In the past few weeks, Fox News Channel has behaved with all the guile and grandstanding sleaziness we've come to expect from a Rupert Murdoch operation. First, Fox put George W. Bush cousin John Ellis in charge of its Election Night vote-counting operation: Ellis made Fox the first network to declare Bush the victor and, as The New Yorker reported, spent the evening gabbing with Dubya and Jeb Bush—thus confirming every Democrat's belief that Fox is an arm of the GOP.
David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.
Since the election, Fox has run a newspaper ad boasting that it attracted 6.8 million viewers Election Night, making it the "Number 1" news network for election coverage. The ad has rightly enraged rival networks CNN and MSNBC: Fox is cheating by counting not only the 2.4 million who watched its cable channel Election Night, but also the 4.4 million who tuned into its network broadcast.
Asking Murdoch employees to restrain themselves is like advising tigers to try veganism. Still, Fox News doesn't need to pull stunts like these anymore. It generates enough PR without trickery. Fox News Channel's ratings climbed 100 percent in the last year and 125 percent in prime time, making it the fastest-growing channel on basic cable. Fox News Channel equaled CNN's ratings in October, the first time since FNC launched four years ago that it has tied the senior network. (Since CNN reaches 80 million households and Fox only 54 million, CNN still has more viewers. Fox's other rival, MSNBC, is trailing badly in viewers and ratings.) The O'Reilly Factor, the sulfurous Fox show hosted by Bill O'Reilly, topped CNN's flagship Larry King Show in October for the first time. And the Democratic politicians and spinners who used to refuse Fox invitations automatically are now trekking to the studio: Fox News reaches too many people to be ignored.
Fox News is thriving because it's inventing a new kind of TV news, though it won't acknowledge it. ABC, CBS, and NBC strive for authoritative, sober evening news broadcasts, and CNN aims to be the network of record. Fox is the first narrowcast news network. It is targeted not at the entire country but at the millions of right-leaning Americans skeptical of mainstream media. It is an assertive conservative tabloid.
Fox presents both a new style and a new political stance for TV journalism. In style, Fox News has done for news coverage what the Fox broadcast network has done for prime-time television. Fox News is sassier, more kinetic, and ruder than its rivals. Where Tom Brokaw and Bernard Shaw are grim-faced and ponderous, Fox's anchors are hyper. Shepard Smith, Fox's Brokaw equivalent, tornadoes through dozens of topics in his evening broadcast, tossing his script in the air, making jokes. The O'Reilly Factor, Fox's answer to Larry King, is a Bronx cheer next to King's Brooklyn sycophancy. O'Reilly makes Hardball seem soft.
This boisterous style is coupled with salty conservatism. Fox's straight news broadcasts are mostly neutral and fairly well done. It probably does more stories sympathetic to conservative issues than other networks, but they are real, reported stories. Some of its anchors, notably Brit Hume and Tony Snow, whack Republicans as well as Democrats. Still, most of Fox is commentary and analysis, and its overwhelming aura is conservative playhouse. Roger Ailes, who runs the network, is a longtime Republican strategist. His top commentators are conservative stalwarts: Hume, Fred Barnes, David Asman, to name a few. Occasionally, centrists or Democrats show up—Mara Liasson, Juan Williams—but they're window dressing. The network is a ceaseless assault on the Clintons, Gore's election theft, Jesse Jackson, etc.
But Fox won't cop to this conservatism. Ailes and his deputies shout down any claim that they bend right. The network repeats its mantras: "We report. You decide" and "Fair and Balanced." The Fox brass insist that they're not ideologues; they're just untainted by the lefty assumptions that infect the media. O'Reilly declares at the beginning of every show that it is "a no-spin zone." Hannity & Colmes, Fox's answer to Crossfire, claims that Sean Hannity (the conservative) and Alan Colmes (the liberal) are equal co-hosts.
This ostentatious fairness is preposterous. The big three networks and CNN stifle any seeping opinion with a deadening evenhandedness. If you watch ABC news for 48 hours, you will detect a lefty bias in story choice and interview subjects. If you watch Fox News for 48 seconds, the righty bias will stomp you on the head. The straight news broadcasts may be judicious, but O'Reilly is a conservative predator (except on the environment and gun control). Hannity is smarter, funnier, quicker, and better looking than Colmes. Most of Fox's contract analysts, such as Newt Gingrich, are conservative stalwarts. TomPaine.com has dubbed Fox "GOP-TV," but that's too crude. The Foxes have their biases and indulge them. But they don't answer to a GOPolitburo.
So why does Fox make such a show of impartiality? Partly, Fox is playing defense. It's a new network. Fox yells about its independence and influence—an ad campaign brags about how "powerful" Fox is—because it is insecure about that independence and influence. Fox also believes that critics unfairly lump its news and its commentary together and that its news deserves more respect, which it probably does.
But the most important reason why Fox clings to its façade is the nature of its audience. Fox's viewers want a conservative news network but don't want to admit it. The Fox veneer allows them to reassure themselves that they are watching truth, not spin. If Fox suddenly abandoned the "fair and balanced" slogan for overt partisanship, they would feel betrayed. A similar phenomenon exists on the left. National Public Radio's claim of objectivity allows listeners to pretend it does not have a liberal slant.
This subspeciation of TV news is a great advance. Until now, we've been stuck with three absurdly evenhanded networks and a TV wire service. Cable has fragmented every other part of the TV market—we have a cartoon network, food network, history channel, etc.—it's about time that the news fragmented too. There may be no other political group that can support a news network, but wouldn't it be lovely to watch a news channel with a libertarian or communitarian or religious conservative tilt? Hooray for media bias—and for Fox, whatever dishonest slogan it adopts.