All sound, fury, and popular entertainment: one decade on, Fox is top dog in the ratings

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It is the night of the Bush-Gore presidential election in 2000, perhaps the weirdest of all moments in America’s recent political history. Already, the key state of Florida has been kicked around like a football – placed in the Gore column for a couple of hours and then, because of erroneous exit-polling data, yanked back and deemed too close to call.

The network anchors are settling in for a long night. On CBS, Dan Rather says the heat from Florida is “hot enough to peel house paint”. Over at Fox News, the runt of the American cable news litter, the election desk is being manned by a certain John Ellis, who just happens to be George and Jeb Bush’s first cousin. According to a new book by David Moore, a Gallup poll election veteran who was doing a very similar job that night for CBS and CNN, Ellis spent much of his evening on the phone to the Bush brothers.

At 2.15 am on the East Coast, Ellis shouts out excitedly: “Jebbie says we got it! Jebbie says we got it!” Jebbie is, of course, the governor of Florida as well as the Republican candidate’s brother. Seconds later, Fox calls the election for Bush. Within minutes, the other networks have followed suit – not because their polling data supports the call, but because they are terrified of being beaten to the punch by some puny little cable station.

The call, of course, turns out to be as erroneous as the earlier one for Gore, and the election is destined to go on for another 36 agonising days. But in the meantime a new phenomenon in American television news has been born.

Election night 2000 was the moment Fox News – owned by Rupert Murdoch, and run by a veteran media consultant to the Republican Party – won its spurs and made sure it would never again be underestimated by the media punditocracy. The station has gone on in much the same spirit as it approached that extraordinary night, purporting to be a disinterested bearer of the day’s tidings, while in fact pushing a very specific Republican agenda. Its fortunes have been bound, with almost uncanny closeness, to those of George W Bush – soaring in the audience ratings when the president has himself pushed the peaks of his popularity, then slumping as the aura that attached itself to the White House in the immediate aftermath of September 11 has dulled almost to the point of invisibility.

Fox nonetheless remains the number one cable news station. In a few short years, it has almost entirely rewritten the rules of American television news coverage, influencing its ideological nemeses as much as its bedfellows with its penchant for presenting politics as a form of gladiatorial sport – all sound, fury and popular entertainment, in which fact and reasoned analysis are ditched in favour of outrage, anger and patriotic pride.

Today, Fox News celebrates its 10th anniversary, but really the station has lived through two distinct phases. In the first phase, from 1996 to the 2000 election, it was the also-ran of American broadcast journalism, the cable offshoot of what was already a marginal network. Fox, at that time, was known for airing The Simpsons, not for its news coverage. Correspondents at Fox News had trouble getting accreditation with major government agencies and had to fight for a place on presidential plane trips. Its political proclivities became clear during the Clinton impeachment saga in 1998, but the furore over Monica Lewinsky, the Kenneth Starr report and the rest was so widespread that the station had trouble getting itself noticed.

Since 2000, Fox has evolved, essentially, into the White House’s news poodle – pushing the (non-existent) links between Saddam Hussein and September 11, talking up every report of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, both before the 2003 invasion and since, playing to the country’s fear of another al-Qa’ida attack and reinforcing the notion that only Republicans have the resolve to keep Americans safe. When Republican politicians feel vulnerable – like Dick Cheney after he accidentally shot a friend on a hunting trip to Texas earlier this year – they talk to Fox News, and no other outlet. When Democrats feel the need to reach out to the other side, as party chairman Howard Dean does from time to time and Bill Clinton did as recently as two weeks ago, they stick their heads into the lion’s den and pride themselves when they feel that they have re-emerged alive.

But Fox News has not thrived only because of the political climate of the past years. It has also managed to be grimly compelling entertainment. Roger Ailes, the station’s chief executive who cut his teeth crafting Richard Nixon’s television image for his successful 1968 presidential campaign, understood right from the get-go that the best way to trounce the competition was to be more lively than them. “I watched CNN for a week before I went on and I kept trying to wake myself up,” he recalled in an interview with the Associated Press last week. “I kept nodding off and I realized they are biased, they are boring, they looked like a network that has never had any competition.”

So Fox introduced flashy graphics, impassioned shouting matches between ideological opposites, and news coverage that was both insidiously partisan but also gleefully liberated from the ponderous on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand style of traditional broadcast journalism. In no time, it had leapfrogged past MSNBC and CNN and became essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand the true nature of America under the Bush administration. The political doublespeak characteristic of Karl Rove, the president’s key political advisor, also became the salient feature of Fox News. “Fair and balanced,” the station called itself. “We report, you decide,” the anchors like to say.

The reality is rather different. The most aggressive hosts, like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, take pleasure in ripping to pieces any guest they happen to disagree with. O’Reilly notoriously told the son of a New York Port Authority worker who died on September 11 to “shut up” and show more respect for his father because he dared suggest the Bush administration was acting in its own, not the country’s, best interests. Hannity’s speciality has been to take any piece of bad news for the administration and put a positive spin on it – usually by blaming everything on Bill Clinton.

Both men have been on rare form just this past week. On O’Reilly’s show, the disgraced Florida congressman Mark Foley – who was caught sending sexually explicit computer messages to teenage pages at the House of Representatives, and now threatens the party’s entire mid-term election strategy – was repeatedly labelled a Democrat when he is, crucially, a Republican. Hannity, meanwhile, suggested that Monica Lewinsky was a teenager when she had her dalliance with President Clinton (she wasn’t – she was in her early 20s) and blamed the entire furore on “selective moral outrage by Democrats trying to turn this into a political issue and having a double standard”.

Sometimes the spin is so dizzying it is almost funny. Back in February, Neil Cavuto’s daytime show asked the question: “All-out civil war in Iraq: could it be a good thing?” Then, four days later, the same show framed the issue an entirely different way. “’Civil war’ in Iraq: made up by the media?”

The Fox News formula may be good for ratings, but its effect on the public has been little short of toxic. A University of Maryland poll taken six months after the Iraq invasion demonstrated that Fox News viewers were more ignorant about world affairs than any other category of news consumers, but also had a stronger belief than anyone else in how well informed they were. The only other place in the world where television news has been so politicised is Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy – and one wonders whether the peculiar mixture of slanted news coverage and teenage dancing girls didn’t have an influence on Messrs Murdoch and Ailes. Unlike Italy, where Mr Berlusconi took over the country and with it control of the state television channels as well as his own, the United States has a relatively free market in media. If Fox pushed CNN and the other networks to the right and encouraged them to indulge in similar shouting-head debates, it was through sheer competitive pressure rather than coercion.

Interestingly, the pendulum is now starting to swing against Fox – both the style and the content of the station. Its ratings are down 28 per cent on last year, and its hard to conclude that its hard-charging ideological support of a now deeply unpopular President Bush is not at least partly to blame. The mood began to shift when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans just over a year ago, when Fox News’s own correspondents started rebelling against the political agenda of the studio hosts. When Sean Hannity suggested that correspondent Shepard Smith’s dire reports of the Big Easy’s abandonment by the federal government needed to be put into “perspective”, Smith memorably and emotionally retorted: “That is perspective! That is all the perspective you need!”

The zeitgeist has moved against Fox in other ways, too. Its non-stop cheerleading for Bush has made it an easy target – almost too easy – for a new generation of news satirists who have popped up on another cable station, Comedy Central. First Jon Stewart, of the Daily Show, and then his acolyte Stephen Colbert, who has broken out on his own and also delivered a brilliantly subtle anti-Bush routine at this year’s White House Correspondents’ dinner, have made regular and merciless fun of the most prominent Fox News hosts.

When Stewart invited O’Reilly on to his show last year, his first question was: “Why so angry?” With the studio audience already laughing at him, O’Reilly answered: “There’s a lot of bad people out there and it’s our job to go after them.” Stewart countered: “So, when are you going to start?”

Stewart also got into a spat with Fox correspondent Geraldo Rivera, who has a habit of putting himself front and centre of the news in ludicrous ways. (In New Orleans, he surrounded himself with black babies and personally grabbed hold of a stretcher carrying an old woman out of a waterlogged house, just so he could show the viewers how selfless he was being.) Stewart and Colbert subsequently did a hilarious joint routine in which Colbert – whose on-screen persona is an exaggerated version of a Fox news host – puffed himself up with sudden rage and asked: “What are you implying, that O’Reilly and Geraldo are narcissists enthralled with their own overblown egos, projecting their own petty insecurities on to the world around them, inventing false enemies for the sole purpose of bolstering their sense of self-importance, itty-bitty Nixons minus the relevance or a hint or vision – how dare you?”

Such spot-on satire has had a curious disarming effect on Fox, whose stars may be blessed with many gifts but not any noticeable sense of humour. A couple of years ago, the shenanigans of Stewart and Colbert might have just been one more excuse to organise a shouting match on the cable airwaves. Now, though, the number one news phenomenon of the new millennium is looking strangely chastened.