PHILADELPHIA — In a survey conducted by North Carolina’s Public Policy Polling this year, Fox News Channel earned the paradoxical distinction of being America’s most trusted news source and its least trusted news source.
Nielsen data would give Fox a clearer, indisputable title: most watched.
More than 11 million viewers watched last week’s second presidential debate from Hofstra University on Fox anchored by Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier. That’s more than the audiences for Fox’s cable competitors CNN and MSNBC combined.
The week before, more people watched the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan on Fox News Channel than on any of the broadcast networks.
These numbers aren’t just significant. They’re seismic. How did Fox News Channel go from a niche player at its founding 16 years ago to being a dominant TV force?
Many media analysts see purity of message as the key to FNC’s rise.
“They are the only one offering news that very conservative voters want to see,” says Joe Angotti, visiting distinguished professor of communication at Illinois’ Monmouth College. “If you’re liberal or independent you have so many places to go — CNN, MSNBC, the networks — and your audience is fractured. There’s only one place for ultraconservatives. Fox News has a lock on their audience.”
But as the channel’s ratings continue to mushroom — during this election cycle according to Nielsen it is averaging 65 percent more viewers than CNN and 58 percent more than MSNBC — it’s clear Fox is gaining a measure of mainstream appeal.
“In the election season and on big nights, our overall audience expands in ways our critics and competitors wouldn’t expect,” says Bill Shine, Fox News’ executive vice president of programming. “We will have more independents watching than any cable outlet or network.”
If success hasn’t spoiled Fox News Channel, it has mellowed it in subtle ways. TV is a crass numbers game where the quality of the guests you can book is based entirely on your ratings.
Fox has come a long way from the bunkered atmosphere that hung over it in its earlier, more marginal days. It has become an increasingly mandatory stop for politicos, policy makers, and even celebrities of all stripes. And that inevitably results in a less adversarial climate.
Fox News’ executive vice president of news, Michael Clemente, came to the channel in 2009 after 27 years at ABC News, having heard the stories about the bad old days of limited access for Fox.
“Even in 3 1/2 years, it’s changed markedly,” he says. “There are many more people of all persuasions, not just the left and the right but on health issues and foreign policy.
“People can write about Sean Hannity. He’s a declared right-winger and proud of it. Yes, Karl Rove works here. We got all that attention for hiring Sarah Palin. Well, Geraldine Ferraro, bless her soul, worked here for years.
“You’d be surprised at the number of people who want to come on,” Clemente continues. “We’re where the audience is. Leave out the declared left and the declared right and just leave the middle. When the dust has cleared, we have more of that than the other guys do.”
One of the primary efforts in manufacturing a more neutral image for Fox has been seeking to establish a firewall between its news shows (anchored by Brit Hume, Chris Wallace and others) and its prime-time opinions shows (hosted by Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the like).
As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, points out, this format mirrors that of MSNBC.
“Both have a partisan press model and a traditional journalistic model. So for example you have Bret Baier on Fox and Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC where the anchors are not expressing a point of view,” she says. “Then you’ve got Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow where the hosts most definitely are expressing a point of view. That doesn’t make it illegitimate. It makes it a commentary show.
“They’re not pretending these are news shows. They’re very clear these shows have a clear point of view and are engaged in advocacy.”
As long as this partisanship is openly acknowledged, it’s healthy for the democratic process, Jamieson argues.
“Fox and MSNBC serve a useful function for their viewers,” she says. “They rigorously scrutinize what the candidate on the other side says. I’m referring to the advocacy shows, not the news shows. You do become more knowledgeable, albeit more one-sided.”
Conservatives staunchly maintain that Fox News Channel is a long overdue corrective, a counterbalance to the insidious unspoken hold that liberals have had on American media, academia and culture for decades.
“I don’t have a problem in the world with bias — as long as it’s acknowledged,” says Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center. “I have a real problem with people who demand to be considered objective journalists and are nothing of the sort. You want to be a commentator, be a commentator. You want to be an analyst, be an analyst. But don’t claim to be a reporter and then be a commentator.
“When you catch networks purposely editing footage and getting caught in the act and then doing it over and over again,” Bozell says, “this is journalism that’s out of control.”
That outrage, of being the victim of a secret left-wing conspiracy, is the mustard seed of FNC, according to TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall.
“The media bias war has a long history going back to (Vice President) Spiro Agnew,” he says. “There’s a tradition of activists on the right wing of the American political spectrum who consider the news media to be antagonistically engaged participants in the political process.”
Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes, “going back to the Nixon White House, is thoroughly immersed in that worldview,” Tyndall says. “There are a number of ways going back 16 years that Fox has articulated its distrust of the mainstream media, beginning with its slogan, ‘Fair and balanced.’
“Fair and balanced means that everyone else was unfair and imbalanced. Everyone else is antagonistic and un-American: ‘We are the only ones standing for what is right.’ From the very start, they were differentiating themselves from the rest of the media.”
That’s a far trickier distinction to make when you’re top dog. And juggling news responsibilities and partisan interests can be challenging, because this is politics, and someone’s ox is always being, um, gored.
What does Penn professor Jamieson consider the high point of Fox’s year?
“People who follow politics closely who didn’t watch the Republican primary coverage on Fox missed some very good journalism,” she says. “Fox held the candidates to task very closely for their statements and their misstatements. The process was well served by those tough interviews on Fox.”
Watching that same coverage, conservative spokesman Bozell was convinced that Fox had lost its mandate, if not its mind.
“I didn’t like that they fell into the same trap of the other networks, playing ‘gotcha’ during the Republican primaries, coming up with questions to trip up the candidates,” Bozell says. “That’s not your job! I think that was foolish, and I’m glad they left that behind.”