NEW YORK—When the Fox News Channel came on air in 1996, CNN founder Ted Turner vowed to crush the brash new rival for the US 24-hour cable news market “like a bug.”
Eight years later, the Rupert Murdoch-owned network garners more prime-time viewers than CNN and the other major cable news broadcaster, MSNBC, combined.
Fox’s rise to prominence has been viewed with alarm by its detractors who see the network as the flagship of a resurgent right-wing media machine, backed on the radio waves by ultraconservative talk-show hosts and in print by newspapers like the Murdoch-owned New York Post.
While firmly rejecting the conservative label, Fox embraces its image as the scourge of the media “establishment”—embodied by the likes of the three broadcast networks and The New York Times—which it accuses of a long-term liberal bias.
“The traditional media in this country is in tune with the elite, not the people,” Murdoch told Editor & Publisher last week. “That is why we’re not liked by the traditional media. That’s not us.”
Fox mixes it’s straight news coverage with populist opinion-led programming, such as The O’Reilly Factor—now the top rated cable news show in the country—hosted by the unabashedly conservative and pro-Republican Bill O’Reilly.
If the traditionalists dismiss Fox and the pugilistic radio talk-show kings as populist purveyors of right-wing propaganda, they are unable to deny their appeal and influence.
“Whether you love or hate these guys, they can make for compelling entertainment,” said Robert Thompson, director of the department of pop culture and television at Syracuse University.
“And that is why you get a lot of people who disagree with them as regular listeners and viewers, just as you’ve got their core audience that agrees with them,” Thompson said.
According to a June report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the number of Americans who regularly watch Fox News has increased by nearly half since 2000 from 17 percent to 25 percent.
Fox’s vitality, the report said, is partly attributable to another significant change in the media landscape—the fact that political polarization is increasingly reflected in the public’s news viewing habits.
More than half (52 percent) of regular Fox viewers describe themselves as politically conservative, up from 40 percent four years ago.
Todd Gitlin, a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, traces the rise of the conservative media back to the social upheavals of the 1960s and the recognition among ideologues on the Right that they had lost control of major cultural institutions.
“So they started building an infrastructure, endowing chairs at colleges, starting think tanks, underwriting conservative college newspapers . . . and then came the proliferation of the talk shows in the 1980s,” Gitlin said.
“What has to be said for the right is that they understood there was a large market niche which meant they could have it all—political influence and commercial prosperity,” he added.
The substantial size of the market is undeniable. A Gallup poll in October last year found that 45 percent of Americans believe the news media is “too liberal.”
Combine that with the 43 percent who, according to the Pew report, prefer news that suits their point of view, and the foundations for Fox’s success become more apparent.
With the country so divided along political lines ahead of November’s presidential election, partisanship is coloring American culture like never before.
A Time magazine cover story this month titled “Blue Truth, Red Truth” suggests Americans live in parallel political worlds, searching out and consuming the spin that suits their Democrat or Republican leanings.
“Red Truth looks at Bush and sees a savior; Blue Truth sees a zealot who must be stopped,” the magazine said. “This is where we live now . . . the traditional heralds compete with the authors and bloggers and filmmakers and cable barkers and radio rabble rousers who appeal to those who tailor the news to fit their political niche.”
While Fox was created to corrected a perceived media slant to the Left, liberals are now making moves to counter what they see as the new imbalance to the Right.
Air America, a syndicated radio network with a strongly liberal flavor, hit the airwaves in April and former vice president Al Gore is backing moves to launch a liberal cable news outlet.