dismissive tone toward climate change and interviews a much larger number of doubters than believers. Fox viewers are much more likely to be skeptical of global warming.[35] A 2014 study found that 72 percent of references to climate change on Fox in 2013 were misleading.[36]
  • Fox consistently downplays gun violence.[37]

 

Fox’s bias is so bad that even some conservatives can’t stomach it. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, has said, “There are certain shows on Fox I can’t watch. Because they’re totally not fair and totally not balanced.”[38]

And Fox’s slipshod handling of facts was even acknowledged by Newt Gingrich during the 2012 campaign. “One of the real changes that comes when you start running for President – as opposed to being an analyst on Fox – is I have to actually know what I’m talking about,” he said. “It’s a severe limitation,” Gingrich added.[39]

It is widely known among public relations professionals that Fox has an “enemies list” of people who are not permitted to be interviewed on the network. All proposed guests are vetted by senior executives and banned if they have criticized Fox or hold views likely to rile its conservative viewers. Media reporter Jim Romenesko has documented many cases of Fox blacklisting.[40] I know for a fact that I am banned from Fox and blogger Andrew Sullivan and others have told me that they are, too. When I mentioned this publicly once, a Washington Post reporter looked into it and confirmed that I am indeed blacklisted.[41] Until my book critical of George W. Bush was published, I appeared on Fox regularly.

Fox Viewers Misinformed

A number of surveys have found Fox views to be less well informed and more likely to have factually untrue beliefs than those who receive their news from mainstream sources. A 2003 University of Maryland study compiled a list of 9 misperceptions about the Iraq war, such as there being a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda and the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, neither of which were true, and asked people which of these misperceptions they believed. Fox viewers were more likely to be misinformed than those getting their news elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

Table 3

Iraq Misperceptions Based on Primary News Source, 2003

StatementFoxCBSNBCCNNABCPrint MediaPBS/NPR
Is it your impression that the US has or has not found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization? Percent incorrectly saying yes. 

67

 

56

 

49

 

48

 

45

 

40

 

16

Since the war with Iraq ended, is it your impression that the US has or has not found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? Percent incorrectly saying yes.33232020191711

Source: Program on International Policy Attitudes[42]

A follow-up study in 2010 questioned people about misperceptions related to domestic issues. Again, Fox viewers were more likely to be misinformed and hold incorrect views than those primarily getting their information elsewhere. As the study found:

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that:

  • most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (8 points more likely)
  • most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)
  • the economy is getting worse (26 points)
  • most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)
  • the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)
  • their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)
  • the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
  • when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)
  • and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)

 

These effects increased incrementally with increasing levels of exposure and all were statistically significant. The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it – though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.[43]

A 2011 survey found that Fox viewers were much more likely to be ill-informed about the Affordable Care Act than those of CNN or MSNBC. People were asked 10 questions about the legislation. Fox viewers tended to get more of them wrong.

Table 4

Statements About the Health Law

(percent)

Information sourceLow scorers0-4 correctModerate scorers5-6 correctHigh scorers7-10 correct
CNN273935
Fox364025
MSNBC243639

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation[44]

Another 2011 survey by the Public Religion Institute found that Fox viewers were more likely to believe that whites are as discriminated against as members of minority groups and to hold silly and bigoted views toward Muslims.

Table 5

Discrimination Against Whites Now as Big a

Problem as Minority Group Discrimination

(percent)

GroupAgreeDisagree
Most Trust Public Television2375
Blacks2968
Hispanics3066
Democrats3662
Millennials (18-29)4454
Independents4552
General Public4651
Seniors (65+)5146
Whites5146
Republicans6040
Tea Party6336
Most Trust Fox News6831

Source: Public Religion Institute[45]

Table 6

Attitudes Toward American Muslims by Trusted Media Source

(percent)

StatementFoxBroadcast NewsCNNMSNBCPBSGeneral Public
Muslims want to establish Sha’ria law.522820292330
American Muslims NOT important part of U.S. religious community.603541362943
Values of Islam are at odds with American values.684537393747

Source: Public Religion Institute[46]

Also in 2011, Farleigh Dickinson University surveyed New Jersey residents on their knowledge of various foreign and domestic issues in the news. It found that Fox viewers were consistently more likely to have an incorrect understanding than those getting their news elsewhere. As the study found:

People who watch Fox News, the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks, are 18-points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those who watch no news at all (after controlling for other news sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors). Fox News watchers are also 6-points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their government than those who watch no news.

“Because of the controls for partisanship, we know these results are not just driven by Republicans or other groups being more likely to watch Fox News,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and an analyst for the PublicMind Poll. “Rather, the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don’t watch any news at all.”[47]

A follow-up poll in 2012 asked New Jersey residents 4 questions about domestic and foreign policy issues in the news. Again, Fox viewers were more likely to answer incorrectly. Said the report:

The study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly. The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly; viewers of Sunday morning talk shows fare similarly well. And people watching only “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” could answer about 1.42 questions correctly.[48]

A 2015 Farleigh Dickinson national poll again found that Republicans and Fox viewers were more likely to be misinformed about factual matters relating to public policy such as the false beliefs that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Barack Obama is not a citizen of the United States.

Table 7

American Forces Found an Active Weapons of Mass Destruction Program In Iraq

(percent)

Definitely trueProbably trueProbably not trueDefinitely not trueDon’t know/refused
Party
Republicans143722189
Democrats82424387
Independents838212112
Total1131232610
Primary news source
CNN122923288
Fox183426158
MSNBC21224557
Daily Show112037285

Source: Farleigh Dickinson University[49]

 

 

 

 

Table 8

President Obama Is Not Legally a Citizen of the United States

(percent)

Definitely trueProbably trueProbably not trueDefinitely not trueDon’t know/refused
Party
Republicans102427309
Democrats3414754
Independents616204612
Total61321518
Primary news source
CNN4920625
Fox1119303010
MSNBC255817
Daily Show51111721

Source: Farleigh Dickinson University[50]

Fox Peddles Propaganda

A number of Fox competitors and others have charged that Fox long ago ceased being anything remotely akin to an objective news source and now functions basically as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party.

  • CNN president Jeff Zucker told the Television Critics Association in 2014, “The Republican Party is being run out of News Corp. headquarters masquerading as a cable news channel.”[51]
  • Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein: “It’s a real mistake to call Fox a conservative channel. It’s not. It’s a partisan channel….To begin with, bluntly, Fox is part of the Republican Party. American political parties are made up of both formal organizations (such as the RNC) and informal networks. Fox News Channel, then, is properly understood as part of the expanded Republican Party.”[52]
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Ricks: “I think the emphasis on Benghazi [on Fox] has been extremely political, partly because Fox is operating as the wing of the Republican Party.”[53]
  • Former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines: “For the first time since the yellow journalism of a century ago, the United States has a major news organization devoted to the promotion of one political party.”[54]

In the wake of a rare Fox apology for the extreme anti-Muslim views of one of its contributors, which were widely ridiculed in the European press, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald said of the news channel:

In America, it has come to seem normal that a major news organization functions as the propaganda arm of an extremist political ideology, that it spews a constant stream of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, paranoia and manufactured outrage, and that it does so with brazen disregard for what is factual, what is right, what is fair, what is balanced — virtues that are supposed to be the sine qua non of anything calling itself a newsroom.[55]

Although this arrangement unquestionably aids Republicans in winning elections and votes in Congress, it is not without its downsides. One is that Fox now exercises such powerful control over the GOP that it has become the party’s kingmaker in presidential primaries.[56] Indeed, during the 2012 election cycle, a number of aspirants for the Republican nomination had been paid Fox commentators, including Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.[57] And woe to the Republican who runs afoul of Fox’s top brass or ignores their advice, as Mitt Romney did on one occasion in 2012.[58] Fox is now so important in GOP primaries that candidates must put aside pressing campaign concerns when summoned to a Fox interview, where any error is magnified within the Republican bubble.[59]

Gingrich complained that Fox opted in favor of Mitt Romney early on. “I think Fox has been for Romney all the way through,” Gingrich said behind closed doors in April 2012. “In our experience, Callista [Newt’s wife] and I both believe CNN is less biased than Fox this year. We are more likely to get neutral coverage out of CNN than we are of Fox, and we’re more likely to get distortion out of Fox. That’s just a fact.”[60]

In 2015, however, Romney found himself on the wrong side of the Fox News primary, when Rupert Murdoch turned thumbs down on his candidacy. As the New York Times reported, “It is hard to recall a display of animus as unsubtle as the one Mr. Murdoch and corners of his media empire have unleashed on Mr. Romney in the past few weeks as he has tried to build support for a third presidential run.”[61] Romney soon dropped out of the 2016 race.

Another problem is that Republican voters get so much of their news from Fox, which cheerleads whatever their candidates are doing or saying, that they suffer from wishful thinking and fail to see that they may not be doing as well as they imagine, or that their ideas are not connecting outside the narrow party base. As a recent academic study found:

Exposure to programs featured on Fox News, such as those hosted by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, resulted in a greater wishful thinking effect by Romney supporters. In other words, while Romney supporters were substantially more likely to predict their candidate would win the 2012 presidential election, watching Fox News programming exacerbated this effect.[62]

It may be that some Republican Fox viewers became complacent and didn’t work as hard as they might if they had been more aware of how badly Romney was doing in the final days of the campaign.

Conservative Blowback

Consequently, some political observers now question whether Fox is a net plus or a net minus for Republican presidential candidates. As Columbia University political scientist Lincoln Mitchell put it after Romney’s loss:

Fox has now become a problem for the Republican Party because it keeps a far right base mobilized and angry, making it hard for the party to move to the center or increase its appeal, as it must do to remain electorally competitive….One of the reasons Mitt Romney was so unable to pivot back to the center was due to the drumbeat at Fox, which contributed to forcing him to the right during the primary season. Even after the primary season, when Fox became a big supporter for Romney, the rift between official editorial position and the political feelings of Fox viewers and hosts was clear.[63]

Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum perhaps put the complicated, double-edged relationship between Fox and the GOP best when he said, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”[64]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Jim A. Kuypers, Press Bias and Politics (NY: Praeger, 2002): 202. Arguably, the generally positive coverage of Bill Clinton in the major media during the Monica Lewinsky scandal is evidence of liberal bias. See Dhavan V. Shah et al., “News Framing and Cueing of Issue Regimes,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 66:3 (September 2002): 339-70.

[2] William Glaberson, “More Reporters Leaning Democratic, Study Says,” New York Times (November 18, 1992).

[3] Michael Kelly, “A Press Obsession With the Death Penalty,” Washington Post (June 28, 2000).

[4] “Are the News Media Too Liberal?” Gallup Poll (October 8, 2003); “Republicans Remain Deeply Distrustful of News Media,” Gallup Poll (October 8, 2007).

[5] Numerous studies have shown political slant to be a business decision more than one driven by the ideology of a newspaper’s owner. See Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, “What Drives Media Slant? Evidence from U.S. Daily Newspapers,” Econometrica, 78:1 (January 2010): 35-71; Sendhil Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer, “The Market for News,” American Economic Review, 95:4 (September 2005): 1031-53.

[6] Richard Harwood, “When Downsizing Hits the Newsroom (Cont’d),” Washington Post (April 17, 1996).

[7] On the history and operation of the fairness doctrine, see Thomas G. Krattenmaker and L.A. Powe Jr., “The Fairness Doctrine Today: A Constitutional Curiosity and An Impossible Dream,” Duke Law Journal, 1985:1 (February 1985): 151-76.

[8] Thomas W. Hazlett and David W. Sosa, “Was the Fairness Doctrine a ‘Chilling Effect’? Evidence from the Postderegulation Radio Market,” Journal of Legal Studies, 26:1 (January 1997): 279-301.

[9] Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, “Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio,” PS: Political Science & Politics, 44:4 (October 2011): 762-67.

[10] William G. Mayer, “Why Talk Radio Is Conservative,” The Public Interest (Summer 2004): 86-103.

[11] Sarah Sobieraj, Jeffrey M. Berry and Amy Connors, “Outrageous Political Opinion and the Political Anxiety in the US,” Poetics, 41:5 (October 2013): 407-32; Sarah Sobieraj and John M. Berry, “From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio, and Cable News,” Political Communication, 28:1 (2011): 19-41.

[12] Stephan Earl Bennett, “Who Listens to Rush Limbaugh’s Radio Program and the Relationship Between Listening to Limbaugh and Knowledge of Public Affairs, 1994-2006,” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 16:1 (May 2009): 66-82.

[13] Lewis Grossberger, “The Rush Hours,” New York Times (December 16, 1990).

[14] John Cook, “Roger Ailes’ Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News,” Gawker (June 30, 2011). This report is based on documents obtained from the Nixon Library.

[15] Tim Dickinson, “How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory,” Rolling Stone (May 25, 2011).

[16] Joe Muto, An Atheist in the Foxhole (NY: Dutton, 2013): 78-79.

[17] Tim Groeling, “Who’s the Fairest of them All? An Empirical Test for Partisan Bias on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 38:4 (December 2008): 631-57; Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, “A Measure of Media Bias,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 120:4 (November 2005): 1191-1237; Jeffrey N. Weatherly et al., “Perceptions of Political Bias in the Headlines of Two Major News Organizations,” International Journal of Press/Politics, 12:2 (April 2007): 91-104.

[18] Jonathan S. Morris, “The Fox News Factor,” International Journal of Press/Politics, 10:3 (Summer 2005): 56-79; Shanto Iyengar and Kyu S. Hahn, “Red Media, Blue Media: Evidence of Ideological Selectivity in Media Use,” Journal of Communication, 59:1 (March 2009): 19-39.

[19] “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” Pew Research (September 12, 2010). Note: Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck were all on Fox at the time.

[20] “Americans Closely Divided on Brian Williams,” Public Policy Polling (February 26, 2015).

[21] “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” Pew Research (September 12, 2010): 56. Note: The Daily Show and the Colbert Report are comedy shows, not straight news.

[22]Ibid.

[23] Frank Rich, “Stop Beating a Dead Fox,” New York (January 26, 2014); Bill Carter, “Fox Viewers May Be Graying, But Their Passion Still Pays,” New York Times (July 23, 2013).

[24] Isabelle Szmigin and Marylyn Carrigan, “Learning to Love the Older Consumer,” Journal of Consumer Behavior, 1:1 (June 2001): 22-34.

[25] Jonathan S. Morris, “Slanted Objectivity? Perceived Media Bias, Cable News Exposure, and Political Attitudes,” Social Science Quarterly, 88:3 (September 2007): 707-28.

[26] Michael Wolff, “One Nation Under Fox,” New York (December 9, 2002): 22.

[27] Jim Rutenberg, “Fox Portrays a War of Good and Evil, and Many Applaud,” New York Times (December 3, 2001).

[28] On how 9/11 increased support for Republicans, see Mark J. Landau et al., “Deliver Us from Evil: The Effects of Mortality Salience and Reminders of 9/11 on Support for President George W. Bush,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30:9 (September 2004): 1136-50.

[29] Alex S. Jones, “Fox News Moves from the Margins to the Mainstream,” New York Times (December 1, 2002).

[30] Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan, “The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122:3 (August 2007): 1187-1234; Daniel J. Hopkins and Jonathan McDonald Ladd, “The Consequences of Broader Media Choice: Evidence from the Expansion of Fox News,” Social Science Research Network (December 11, 2013); Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, “Bias in Cable News: Real Effects and Polarization,” NBER Working Paper No. 20798 (December 2014).

[31] Kevin Arceneaux et al., “The Influence of News Media on Political Elites: Investigating Strategic Responsiveness in Congress,” American Journal of Political Science, forthcoming; Joshua D. Clinton and Ted Enamorado, “The National News Media’s Effect on Congress: How Fox News Affected Elites in Congress,” Journal of Politics, 76:4 (October 2014): 928-43.

[32] Sean Aday, “Chasing the Bad News: An Analysis of 2005 Iraq and Afghanistan War Coverage on NBC and Fox News Channel,” Journal of Communication, 60:1 (March 2010): 144-64.

[33] “Fox’s Unbalancing Act,” Los Angeles Times (December 17, 2010).

[34] Erik Nisbet and Kelly Garrett, “Fox News Contributes to Spread of Rumors About Proposed NYC Mosque,” Ohio State University (October 14, 2010).

[35] Lauren Feldman et al., “Climate on Cable: The Nature and Impact of Global Warming Coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC,” International Journal of Press/Politics, 17:1 (January 2012): 3-31. See also Jon A. Krosnick and Bo MacInnis, “Frequent Viewers of Fox News Are Less Likely to Accept Scientists’ Views of Global Warming,” Stanford University (December 2010).

[36] “Science or Spin?: Assessing the Accuracy of Cable News Coverage of Climate Science,” Union of Concerned Scientists (April 2014). This was actually an improvement over 2011, when 93 percent of Fox references to climate change were found to be misleading: “Got Science? Not at News Corporation,” Union of Concerned Scientists (September 2012).

[37] Brian Stetler, “At Fox News, Less Attention Paid to Gun Debate Than Elsewhere,” New York Times (April 19, 2013).

[38] Quoted in “Here’s One Republican Senator Who Isn’t Exactly a Fan of Fox News,” Huffington Post (August 15, 2014).

[39] “Newt Gingrich on Fox News: I Have to ‘Know What I’m Talking About” Now that I’m Not on Network,” Huffington Post (November 30, 2011).

[40] “Dealing with the Fox News PR Machine,” JimRomenesko.com (January 19, 2012).

[41] Greg Sargent, “Publicist Confirms It: Fox News Banned Book Critical of George W. Bush,” Washington Post (November 28, 2012).

[42] “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War,” Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland (October 2, 2003). See also Steven Kull, Clay Ramsay and Evan Lewis, “Misperceptions, the Media, and the Iraq War,” Political Science Quarterly, 118:4 (Winter 2003): 569-98.

[43] “Misinformation and the 2010 Election,” University of Maryland, Program on International Policy Attitudes (December 10, 2010): 20.

[44] “Pop Quiz: Assessing Americans’ Familiarity with the Health Care Law,” Kaiser Family Foundation (February 2011).

[45] Robert P. Jones et al., “What It Means To Be An American,” Public Religion Institute (September 6, 2011): 9.

[46]Ibid., 19.

[47] “Some News Leaves People Knowing Less,” Farleigh Dickinson University (November 21, 2011).

[48] “What You Know Depends on What You Watch: Current Events Knowledge Across Popular News Sources,” Farleigh Dickinson University (May 3, 2012). Note: the Daily Show is a satirical program, not straight news.

[49] “Ignorance, Partisanship Drive False Beliefs About Obama, Iraq,” Farleigh Dickinson University (January 7, 2015).

[50]Ibid.

[51] Quoted on TV Guide’s twitter feed (January 10, 2014).

[52] Jonathan Bernstein, “Understanding Fox News,” The New Republic (October 27, 2010).

[53] Quoted in “Thomas Ricks Accuses Fox News of ‘Operating as a Wing of the Republican Party,’” Huffington Post (November 27, 2012).

[54] Howell Raines, “Why Don’t Honest Journalists Take on Roger Ailes and Fox News?” Washington Post (March 14, 2010).

[55] Leonard Pitts Jr., “Fox Faux News Forces Rare Apology,” Miami Herald (January 24, 2015).

[56] Howard Fineman, “Fox News’ Roger Ailes Is the Real GOP Kingmaker,” Newsweek (January 14, 2010); Paul Farhi, “Despite Kingmaking Expectations, Fox News Seems Neutral Among GOP Field,” Washington Post (December 30, 2011); Bob Woodward, “Fox Chief Proposed Patraeus Campaign,” Washington Post (December 4, 2012).

[57] Jonathan Martin and Keach Hagey, “Fox Primary: Complicated, Contractual,” Politico (September 27, 2010).

[58] Jeremy Peters, “Shots By Murdoch at Romney Play Out to Conservative Core,” New York Times (July 6, 2012).

[59] Alessandra Stanley, “The Republican Primary Campaign in Iowa Is Right at Home on Fox News,” New York Times (December 10, 2011).

[60] Quoted in Scott Conroy, “Gingrich Unloads on Fox News in Private Meeting,” Real Clear Politics (April 12, 2012).

[61] Amy Chozick and Michael Barbaro, “Again for Murdoch, Romney Can Do No Right,” New York Times (January 27, 2015).

[62] Barry A. Hollander, “The Surprised Loser: The Role of Electoral Expectations and News Media Exposure in Satisfaction with Democracy,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 91:4 (December 2014): 651-68.

[63] Lincoln Mitchell, “Is Fox Even Helping the Republicans Anymore?” Huffington Post (November 29, 2012).

[64] “David Frum on GOP: Now We Work for Fox,” ABC News (March 23, 2010).

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