Has Fox News ushered in the return of the partisan press?
Fox News began in 1996. It was not the first news outlet to revive partisanship. Credit for that must go to "talk radio," not news reporting but strictly news commentary, and far more often than not conservative in political views. This, and later partisan TV news programming, was made possible by the 1987 withdrawal of the "fairness doctrine," a Federal Communications Commission regulation that required broadcasters covering controversial issues to do so giving various viewpoints a hearing. When broadcasting—television especially—was a very limited resource, deregulators successfully argued, there may have been a need for the fairness doctrine, but no longer with the abundance of opportunities for speech in a cable television era.
The trend to partisanship in radio and cable TV is significant but it does not reproduce for the present anything like the partisan press that dominated American media in the nineteenth century. Fox (on the right) and MSNBC (on the left), while they have ardent followers, have equivocal influence. While research makes it clear that Fox viewers have more conservative opinions than non-Fox viewers, it is not clear whether conservative viewers seek out Fox or whether viewers from various political persuasions become more conservative because they watch Fox; the former is surely true, the latter is no doubt a part of the story but it may be a small part.
A partisan press in the nineteenth century when there was very little else, and a few partisan outlets in the wake of the development of strong professional, contextual journalism are very different things. Journalism schools, journalism awards, journalism values are all dominated by professional-style, not partisan-style, news. To the extent that Fox and MSNBC show themselves able to break important stories rather than to just spin in a partisan direction what other media have already reported, they may gain some ground—but this would be to put professional journalism and not partisanship in the driver's seat.
Moreover, television news for the most part follows print— that is, broadcast journalism still rarely breaks stories and rarely does investigative work of the sort that makes waves and sets new patterns. That is mostly the work of print or, today, print-plus-online news organizations, and especially those print outlets that for decades have led the way—the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other leading newspapers that dominate a specific city, state, or region.
Even in television news, the cable channels, including Fox, have not equaled the audience size of CBS, NBC, or ABC, let alone the three of them together. That, of course, is if we compare the audience of the Fox News Channel evening news against the older networks' programs at that time slot, but Fox runs news programming around the clock. This makes it difficult to compare the audience sizes of all-news cable channels to the traditional entertainment-centered broadcast channels with limited hours for news. Still, many people who fear the influence of Fox because they do not share its conservative views, or do not approve its obviously partisan approach to news, exaggerate its place in the total array of television news programming.
The largest impact of cable television on the news audience, as media scholar Markus Prior has carefully argued, is not to poach viewers from the three major broadcast networks but to divert tens of millions of viewers from all TV news outlets toward sports channels, home shopping channels, movie channels, and other non-news programming. Many of the people least interested in national political news who once picked up a modicum of information from ABC, CBS, and NBC abandoned television news altogether for the array of more diverting cable channels.