Why Fox New Matters

July 26, 2004

Fox News is the subject of dozens of articles, at least one book (Crazy Like a Fox by Scott Collins) and now a full-length documentary (Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed). It is revered and reviled for its political tilt, which it both embraces and disavows. Fox brandishes its “fair and balanced” slogan, paradoxically, as both a repudiation of bias and as code for the rebalancing it promises to offset the liberalism alleged of its rivals.

Archrival CNN draws more total viewers per day, as people check in for news updates. But because Fox’s audience tends to stay put, treating it like talk-radio, it now has more people tuned in at any given moment; hence its plausible claim to have overtaken CNN as cable news leader.

Not bad for an outfit that’s not yet a decade old. Its real history began only in 1996, when the former GOP strategist Roger Ailes defected from MSNBC, the hapless Microsoft-NBC partnership. Ailes took over the Fox news division that Rupert Murdoch targeted in response to surveys that found sizable numbers of people believed U.S. media to have a leftist bias.

Not bad indeed. Still, Fox is relatively puny. Its highest rated show, The O’Reilly Factor, pulls 2 million viewers. By contrast, as Steve Rendall noted in an online analysis, the CBS Evening News gets 8 to 10 million – considered a ratings disaster. Fox’s flagship news program, hosted by Brit Hume, might draw a million viewers, about the same as WNBC’s local newscast in New York.

But Fox’s influence far exceeds its reach. Just as USA Today, by introducing four-color packaging and finger-food to newspapers transformed an American press that despised it, so Fox News poses an outsized challenge.

With the imperatives of cable favoring media that target and deliver audience slivers of predictable composition, Fox is pioneering the use of political ideology to create and sustain a market. Others are learning.

I’d never really watched Fox, so I spent a week tuning in. I expected a combative, strongly biased, factually corrupt report – the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, cranked up and tricked out for the small screen.

Instead, by day I found a professional news operation.

There were limits. The staff seemed small. As usual with U.S. media, news from abroad was sparse. Politically, Fox did carry the GOP’s water on some stories, seemed to deliberately downplay Iraq and ignored the John Kerry campaign.

But the guests were more diverse than on rival networks, where U.S. experts generally speak for the entire human race; anchors were sharp and well-briefed, and baited conservative guests from the left and liberals from the right. The report was well-paced, insightful and engaging.

Then night fell, the trunk lid creaked open and the bats flew out.

Sean Hannity was simply a bully, without finesse or subtlety. When the subject was trial lawyers, he asserted, essentially, that Senator John Edwards had halted innovation throughout the economy and kept millions of Americans from receiving health care. He tried to press an unusually reluctant John Stossel to agree.

But Bill O’Reilly was a revelation, smug and derisive. With guests he is, as Churchill said of the Germans, either at their feet or at their throat. Those he dislikes he dismembers. Then, in a signature moment with ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, they nodded sagely over a claim that 80 percent of the country shares core values, leaving only media and university liberals – Hollywood too, O’Reilly said – outside the “American” consensus.

Before they broke for a Bush re-election ad and the Laci Peterson murder trial, the two were half-step away from redefining citizenship as excluding Democrats.

In Scott Collins’ insightful book, O’Reilly says his model was a newspaper’s opinion pages. But the difference is huge, and that’s what makes Fox so unsettling. A typical newspaper has commercial reasons for trying to widen its audience, and therefore appeals to an expansive notion of common interest.

A niche news channel has a different commercial model. It seeks to attract and continually reclaim an audience fragment, by reiterating the world-view that first drew them.

It’s a model that builds a corps of the faithful, but gains nothing from persuasion, let alone the give-and-take by which a political culture thrives. Fox is pioneering a national conversation in which we have nothing to offer one another but reassurance — or abuse.

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