So many Americans, particularly on the right, have taken Fox News for granted over the past 20 years. It has become a fixture as an alternative to what is known as the mainstream media. In confirmation of the old saying, “You never know what you’ve got til it’s gone,” Fox’s abrupt change during the era of Donald Trump’s presidency shocked many of its viewers.
With the exception of a few of its commentators, Fox News has gone from a network with a default position of supporting Republican presidents to one that habitually criticizes Trump. This switch, manifested most clearly during the 2020 election, has ravaged Fox News’s ratings and left many Americans concluding that in fact there is no major alternative news network in the United States.
Conservatives who call for an immediate replacement of Fox News with one of its fledgling competitors, such as One America News Network or Newsmax, fail to realize the tremendous work and strategic planning it took to make Fox the most-viewed cable news channel in America, and how hard that success will be to duplicate.
There’s no doubt that the growth of Fox News was spectacular. Launched in 1996, it surpassed its main rival, CNN, in just six years. By 2009, Fox News had doubled the audience of two of its main rivals, CNN and MSNBC. But the groundwork of this success was prepared well in advance.
Fox News’s parent company News Corp. was created by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch as a holding company for the newspaper empire his father originated in 1923, News Limited. In 1976, Murdoch moved his newspaper business from Adelaide to the U.S. by purchasing the San Antonio Express-News. Soon after, he acquired the New York Post and created the U.S. supermarket tabloid Star.
His American beachhead established, Murdoch moved into video, movies, and television, starting with News Corp. acquiring a controlling stake of the 20th Century Fox movie studio over several years in the ‘80s. Along the way, Murdoch also picked up a series of book and magazine publishers including Harper and Row, and Triangle Publications, which published TV Guide, Seventeen, and Playboy.
Perhaps most important in his broad expansion in the U.S. was the 1985 acquisition of a television broadcasting network, Metromedia, which owned seven television stations in some of America’s largest markets, as well as a syndication arm. The Metromedia acquisition provided Murdoch with the infrastructure to make a serious attempt at creating a fourth American television network to compete with the long-established “Big Three” of ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as the newly created cable news channel, CNN.
Launched in 1980 by Ted Turner, CNN was the first channel to offer 24-hour news coverage. Both CNN and Fox News required years of preparation to challenge the Big Three. Turner had, over many years, built a semi-national news network from his WTCG station in Atlanta. Murdoch came to America with a massive publishing arm ready to support his efforts, and built the foundations of what would become Fox News over a period of more than 20 years.
Neither Fox News nor CNN just “sprang up” merely as a result of consumer demand for an alternative within mainstream media. Both were the result of considerable groundwork and long-term planning by their wealthy entrepreneur founders.
What made Fox go—and go so fast—was one man, Roger Ailes. A former Mike Douglas talk show producer and media strategist for President Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, Ailes was once described by former President Barack Obama as “the most powerful man in the world.” Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, writing in The Loudest Voice in the Room, calls Ailes a “peripatetic political operative,” and the “closest thing to a party boss the country ever had.”
Ailes, in fact, had no experience in the news business, but plenty in show business. He knew what sold, and what appealed to viewers.
Ailes had worked with George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign before leaving to become producer of the Rush Limbaugh television show. Then, while still handling the Limbaugh show, he moved on to become president of the newly created CNBC, which at the time was hardly the leftist network it has since become. Still more focused on entertainment than on politics, Ailes nevertheless was alert to new opportunities in news. Forced out of CNBC in 1996 due to claims that he bullied a subordinate, Ailes almost immediately received a call from Murdoch asking him to head his new 24-hour news network. Murdoch saw in Ailes a “visionary collaborator,” though not necessarily a political pitchman.
As might have been predicted, the mainstream journalistic outlets, the Big Three and influential broadsheets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, proclaimed the new network dead on arrival. These outlets were only just starting to come out of their shells as advocates for the left, and still maintained the pretense of objectivity at the time. The New York Times said there were “widespread doubts” about the survival of Fox News, and others were equally pessimistic.
Murdoch and Ailes plowed ahead anyway, investing an annual budget of $147 million in Fox News programming, which dwarfed most competitors at the time. Murdoch also used his money to buy Fox News access to the big cable distributors, such as Time Warner. This access is something the modern-day One America News Network and Newsmax struggle to acquire.
On the verge of Fox News’s launch, Ailes also commissioned a poll on viewer attitudes and found that a substantial number of the news viewers’ needs were not being met by either the established competitors, or the new upstarts in CNN and MSNBC.
In a memo, Ailes outlined some of the improvements to the standard news formula that Fox News would provide: “Personality and programming…plus human interaction.” Put another way, Fox was an enhanced version of Rush Limbaugh’s TV show, but with sex appeal provided by the on-air talent, which included buxom blonde females and handsome, rock-jawed males.
Fox also had graphics that identified segments that were “commentary” as opposed to news. Ailes hired a lineup that included outspoken anchors with big personalities, notably Bill O’Reilly (who was hardly a star at that point), prosecutor Catherine Crier, and established business host Neil Cavuto.
Ailes also wanted shortened sound bites, and above all, to report stories other networks wouldn’t cover. Introducing Fox’s long-running slogan of “Fair and Balanced,” the marketing department also added “We Report, You Decide.” Those slogans were also critiques of their competitors, and Fox News’s concept of “fair” or “balanced” implied “conservative.” Ailes wanted to highlight that every other broadcast network and most print news outlets were all deeply liberal (excluding the New York Post, the Washington Examiner and, for a while, The Washington Times).
Fox News selected news topics that were more oriented toward hot-button cultural issues than other networks, which spent more time on political or economic topics. In fact, entertaining disagreements over sensitive topics between guests was part of the “fair and balanced” formula. The network invited the predictable lineup of establishment Republican voices, such as Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, and Henry Kissinger, but it pitted them against controversial liberals such as Henry Waxman, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and Susan McDougal, a witness at the Whitewater grand jury investigation into the Clintons’ shady Arkansas real estate deals.
Fox News made its bones on the controversy over the investigation into Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the resulting impeachment. At the same time, Fox News personalities informally called their cable rival CNN the “Clinton News Network” for its fawning support of the promiscuous president. Privately, Ailes was concerned with maintaining Fox News’s objectivity over the Lewinsky matter and wanted to live up to the slogan “fair and balanced,” according to Sherman. Thus Ailes actually delayed the network’s reporting on the Lewinsky material, allowing Matt Drudge, the founder of the new conservative web aggregation site Drudge Report, to break the news about the president’s sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
Indeed, this concern with fairness and objectivity was part of the slow-burning fuse that would eventually cause the Fox implosion on election night 2020.
Ironically, we have to look back to another election night, 2000, that started Fox’s troubles. When all the other networks had called Florida for Al Gore, Fox followed suit. Then the numbers went crazy, and Bush surged in the early morning. Brit Hume, the on-air anchor, pulled the call down and said Florida was still contested. At 2:16 in the morning, Fox called Florida…for Bush! Then, the numbers changed again, and all the networks, including Fox, had to reverse their reversals. The networks were in the middle of, and contributed to, election chaos that would only be resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court.
That Fox was at the head of the perceived incompetence was a black eye for Fox. It didn’t help public perception that Fox had put George W. Bush’s cousin, John Ellis, in charge of calling states for the network. As a result, starting in 2000 public trust for early calls of election results, and election polling in general, began to falter.
But this practice by Fox and other networks continued to get worse over time. In 2018, Fox called the House for Democrats before half the United States had counted more than a few ballots. Again, in 2020, Fox called Arizona when 73 percent of the election-day ballots had been counted. Conservatives were irate; post-election investigations and lawsuits still ongoing at time of printing have Joe Biden winning Arizona by a slim majority, with tens of thousands of ballots being contested by Trump’s legal team as fraudulent.
What caused Fox, once the stellar network of trustworthy conservative news, to descend into such chaos? And more importantly, how did the network become so anti-conservative in just over a decade?
The answer lies with the methodical attacks from the activist left on Fox’s stars, the growing influence of Murdoch’s left-leaning son James Murdoch, and the libertarian leanings of Murdoch himself.
In some ways, Fox’s model of “fair and balanced” was doomed to failure from the start. The very notion that Fox could simultaneously appeal to conservatives while increasingly putting shabby liberal talking heads on air began to eat away at the loyalty of Fox’s viewers. Leftist hires began to grow in prominence on Fox, such as former National Public Radio news analyst Juan Williams, former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, and supposedly objective journalists of dubious conservative loyalties, such as Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly.
Fox’s growing liberal cabal began to irritate its regular viewers, who could find similar views virtually anywhere else. To take a line from Rush Limbaugh, “I don’t need balance in my show. I am the balance.” Indeed, this was what Fox forgot: “fair and balanced” meant accurate reporting, and presenting a balance to the other side, not echoing it.
While it took until the 2020 election for Fox News’ shift to the left to become painfully obvious, the end of Fox’s conservative character was inevitable after Roger Ailes’ departure in 2016, when he was forced out by a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson. With the conservative guiding force behind Fox’s programming gone, other conservative voices at Fox were similarly pushed out. That included Bill O’Reilly, who along with his nemesis, Sean Hannity, reigned in Fox’s evening ratings. O’Reilly survived one harassment scandal in 2004 by paying off producer Andrea Mackris, but he didn’t survive a second in 2017 at the height of the #MeToo sexual harassment disclosure movement, when former host Juliet Huddy claimed O’Reilly had made lewd remarks to her. Following Huddy’s lawsuit, The New York Times reported that other lawsuits were settled, including those from Laurie Dhue and Rebecca Diamond. After the Times’ story, O’Reilly lost half his advertisers, with some 60 companies withdrawing support. O’Reilly was soon gone. Shortly thereafter, Fox conservative commentator Eric Bolling was similarly #MeToo’d, suspended, and forced out.
It wasn’t just that the sexual harassment suits seemed to paint Fox’s character as sexist—certainly Fox was ahead of the curve in emphasizing the employment of female on-air talent—but that the suits, whether coordinated or not, deprived the network of some of its very top conservative on-air talent. Fox had already lost the populist voice of Glenn Beck, who at his peak drew seven times the number of viewers of his competitors.
Tucker Carlson replaced Beck as the channel’s populist voice in 2016. Seen as more independent than other Fox commentators, Carlson’s numbers soared in 2020 when he began exposing Black Lives Matter and the Antifa riots in several major cities. Before the election, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” became the highest-rated cable news show in history, reaching an average of 5.4 million viewers per night. His interview with former Hunter Biden associate Tony Bobulinski about the Biden family’s alleged corrupt business practices in China reached 7.6 million viewers. He was viewed by many as one of the most articulate supporters of the Trump administration’s policies.
After the election, however, Tucker came under criticism from Trump supporters for not offering a full-throated support of the president’s attempt to challenge the election results. While it’s still too early at press time to judge conclusively, Tucker’s ratings appear to be joining the rest of Fox in a slump. On Friday, Nov. 20, Tucker’s show had a particularly bad ratings day, slumping to fifth place among cable news shows in the key 25-to-64 age demographic.
Personnel is policy. But Ailes’ original entertainment-driven news concept was also policy. By embracing the “fair and balanced” slogan and the entertainment value of clashing viewpoints, Fox’s approach always assumed “another side” to every story—which is the essence of classical liberalism. On this basis, absurd claims that Trump is the second coming of a fascist dictatorship or a secret Russian agent had to be given airtime as legitimate viewpoints, rather than excluded and dismissed outright as idiocy. Moreover, the Ailes focus on entertainment valued the conflict between the personalities over the quality of the content.
In short, from its very origins, Fox News was conflicted about its mission. It did manage to stay loyal to its audience for almost two decades, but even that failed after James Murdoch began to reshape Fox’s message—and image—on issues such as immigration, climate change, and above all, on Donald Trump’s presidency and the tens of millions of Americans who support him.
When Trump burst onto the political scene, Fox had virtually no Trump advocates. Slowly Greg Gutfeld, Hannity, O’Reilly, Bolling, and several employees of the Fox Business Channel came to appreciate him, but they were in the minority compared to the legion of former Bush employees and liberals that comprised much of Fox’s ranks.
Fox’s early call of Arizona for Biden on election night 2020 was merely the culmination of a decade-long shift to the left through attrition of conservative personalities, the built-in contradiction of “fair and balanced,” and the Murdoch family’s hostility toward Trump.
In the two weeks following the election, Fox News’s prime-time viewership dropped nearly 40 percent, averaging 3 million viewers per night, with nearly 400,000 of those lost viewers appearing to have switched from Fox to Newsmax, according to Nielsen ratings statistics reported by the Associated Press. Fox News’s prime-time viewership totals remain depressed at 2.8 million as of Monday, Dec. 7, according to AdWeek, though Fox still remains the most-viewed news channel in the nation.
Given how long it took to establish Fox as a true alternative to the liberal media in the first place, it is highly unlikely that anyone will soon provide another conservative voice in television news that has the national reach of the badly damaged and shrinking Fox.
(Chronicles Executive Editor Edward Welsch contributed to this article.)