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.
Of course, paying lip service to its “fair and balanced” refrain, Fox is careful to include token moderates on its talking-head shows. But the middle of the road is routinely pitted against the ultraconservative. So-called liberal contributors, who are at best centrists, include NPR’s Juan Williams and Mara Liasson and Roll Call‘s Morton Kondracke. Murdoch has never been shy about using his news outlets, which include the New York Post and The Weekly Standard, to disseminate his politics. What’s particularly insidious about the Fox channel, though, is that Murdoch has gone out of his way to cloak its politics in slogans like “We Report, You Decide” that lull the audience into believing it’s hearing not a conservative viewpoint but the unadulterated truth.
The heights of distortion are reached on prime time. Since December, The O’Reilly Factor, a shout-show starring Bill O’Reilly, has been a top-rated talk show on cable, frequently surpassing MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews, Rivera Live and even CNN’s Larry King Live. O’Reilly is a step up from Rush Limbaugh–better looking and more reasonable–but he’s an equally staunch conservative. The evening of January 16 was typical. To debate the controversial Ashcroft nomination, O’Reilly pitted the powerful Christian Coalition’s Pat Robertson against Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of an obscure Wisconsin-based atheist advocacy group. When Gaylor expressed concern about Ashcroft’s position on abortion, O’Reilly cornered her into making the irrelevant pronouncement that she wouldn’t personally support anyone for public office who was antichoice. Now O’Reilly could dismiss her entirely: “That’s an extreme view, Miss Gaylor, so you’re an extremist.” And so, by implication, was everyone else who opposed Ashcroft’s nomination.
If you can make it through O’Reilly, stick around for Hannity & Colmes, Fox’s higher-decibel version of CNN’s Crossfire. Though the idea is to pit left against right, Alan Colmes, the awkward-looking designated lefty of the pair, is no match for his right-wing matchup, Sean Hannity. Hannity smugly rolls right over Colmes and his Democratic guests while coaxing conservatives to pontificate without interruption. During Fox’s postelection coverage Hannity bellowed repeatedly that “the Vice President because of his blind ambition has brought us to the brink of a constitutional crisis” and charged that the Democrats were trying to “steal the election” by demanding a vote recount. Meanwhile, “they might as well have a scarecrow in the liberal seat,” says media critic and University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney.
Even Fox’s supposedly “straight” nightly news anchors take regular swipes at Democrats. Covering the postelection litigation in Florida, for example, anchor John Gibson railed that “the Democratic lawyers have flooded Florida” because “they are afraid of George W. Bush becoming President and instituting tort reform and their gravy train will be over.” Fox further blurs distinctions between news and opinion by having anchors and political commentators switch roles from one day to the next. O’Reilly, for instance, played anchor just after the Supreme Court handed down the decision that ended Gore’s fight for the presidency.
Fox’s murkiest judgment call may have been hiring John Ellis, the President’s first cousin, to analyze election exit-poll results. Lo and behold, Fox was the first network to declare erroneously that Bush had won the election, prompting the avalanche that followed. We now also know that Ellis was discussing confidential exit-poll information with his cousins throughout election night. At Congress’s mid-February hearings on election night coverage, Ailes said in his prepared testimony that Ellis was merely acting as “a good journalist talking to his very high-level sources.”
But the bias didn’t stop there. Peter Hart of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting notes that after Bush was named the winner of the election, “on Fox, the question was posed as, ‘Will Bush compromise or will he stand tough on his principles?'” On December 17, for example, Snow asked Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card: “Now, the President-elect says that he wants to reach across the partisan divide, and a lot of people are interpreting that as meaning that he has got to water down his views to appease liberal Republicans and Democrats. Is that what he’s going to do?”
This blending of news with right-wing partiality dismays many Fox employees. Although staffers say they don’t receive direct orders to include or ignore stories for political purposes, “I’ve been at editorial meetings,” says one Fox News Channel employee who did not want to be named. “Certain stories fly and certain stories don’t. I’m not blind and neither are my colleagues. Everyone is aware that something is at work. There’s a reason that there’s a perception that Fox leans to the right.”
A manager at the Fox News Channel who’s been in broadcast news for six years and who also declines to be identified says the tilt is reflected in the enterprise pieces aired. “The ideas come from the bureau chiefs, and they want to get their reporters on the air, so they’re going to pitch stories that management will approve.” Says Sarah Barrows, a former production assistant and booker at the Fox News Channel, “They know who their audience is, and they pick stories based on that.” Barrows, now an associate producer at Oxygen Media, says that during the Clinton impeachment investigation, for example, “that story probably led nine out of ten times.” The Whitewater investigation was another popular front-runner. “Fair and balanced? Give me a break,” says a former Fox producer. “During the Clinton impeachment–which they were just loving–it was OK to run a Newt Gingrich soundbite by itself. But if you ran a soundbite by a Democrat you also had to run a soundbite by a Republican.” Though this producer had worked at CBS News and at an ABC affiliate, “I had never experienced a newsroom that was that conservative.” Fox management’s far heavier hand than at other networks is in part a reflection of the fact that Murdoch owns 30 percent of the stock of News Corporation; the other major television networks are all owned by large corporations with widely held shares.
The Fox spin has even crept into its website; each week it posts a new “PC Patrol,” in which columnist Scott Norvell bashes liberal organizations like the ACLU for trying to separate church from state or ridicules feminist organizations for criticizing the comments of Fox favorite Rush Limbaugh.
So there’s no question that under Fox’s guise of neutrality lurks the right-wing designs of its management. But is that a problem? Contributors don’t think so. “Fox reports the news from a more conservative mindset than conventional journalism,” says Kondracke, a Fox regular. “And that’s good. Because if you only have the perspective of the standard liberal outlook, that distorts reality too. Fox is an antidote to conventional news media.” NPR’s Juan Williams says that at Fox, “I’ve never felt so intellectually free.” Sure, it’s slanted, he says, but “the widespread perception of the American people is ‘all these people have bias.'” Fox management, meanwhile, denies any partiality. “We feel that other networks have a liberal bias to them,” says Bill Shine, executive producer for the Fox News Channel. “But Mr. Ailes pounds this into us at every staff meeting, every time we get together: ‘fair and balanced.'” Ailes declined to comment.
True, studies have shown that Washington journalists are more likely to vote Democratic and identify themselves as liberal. One frequently cited survey by the Freedom Forum/Roper Center in 1996 found that 61 percent of the 139 Washington-based journalists queried professed to being either “liberal” or “liberal to moderate,” while only 9 percent said they were “conservative” or “moderate to conservative.” But how that plays out in news coverage is a different matter. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in the last weeks of the presidential campaign, Bush was twice as likely to receive positive coverage as Gore. And the group’s study examining five scattered weeks between February and June revealed that more than three-quarters of the campaign coverage included discussion that Gore lies and exaggerates or is tainted by scandal, while the most common theme about Bush was that he is a “different kind of Republican.” No Democratic bias there.
Still, Fox is obviously filling a niche. Since it started in 1996, ratings have soared, climbing more than 200 percent in the last quarter of 2000 from the same period the year before. During the fourth quarter of 2000 it started turning a profit, a year ahead of schedule. And in December, its ratings beat CNN in prime time, even though CNN reaches about 22 million more homes. So does Fox’s success attest to a huge conservative audience out there? Not necessarily. Sure, there’s the Limbaugh crowd, which wants to hear right-wing vitriol. But plenty of people tune in to be titillated by the news channel’s brash, infotainment style. “People come up to me on the street and say, ‘I hate that Sean Hannity,'” says University of Southern California law professor and frequent Fox contributor Susan Estrich, one of the news channel’s few truly liberal regular commentators. “But I say, ‘Do you hate him five days a week?’ They say, ‘Yes.’ They watch it.”
Murdoch has done something ingenious: He’s created an entertaining news channel that disseminates his viewpoint far and wide and also makes good business sense. It costs far less to get two people to snipe at each other on the air than to pay reporters and producers to dig up real news. And although Fox may be leading the transformation to econo-news, it is not alone. The pressure to attend to the bottom line is yielding a watered-down form of journalism at all TV news outlets. “My views of contemporary journalism are so disheartening at the moment that I find it very difficult to point just to Fox and say, ‘Tsk, tsk, look what they’re doing,’ without pointing at the same time to all of the networks and saying, ‘Tsk, tsk, what have you done?'” says Marvin Kalb, Washington-office director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former broadcast journalist for CBS and NBC.
Murdoch may be the most blatant, though, about putting profits above principles. In the mid-1990s he eliminated the BBC from his Hong Kong-based Star Satellite news service because the Chinese government didn’t like the channel’s critical programming. And his publishing house, HarperCollins, dropped former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten’s East and West, which included less than flattering descriptions of Chinese leaders. At a Fox-owned station in Florida, award-winning reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson claim their contract was canceled in 1997 because they refused to soft-pedal their investigative story about the effect of bovine growth hormone on the state’s milk supply after BGH producer Monsanto complained directly to Roger Ailes. They sued. Wilson couldn’t prove his case, but Akre won hers, which charged that Fox fired her for threatening to blow the whistle on its action.
But every network has its closetful of stories killed, buried or neutralized to serve the owners’ or advertisers’ interest. A study last year by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and Columbia Journalism Review found that more than 40 percent of nearly 300 journalists surveyed said they had intentionally avoided newsworthy stories or softened the tone of stories to benefit the interests of their news organizations. That fear of offense radically restricts the range of opinion that makes it onto the news networks, redefining the center and relegating left speakers to the fringe, seemingly out of touch with their audience.
So what to do? Media critic McChesney proposes stepping up FCC regulations, boosting funding for public radio and television, and revamping the antitrust laws to set limits on media ownership. Lawrence Grossman, former president of NBC and PBS, advocates making broadcast companies pay to use the public airwaves and using that money to fund public service programming and a stronger public broadcasting system. Realistically, however, given Bush’s picks at the FCC and the Justice Department, additional fees and stricter antitrust scrutiny are unlikely to happen anytime soon. And it’s hard to imagine this sharply divided Congress putting significantly more money into public broadcasting.
Can liberals compete? Yes and no. “I hope there’s a revolt out there that wants to have ten liberal O’Reilly Factors,” quips Fox contributor Estrich. “Where are these guys on the left who can do a news channel that covers the news well and also provides an opportunity to get their views across?”
These days, that’s an enormously expensive proposition. When Murdoch entered the game, on top of capital and production costs he paid cable operators $10 per household to carry the Fox News Channel. “That escalated the cost of starting a channel to $500 million,” estimates Jay Levin, founder and former owner of the alternative LA Weekly, who tried to launch an environmental cable channel in 1993 that was ultimately unsuccessful. But there are alternatives. Digital television is finally becoming a reality and should vastly increase the number of channels, at least temporarily reducing startup costs. And the newest broadband technology creates an opportunity for an endless number of televisionlike stations via the Internet.
Fox started in 1996, when anti-Clinton sentiment burned bright. The new Bush Administration offers ample targets for left-wing fire. And there’s a market for it, insists John Schwartz, president of Free Speech TV, a nonprofit station based in Boulder, Colorado, that’s carried on the satellite Dish Network and reaches 5 million homes. “There’s a fanatical viewership,” says Schwartz.
Of course, without a media magnate like Murdoch behind it, an independent station’s reach will never rival Fox’s. But done with intelligence and wit, left TV could at least be a potent thorn in its side. For now, though, Murdoch and Fox remain unchallenged.