When Fox News flickered on the air on Oct. 7, 1996, Bill Cinton was president, Tom Brady was a backup quarterback at the University of Michigan, and an unblemished Roger Ailes was at the helm of what would become America’s most dominant cable news network.
“Fair and balanced” was how Ailes would bill Fox, and even though the slogan was mocked by the network’s critics, it was foundational to how Fox would grow and retain a fiercely loyal audience.
At the time, “cable news” meant CNN, which debuted in 1980 and was the lone player in the field for 16 years until Fox and MSNBC debuted in the same year.
MSNBC came first, and to celebrate its 25th anniversary in July, the network bought a full-page ad in The New York Times.
For Fox, the symbolism couldn’t have been more perfect.
News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch and Ailes built the Fox brand on the idea that the network stands nobly outside a liberal mainstream media that skews coverage to promote its ideals. It’s a notion that’s become more entrenched in the quarter-century that Americans have tuned into Fox, and some scholars blame the network for the nation’s hardening polarization.
But after 25 years of Fox, it’s difficult to tease out whether the network primarily reflects a conservative culture that had long been ignored, or created a more virulent form of it.
Studies have found that the network influences voting patterns among conservatives, though not liberals. Researchers also say that Fox influences Republican politicians.
But when Fox commentators riff on cancel culture or a company’s “woke” practices, they’re not looking for votes — just viewers to attract advertising revenue, like every other television station. In doing so, they’ve built not just the largest audience in cable, but also a side industry of denunciation, to include a nonprofit watchdog organization focused primarily on Fox and a disapproving chorus of authors, filmmakers and social-media critics.
For example, CNN’s Brian Stelter last year published a book called “Hoax,” which depicts the network as a morally bankrupt company that conspires with former President Donald Trump to promote a “dangerous distortion of truth.”
Yet for many of the 200 million people who consume Fox media each month — from its flagship news station to its websites, books, podcasts and streaming service — the network is the only source of news that they trust. For them, Fox has been a godsend, a safe space in media where their values are reflected.
But what has 25 years of Fox wrought on the nation? On this, scholars and media critics disagree.
Follow the leader
To Jeffrey P. Jones, professor of entertainment and media studies at the University of Georgia, Fox News is not news, but “political entertainment,” even as it has become the measure by which more traditional news organizations have to assess themselves.
“People look at me funny when I say that, because they think entertainment has to be funny. But entertainment has all kinds of masks and trappings and Fox does it with blondes and legs and fear and vitriol, and they do a good job of it,” Jones said.
Jones was in graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin when Fox first went on the air, and he paid attention to the network because he was interested in populism and talk radio. One of Ailes’ ventures before starting Fox was the Rush Limbaugh television program, which aired from 1992 to 1996.
Another of Ailes’ projects was a channel called “America’s Talking,” which featured, among others, Chris Matthews, who went on to be a star for MSNBC, and eventual Fox personality Steve Doocy.
Jones believes that Fox succeeded, where these other products had not, because it had the imprimatur of news and could point to a team that included respected journalists even if much of its programming was opinionated. “If you look across all of their dayparts, all they do is ideological programming,” he said, adding “MTV has news, but that doesn’t make MTV a news network.”
While popular Fox shows like “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Hannity” are opinion, the network categorizes more than 10 hours of daily programming as news, such “America’s Newsroom,” “Special Report with Bret Baier,” “Your World” and “America Reports.”
Whether opinion or news, the network’s offerings attract viewers. In August, 94 of the top 100 cable telecasts were on Fox, according to Nielsen, Forbes reported that the network claimed 13 of the 14 top cable news shows. It’s now been the top cable news channel for 79 consecutive quarters.
As such, Fox’s success has helped to shape how other networks presented their products. That’s particularly true of MSNBC, which Jones said initially struggled to define itself.
“Fox planted its flag so richly as a conservative/right-wing network that it gave MSNBC at least the ability to say we’re offering, quote unquote, the other side,” he said. “CNN has responded to Fox by pretending it’s in the middle, by tripling down on its election coverage and investigative reporting and foreign bureaus.
“One can’t talk about the other 24-hour news networks without realizing that Fox is No. 1 in the ratings and has been for decades. And it’s not just the No. 1 news network. Fox News is often the No. 1 cable network.”
And that dominance may soon include not just news, but weather. The company is launching Fox Weather in late October. The New York Times reported that Fox is “aggressively poaching” meteorologists and data analysts from major markets across the U.S.
“The Weather Channel, which started broadcasting in 1982, has some reason to be nervous,” The Times’ report said.
Effect on politics
Gabriel Sherman, whose 2014 book on Ailes, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” became a Showtimes series starring Russell Crowe, wrote that the staunchly conservative Aisles was determined that Fox be a player in politics. Sherman described Ailes as “the closest thing to a party boss the country had” and reported that Ailes told Fox executives in 2010, “I want to elect the next president.”
That didn’t happen, possibly in part because, as Sherman reported, Ailes was “lukewarm” on the GOP’s nominee, Mitt Romney, now a U.S. Senator from Utah. But the network’s influence is widely believed to have influenced the outcome of the election in November 2016, even though 4 months before Donald Trump was elected, Ailes had resigned, toppled by charges of serial sexual harassment of Fox employees.
Ethan Kaplan, an associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland, has studied what he calls “The Fox News Effect” on voting. In one study, he found Republican gains in towns where Fox News was available. The gains were largest in areas where there were heavily Democrat districts. “The effect on the Republican vote share continues to be large,” Kaplan said, and things as seemingly minor as where Fox sits in a channel line-up can contribute to the network’s power. The lower the number Fox is on a list of channel numbers, the more likely people are to watch, one study concluded.
But not all Republicans watch Fox News, and there’s a difference between those who do and those who don’t, the Public Religion Research Institute found last year. In fact, “Fox News Republicans” comprise “a party within a party,” according to Institute CEO Robert P. Jones, with Fox News viewers being more likely to support former President Donald Trump.
This remains true, despite the fact that Fox’s relationship with Trump has been rocky, beginning with his feud with former Fox star Megyn Kelly, who moderated a 2016 campaign debate, and culminating with Trump’s anger over Fox’s 2020 election night coverage. These incidents, however, did little to erode Fox’s strength among conservative Americans, although Reece Peck, the author of the 2019 book “Fox Populism,” said the Trump-Kelly spat “illustrates the contradictions that arise when a network built on an outsider ethos seeks establishment legitimacy.”
Kaplan, at the University of Maryland, said there’s more research yet to be done on how Fox is affecting America.
“It could be having an effect, for example, on how extreme views are. I haven’t seen any great studies trying to figure that out. The quite sizable effect on the vote share may not actually be the main effect of Fox News... The literature hasn’t figured out a good way to look at polarization within the Republican Party and that in fact could be its biggest effect.”
‘The other side of the story’
That “outsider ethos” at Fox remains strong, 25 years in, even though the network is no longer an underdog, but has conservative challengers in Newsmax and the One America News Network.
Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communications at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, said that it’s surprising, not only that Fox became so dominant so fast, but also how a network so frequently derided has the power to influence the national conversation like it does.
“They expanded the nation’s news agenda, that otherwise would not have been covered, or certainly not from the perspective that they were covered on Fox News Channel. And they provided perspective on a number of topics that were largely missing from what I refer to as the establishment media,” McCall said.
Fox has also served to highlight and challenge what McCall sees as a “leftward drift” of other news organizations. “FNC gave alienated news consumers another place to go,” he said, adding that Fox’s audience also includes moderates and centrists, despite its reputation as a mouthpiece for right-wing extremists.
“They can’t generate the numbers they have, the audience they have, with only right-of-center people,” he said.
As far as charges that Fox has contributed to America’s polarization, McCall said that perspective gives Fox too much credit or blame. “You could also say that this began when the traditional media drifted left. And I would go beyond that to say that a lot of polarization is being generated from the politicians themselves.
“Fox has become an easy target, but anyone who says Fox News Channel is responsible for polarization is trying to find a simplistic solution for what is a much more complex problem.”
Meanwhile, even though Fox is now arguably part of the mainstream media that its personalities deride, it continues to benefit from the sense, prevalent among American conservatives, that they are ignored — and even despised — by the nation’s media elites.
Jones, at the University of Georgia, says that the news as presented by Fox is not the sort of journalism taught in journalism school. But, he says, “It’s good television.”
“Fox News is, and remains, the center of gravity for right-wing thinking and talk.”