Out-FOXing the Media

Steven Hayward

June 1, 2002

The recent Newsweek cover story on Bill Clinton contained the following gem: “One night last year he called about 1 a.m. ranting and raving about something,” says Julia Payne, his spokesperson. “And I said, ’Sir, are you watching Fox again?’”

Any network than can get Bill Clinton agitated is worth watching. But there are better reasons for appreciating Fox News. On the day of the California primary election in early March, Bill O’Reilly led his Fox News “O’Reilly Factor” show, as usual, with his “Talking Points Memo,” which is a device for O’Reilly’s bluster and bombast. His “Talking Points Memo” this day was directed to the voters of Modesto, California, and was simple, direct, and loud: “DON’T VOTE FOR GARY CONDIT!”

Can anyone imagine Larry King saying this? Or Jeff Greenfield, or Ted Koppel, or Tim Russert, or Charlie Rose, or anyone on the other TV networks? Therein lies the difference between Fox News and nearly everyone else in the TV news business.

It is not simply that Fox breaks all the unstated rules of the news business that makes it better viewing than its peers. It does so with a twinkle in its eye, not taking itself as seriously as Dan Rather or Peter Jennings, which is itself a subtle rebuke to the self-congratulatory competition. (The entire Fox network seems to have this elan. At the beginning of its telecasts of the World Series last fall, viewers saw a fighter plane taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, presumably bound for a bombing run in Afghanistan, followed by the banner announcement, “You’re watching Fox Sports.” Again, no other network sports division would ever express such unalloyed patriotism, let alone make sport of the brave work of our military.) Sometimes Fox News will even take note of the chronic defects of the other networks. Criticizing other media organizations is unheard of. Yet Brit Hume not only noted that ABC News had banned its staff from wearing American flag lapel pins after September 11, but attacked their coverage of the Afghan military campaign as well. “Over at ABC News, where the wearing of American flag lapel pins is banned, Peter Jennings and his team have devoted far more time to the coverage of civilian casualties in Afghanistan than either of their broadcast network competitors.” Hume had better hope he never needs his old job back with ABC News.

One thing all these examples make clear is that Fox News is on the side of the United States; it is the network for the Red states. About the other TV networks we know no such thing; recall the firestorm when David Westin, president of ABC News, remarked to a class at Columbia Journalism School that he thought the Pentagon was a legitimate military target. Westin quickly apologized, but does anyone doubt that he spoke from instinct? After all, Reuters and the BBC issued style directives to their reporters to avoid using the term “terrorist,” because, you know, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In other words, many senior figures in the major media learned nothing from the end of the Cold War. (Not to mention the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper, which refuses to allow the Cleveland Indians to appear in its sports pages out of politically correct sensitivity to Native American nomenclature. It uses the term “Cleveland ball club” instead. Someone ought to try to place an ad for Red Man chewing tobacco in the Star-Tribune, and see what happens.)

Even Fox’s apparent anomalies show their difference from the other news networks. Who else could rehabilitate the inexcusable, insufferable, and unreliable Geraldo Rivera? The man who was confused about O.J. Simpson and who slobbered over Bill Clinton was never going to get a straight news assignment again from one of the big three networks, but when Rivera expressed an earnest desire to escape his dismal talk show to do old-fashioned war reporting from Afghanistan, Fox jumped at the chance. Despite some typical Geraldo gaffes (distorting events and his own relation to them in some early dispatches), he has delivered a patriotic style of reporting reminiscent of Ernie Pyle and other pro-military reporters of the World War II era. He further redeemed himself with his reporting from the West Bank, where he browbeat Palestinian spokesmen on camera for the cowardice of suicide bombings. You won’t ever see such a tough line of questioning from the other networks. Rivera’s wartime reporting is yet another example of how September 11 has divided liberals between those who genuinely love America but who are confused from those liberals who intrinsically hate America, such as Noam Chomsky.

When Rupert Murdoch announced plans to launch a new cable TV all-news network in the mid-1990s, it was given little chance of success. CNN seemingly had this niche market cornered, and was only marginally profitable after more than a decade of effort. Ted Turner, Murdoch’s archrival, smugly dismissed the upstart competition.

Turner isn’t so smug today, as Fox News is besting CNN in ratings, even though Fox is not as widely available as CNN. “The O’Reilly Factor” routinely attracts more viewers than “Larry King Live,” much to the dismay of respectable media watchers.

The mainstream media has had it in for Fox even before the first segment aired. First, Murdoch hired Roger Ailes to head the new network. Ailes is regarded as the prince of darkness among liberals in the media, with a resume worthy of Darth Vader. He helped produce Richard Nixon’s media in 1968, and did the same task again in 1988 for George H.W. Bush, including the devastating negative TV spots that eviscerated Michael Dukakis for his softness on crime and limp patriotism. If these indiscretions weren’t enough, Ailes also produced Rush Limbaugh’s TV show. Could such a man be trusted with an entire news network? Surely not.

Then there are Fox’s dual mottoes: “We report—you decide,” and “fair and balanced.” Both are an implicit reproach to every other TV news division, and it must drive Fox’s competitors crazy, because their denials of bias ring so defensive and hollow. To dedicate a news organization to balance and objectivity is regarded in the establishment media as a provocative right-wing act. One might almost think the establishment media were paranoid. Practically every media trade journal interview with Brit Hume asks if Fox isn’t captive to a conservative bias, simply because it has several notable conservative journalists, such as Tony Snow and Fred Barnes, as regular fixtures, whereas the rest of the TV news networks have none. Hume described his journalistic philosophy to The American Enterprise in 1997: “Reporters aren’t activists seeking to consciously advance an agenda, but if you don’t guard against it, politics creeps in insidious ways that you’re not aware of. If you approach a story with the attitude, ’I have some political views, and I’ve got to screen these out,’ you’ve got a very good chance of doing that. But if you say, ’I’m not in this to grind a political ax; I’m just going to react to it the way it hits me,’ you run the risk of doing what I’m afraid Washington reporters do all the time, which is allowing their political attitudes to affect their judgment of events.”

For all this, Fox News is hardly the broadcast equivalent of the Weekly Standard (which is also owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation). Just as a university academic department will be regarded as “right wing” if it has two conservatives on the faculty instead of just the token one conservative, Fox is conservative by comparison with other networks because it has more than one conservative in non-token roles. Many Fox News shows are ideologically nondescript, and some of their leading on-screen personalities, such as Sheppard Smith of “The Fox Report,” have no discernable ideology. And the network is not without a few generic liberals, such as Judith Regan and Juan Williams. Even Bill O’Reilly is no orthodox conservative: he opposes the death penalty, supports gun control, and is prone to believing frothy conspiracy theories about gasoline price manipulation by oil companies.

But O’Reilly (and, to a lesser extent, Shepard Smith) embody the new populism, which, as a few perceptive liberals have recognized, is cultural rather than economic. As Noam Scheiber observed in The New Republic, for O’Reilly “’working class’ is defined not by income but by cultural values such as hard work, devotion to family, and respect for authority and tradition. And these value questions do explain a lot about American politics: why Bill and Hillary Clinton aroused so much hostility, why Al Gore fared poorly among blue-collar men, why Americans resented welfare.” In other words, Fox gets it; the other networks don’t. The other cable networks, MSNBC and CNN, are showing signs of getting it. MSNBC has ostentatiously hired Alan Keyes, and CNN publicly flirted with trying to sign Rush Limbaugh to do a show before Limbaugh’s hearing loss made a TV show problematic. CNBC’s newest entry into the populist sweepstakes is “America Now” with Larry Kudlow and James Cramer, two Wall Street guys with surprisingly good Main Street insight. The broadcast networks have nothing close to any of these shows.

The nightly news shows of the big three broadcast networks still attract about eight times as many viewers as the cable outlets combined, so even with the rapid decline of viewers the big three would seem still to tower over the cable upstarts. This may be one reason they think they needn’t pay attention to or emulate what the cable outlets are doing. However, the cable networks are rapidly becoming the networks that matter most to both the political elites and the politically attentive citizens of the nation. The cable shows are what gets discussed around the water cooler in Washington these days. This was especially vivid in the aftermath of the deadlocked 2000 election, when the cable networks repeatedly scooped the broadcast networks on the rapidly moving events in Florida. The Columbia Journalism Review recently reported on a Pew Research Center study which found that cable television outranked both network and local outlets as the primary source in both the pre-election and post-election phases; 41 percent of those who were tracking the developments in late November said they were turning to cable news, compared to 30 percent who were watching local news and 23 percent who cited network news as their primary source. The CJR concluded that this trend is “ominous” for the broadcast networks.

A single episode in recent weeks boldly illustrated this shift: the potential sacking of Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” in hopes of attracting David Letterman to ABC. An ABC executive was quoted as saying, indelicately but accurately, that “Nightline” isn’t relevant any more. For the media elite, this was equivalent to saying that God is dead and the Pope is not relevant any more. The irony here is that it was a Middle East crisis that propelled “Nightline” into the first rank of TV news programs, and it is another Middle Eastern crisis that has signaled its senescence. Koppel’s predecessors who pioneered the nightly news broadcasts made afternoon newspapers obsolete, and now cable TV news networks are doing the same favor to Koppel and the networks. Why, perceptive media watchers asked, stay up late to watch Koppel cover the same ground and ask the same questions that were on in the afternoon on Fox and MSNBC? Koppel kept his job (mostly out of institutional inertia), but as On Principle goes to press ABC is asking Peter Jennings to accept a reduced salary in his new contract to anchor ABC Evening News—another sure sign of the creeping obsolescence and declining prominence of broadcast news.

The obvious question is whether—or perhaps how quickly—the internet will make the cable news networks obsolete. Advances in broadband technology will eventually make streaming video available to everyone’s computer, which will allow customized programming—perhaps even enabling anyone with a video camera to be a news correspondent. (Think of a legion of Matt Drudges.) Already the media mavens are furrowing their brows at this prospect, warning about the loss of “common news culture” or some such rot, let alone the supposed quality control provided by established editors and producers.

This will pose less of a challenge for Fox News than the networks for the obvious reason that any network that is giving viewers what they want to see is going to keep its audience. It is not entirely unlikely that a generation from now, none of the big three networks will have a news division, while Fox will be the biggest player left on the block.

Steven Hayward, F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center.