What Hath Fox Wrought?

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Rupert Murdoch is the owner of News Corporation, Ltd., which includes the Fox News Network.

The most ambitious revolutionaries don't just topple regimes; they remake time. The Khmer Rouge started over the calendar at Year Zero. The French revolutionary government decreed a decimal day of ten hours, composed of 100 minutes, each with 100 seconds. The cable-news Jacobins at Fox News may be wishing they had rejiggered their calendar so that they could have celebrated their 10th anniversary a year ago, when they were at their ratings apex. Today, the channel is in its first ratings slump, still far ahead of CNN and MSNBC, but not by as much.

But it's still possible to divide the news calendar into BF and AF—Before Fox and After Fox. Much of what you see on TV news exists because of Fox, and not just the opinion shows. The graphics, the sound effects, the general tone of news is set by Fox. The zipper—the visual signature of the anxious too-much-information era—was first introduced by Fox on the morning of 9/11. First by moments, but in TV news, moments are everything. As with so many things, Fox was slightly quicker than its rivals to detect, and direct, the next crank of the dial in our cultural volume level.

Even with its ratings down, Fox remains the network against which competitors define themselves. And not just news competitors. After Bill Clinton got off an on-camera harangue against Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, for an aggressive line of questioning about his administration's anti-terror efforts, the New York Times reported that prominent Democrats, from Howard Dean to Paul Begala, had begun an open campaign of attacking Fox as a covert Republican shill.

The fight was a win-win. Mainline Dems can bash Fox to win points with the confrontational Daily Kos wing of the party. (Including Clinton, whose wife is vulnerable on the left for her support of the Iraq war.) And Fox? As the Times noted, "The news channel has highlighted the contretemps on many of its programs, boosting the ratings in the process." Say what you want about Fox: in this midterm year, no one is out there campaigning against CNN or MSNBC.

So is Fox a covert Republican shill? Shill, yes, sometimes. Its opinion shows blatantly tilt right. The news plays straighter, though as I write I'm looking at a Fox News chyron that reads, "If Rumsfeld left amid criticism, would America be at risk?" Covert, not so much. The network famously calls itself "fair and balanced," but "fair and balancing" would be a better description: Roger Ailes repeatedly describes his news network as a counterweight, on the right, to the rest of the news media. His argument that nearly every other mainstream media outlet slants left is self-serving and mostly wrong. (The MSM really slant toward the institutional, establishmentarian center, which is a bias as dangerous as any other.) But while "fair and balanced" may be propaganda, it doesn't seem to be fooling anyone. Conservatives see Fox as a comfortable haven for their worldview; their opponents pretty much agree. The balance here is that Fox winks just as broadly to both sides.

In the end, that wink—that is, the Fox gestalt of insouciance, attitude, and even playfulness—has had a bigger effect on the news media than any Bill O'Reilly rant. Fox taught TV news that voice, provocation and fun are not things to be afraid of. And for better or worse, probably every TV news program outside of PBS has been Foxified by now. The explosive graphics on your newscast: that's Fox. The "freeSpeech" opinion segments on the new CBS Evening News: that's Fox, too. Anderson Cooper yelling at a FEMA official or crusading in Africa: that's Fox. Keith Olbermann ranting at George W. Bush and O'Reilly on MSNBC's Countdown: that's Fox through and through, whether Olbermann would like to admit it or not.

Fox's ratings, in other words, may have declined for its 10th anniversary. But there are ratings and then there are ratings. You may tell yourself you don't watch Fox News. But as they used to say in the old Palmolive commercials: You're soaking in it.