‘Listen to your gut’: how Fox News’s populist style changed the American public sphere and journalistic truth in the process

Reece Peck

Fox News’s famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) slogan, ‘Fair & Balanced’, had already been previewed in the weeks leading up to the network’s launch on October 7, 1996. CEO Koger Ailes had told USX Today, ‘America needs one fair and balanced news channel and we’re going to provide it. The American people believe television is biased to the left . . . and that it’s boring’ (Lieberman 1996). In this interview, Ailes foreshadowed themes that would define the Fox News brand for decades to come: the mainstream media is liberal and elitist, and Fox News represents ‘the people’.

Certainty by the mid-1990s, the technological and economic pieces were in place for a conservative-leaning Fox News to emerge (Prior 2007). Yet the question still remained whether it could ever attain enough journalistic legitimacy to avoid being written off as a hack political operation. Indeed, as soon as Fox aired its first broadcast, the New York Times posed the question prevailing among US journalists: ‘Will [Fox News] be a vehicle for expressing Mr. Murdoch’s conservative political opinions?’ (Miffin 1996). Confirming these suspicions would be News Corp, owner Rupert Murdoch himself, who had appointed go-to Republican communications specialist Roger Ailes as Fox’s CEO. First making his name as the media wunderkind of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, Ailes had gone on to advise the presidential campaigns of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush in the 1980s (Swint 2008).

Unsurprisingly, Ailes held a deeply political view of journalism, a perspective that attuned him to the contradictions of self-styled professional news outlets. While the dispassionate, ‘neutral’ approach of network news programmes during the 1950s and 1960s had purported to offer a non-ideological account of the world, Ailes was able to masterfully exploit in his favour the subjective demarcation between ‘the balanced centre’ and ‘the ideological fringe’. ‘I don’t understand why being balanced is “right of center’”, he told the Washington Post in 1999, ‘unless, the other guys are pretty far left’ (Kurtz 1999). Ailes was also quick to lob back at any journalist accusing Fox of having a right-leaning bias, always baiting Fox’s competitors into a never-ending contest of bias finger-pointing. The effect would ultimately drain not only the meaning of bias but that of objectivity itself.

But while Ailes was a talented communicator, we should not attribute too much to his genius. This ‘great man’ approach obscures the significant degree to which Fox’s corporate strategy took advantage of the discursive repertoire of the post-war conservative movement.

Books such as Heather Hendershots Mint’s Fair on the Air? (2011) and Nicole Hemmer’s Messengers of the Right (2016) illustrate how conservative media activists had been waging critiques against ‘liberal media bias’ since the 1950s and 1960s. After decades of conservative criticism of the mainstream press, journalisms professional ideology' and the ‘objectivity regime’ that underpinned it had gradually been chipped away.

The 1970s marked the beginning of a concerted effort by conservatives to create a ‘counterintelligentsia’ that could take on the ‘philanthropic-government-academic-establishment’ (O’Connor 2007: 75). Such conservative think tanks as the Heritage Foundation, a research institute George Nash has described as ‘the nerve center of the Reagan Revolution’ (1998: 335), experienced unprecedented build-ups. With the popularisation of conservative talk radio in the late 1980s and the rise of Fox News in the late 1990s, such ‘nerve centers’ had become the media weaponry enabling their once-marginal narratives about liberal bias and journalistic elitism to move to the centre of American popular culture.

Having surpassed CNN as the cable ratings leader in 2002, today Fox News dominates US political television and stands as the most profitable asset of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire. According to a recent Pew study, four in ten Americans say they trust Fox for political news (Gramlich 2020). Academic studies on the network have empirically demonstrated how Fox News has affected everything from American voting patterns (DellaVigna and Kaplan 2007) to public knowledge (Cassino 2016) to congressional legislation (Clinton and Enamo-rado 2014), always in a way that advantages Republicans. More recently, journalistic exposes have revealed the extent to which Fox guides the thinking of President Donald Trump himself (Parker and Costa 2017).

Along with financially profiting from the conservative movement’s decades-long crusade against ‘liberal media bias’, Fox News has also elevated this conservative media criticism tradition to new hegemonic heights, further eroding the public’s faith in journalistic objectivity. Yet in contrast to the failed attempts at creating conservative TV before Fox News, Fox offered more than just ideologically congenial programming. It introduced a populist style of conservative news that could break from the middlebrow sensibility of ‘first-generation’ conservative stars like William F. Buckley (Hemmer 2016) and instead draw talent from such ‘low-prestige’ public affairs genres as tabloid television and talk radio. In developing such ‘anti-anchor’ personas (Ricchiardi 2009) in hosts Bill O’Reilly, Shep Smith, and Sean Hannity, Ailes enabled these hosts to derive authority by performatively embodying the cultural-epistemological disposition of those non-college-educated viewers who comprise the demographic majority of Fox’s audience.

While the decline in public trust for journalists and ‘official sources’ had been underway decades before Fox News (Gallup 2016; Schudson 2003: 112), Fox was one of the first major outlets to innovate interpretive news strategies tailor-made for the ‘post-modern’ media environment of the 1990s, one in which the status of expert authority was weakening (Beck and Giddens 1994), and ‘televisual style’ was on the rise (Caldwell 1995). The ‘Republican Revolution’ of the 1994 midterms further defined the political polarisation of the 1990s. In this hyperpoliticised media climate, ‘facts’ were increasingly being evaluated not by the methodological rigour that went in to producing them but rather by the partisan orientation (assumed or actual) of the journalist citing them.

To bolster their interpretations of social reality, Fox’s top-rated hosts utilised non-empirical epistemic resources such as lived experience, popular memory, and moral narratives that have been recycled in American political culture for centuries. Unlike formal expertise, these populist bases of authority do not need institutional support to be effective. This chapter explains how Fox’s populist mode of address has changed the political logic of the US public sphere and its journalistic standards of truth.

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