“Will FNC be a vehicle for expressing Mr. Murdoch’s conservative political opinions?” asked the New York Times on October 7, 1996. The “FNC” referenced was the newly launched Fox News Channel, which today celebrates 25 years on the air. The answer, to the detriment of American democracy, was, is, and shall likely remain “yes”.
There was never really any doubt that Rupert Murdoch meant Fox News to be a mouthpiece for conservative causes. It’s why he hired Roger Ailes, a former Republican strategist for both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, to helm the network. Ailes never made any secret of his desire to use Fox News to shift American discourse to the right, proudly boasting in 2010 that he wanted to “elect the next president”.
He didn’t, of course – Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 – but arguably no one is more responsible for the ascendency of Donald Trump as Roger Ailes and his minions at Fox News. Long before the great orange man descended his great gold escalator, Fox News paved the path towards reactionary populism which led us to where we are today. No single actor has done more to harm American democracy than Rupert Murdoch or Fox News.
For a quarter century, Fox News has gaslit viewers with a feigned objectivity. “Fair and balanced” was an early motto, as was “we report, you decide”. Yet from its very inception, Fox News has served the dual purpose of Republican propaganda machine and reactionary accelerant, fanning the flames of far-right hate and demagoguery. It never wanted you to decide; it wanted to tell you what to think.
A look at its bookings from its early days shows this bias was there from the start. An analysis done by the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) of Special Report with Brit Hume found that between January and May 2001, 50 of the program’s partisan political guests were Republicans while only six were Democrats. Of all guests (including those who were not party-political representatives), more than 70% were conservatives. A Pew study from January 2002 found that more than half of Hume’s stories were “unequivocally supportive” of the Bush administration.
This wasn’t even one of the banner shows from the era like The O’Reilly Factor whose host, Bill O’Reilly, insisted that his was a “no-spin zone” even as he regularly mocked anyone to the left of Dick Cheney. O’Reilly was a pioneer of Fox’s populist façade, claiming in 2000 that his was “the only show from a working-class point of view.” O’Reilly insisted he understood working-class Americans better than anyone on television, because he was “as lower-middle-class as they come.”
These words were uttered as O’Reilly negotiated a multi-million-dollar contract. In the spirit of Fox, I’m just reporting and will let you decide if that’s “lower-middle-class.” Of course, it didn’t matter to O’Reilly or his bosses.
Long before Ben Shapiro smugly informed us that “facts don’t care about your feelings”, Fox News stopped caring about the facts. In doing so, it not only amplified the Republican message – distorting the truth where needed – but pushed the party ever further to the right, eroding faith in the free press and in American democracy itself.
As FAIR reports, during the 2000 campaign, O’Reilly accused Al Gore of running on a “socialist” platform. He compared comedienne and talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell to Joseph Goebbels. He told gay people to “shut up” and stay in the closet. He insisted Black people needed to “stop taking drugs and boozing” for their children’s welfare.
All of this was admittedly a long time ago. And certainly, the fact that Fox News is biased is not news in itself. But it matters that we understand that the way Fox evolved – the way it has divided our country and stoked the flames of hatred all while spreading disinformation and far-right propaganda – is in fact a feature, not a bug. Fox News did not spin out of control to become the bane of liberal democracy. It was purposely designed to bring it down.
This is something few understood in January 1996, when CNN was the only cable news network on American television. However Ted Turner, who founded CNN, saw the writing on the wall and tried to warn the rest of us. “There is a new group coming, led by that no-good SOB Rupert Murdoch,” he told reporters that year. “They want to control the world… We have got to do everything we can to stop them.”
Turner warned us that “this is a battle between good and evil,” which at the time seemed hyperbolic. Yet after Fox News’s quarter century spent stoking hate and spreading lies, his words carry an eerie prescience.
In 2003, O’Reilly opened his show on the night the US invaded Iraq with an attack on the then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader for being insufficiently hawkish. In 2004, he launched the war on Christmas, blaming “secular progressives” for hating the holiday because Christians don’t like gay marriage and abortion. It was a rapid descent into hell from there. O’Reilly was eventually replaced by Tucker Carlson, who astoundingly manages to be even more repugnant than his predecessor. Carlson’s recent greatest hits include promoting a racist conspiracy theory that Democrats are trying to replace white people with “obedient voters from the Third World” while continually denying that white supremacy is a problem.
This was always Murdoch’s plan, though. For him, the truth nor the nation ever mattered. His only concern was ratings and right-wing propaganda. This meant that each time Fox News lost a battle in their ongoing culture war – popular and legal opinion on gay marriage, for example – they found a new front to fight on. And each loss made them redouble their efforts to drag us into some alt-right hell.
So successful was Fox News in radicalizing its audience that they began seeking even more extreme opinions, utterly untethered from reality. This caused Fox to lurch even further to the right, particularly after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. “We denied the pandemic and now we’re denying the election outcome,” an anonymous Fox contributor told CNN earlier this year.
Their tears are crocodilian. Fox News is now what it has always been, what it was always meant to be: a right-wing propaganda machine whose purpose is to radicalize the American electorate. Lamenting where Fox News wound up ignores the fact that it was established for precisely this reason – to deny reality, promote conservative causes, and secure power for the right. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
25 years since its debut, Murdoch’s network has done what it set out to do. It radically altered the political landscape and left a festering wound on the American body politic. With an insurgent far right that has already attempted to overthrow the government and a Republican Party divorced from reality, it remains to be seen whether our nation can survive another 25 years of Fox News.
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