It was the last Sunday in January, and Vice President Dick Cheney was making the morning talk-show rounds. On ABC, Sam Donaldson posed hard-hitting questions about the new Administration’s failure to alleviate California’s energy crisis, the wisdom of George W. Bush’s proposed tax cut and John Ashcroft’s elusive answers to questions during his confirmation process. On NBC, Tim Russert challenged Cheney on the President’s plans for deterring a recession, his commitment to campaign finance reform and how Ashcroft’s pledge to enforce the law on abortion squares with the President’s antichoice positions.
And on Fox? Brit Hume and Tony Snow–two of the news channel’s most conservative anchors–pitched softballs to the new Vice President, prodding him to denounce the Clinton Administration and positioning him to pronounce the energy crisis in California the product of federal clean-air regulations and evidence of the need for offshore oil drilling. About Ashcroft, in a soundbite replayed on Fox throughout the day, Hume asked: “Do you sense in some of the opposition to him, that his faith and his devotion to it is being held against him? And do you sense in that, perhaps, a kind of anti-Christian bigotry?”
It was a typical question on a typical Sunday on the Fox News Channel. Although its right-wing talk-show hosts like Bill O’Reilly have received copious press attention, the conservative slant of Fox’s regular news coverage has not. And while much has been written about Fox’s gaffe on election night involving George W. Bush’s cousin (which some think caused the public to regard Bush as the legitimate winner), there’s been far less focus on the blatant partiality of Fox’s regular staff, contributors and guests. It all combines to create a calculated mouthpiece for the right that remains thinly veiled behind its misleading mantra, “fair and balanced.” And Fox could have real influence: According to Editor & Publisher magazine, a TV monitor in the White House press briefing room that aired CNN throughout the Clinton Administration was recently switched to the Fox News Channel.
It takes only a few hours on any given day to see Fox’s political predilections in action. The Cheney interview, for example, began an ordinary Sunday of conservative cheerleading. Fox Washington correspondent James Rosen, covering the controversy over the Ashcroft nomination, portrayed the Senate opponents as political opportunists “venting” to appease their constituents. The features were no different. A segment about an effort to teach religion in public school was promoted repeatedly with the teaser: “Are we as a nation more or less spiritual today than we were twenty-five years ago? Are we a country that is losing faith?” Viewers were asked to call in answers. Later that same day, a tabloid-style piece on teen abuse of crystal methamphetamine was a virtual banner ad for right-wing policies of strict law enforcement and lengthy incarceration; in the approximately quarter-hour segment, drug treatment or addiction’s causes were never once mentioned.
Such slants should come as no surprise, given the cast Rupert Murdoch has chosen to run Fox News Channel, the latest venture of his News Corporation. At the top is Roger Ailes, a onetime strategist to Presidents Nixon, Reagan and the elder George Bush. Ailes’s lineup of talent, in addition to Hume and Snow (the latter a former chief speechwriter for the elder Bush), includes David Asman, former Op-Ed editor at the Wall Street Journal, and Sean Hannity, whose personal website features links to Rush Limbaugh’s show and the National Rifle Association. Frequent Fox contributors include Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard; Monica Crowley, former assistant to Nixon; Jim Pinkerton, former Reagan and Bush staffer; John Podhoretz, editorial page editor of the New York Post and former Reagan speechwriter; and John Fund, a member of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board and collaborator on Limbaugh’s political diatribe, The Way Things Ought to Be.