There was something almost quaint about America in 1993. The Internet was barely out of the cot; the Cold War was over; Kurt Cobain was alive; and Bill Clinton was still viewed as a faithful husband. Even the Israel-Palestine conflict looked fixable.
But in Washington, the seeds of today’s political discontent were already being sown. Two years after Clinton had swept to power, the Republicans took both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Never again, battle-hardened Republicans promised to themselves, would they stay locked out of power for that long.
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In its place spawned a new grassroots conservatism that was angry and uncompromising, finding its voice in a conservative “under-media”, as Andrew Breitbart termed it, that included Drudge Report (1995), Fox (1996) and Newsmax (1997). But it was Fox, which first aired 25 years ago today, that dominated, providing an outlet to a white Middle America that felt neglected and ignored by Washington and the established media.
Politics was indeed becoming angrier, but a deeper, spiritual malaise had also been spreading beneath the surface. The cultural and sexual revolution of the Sixties, Vietnam, Watergate and the oil price crisis chipped away at the post-war building blocks of American society, particularly in the heartlands where wages were stagnating and jobs were moving offshore. By 1994, trust in the Government sunk to its lowest point ever.
This was the environment into which Fox was born. Its benefactor, Rupert Murdoch, was so desperate to seize it that he offered to air Fox for free — and even paid cable companies $20 a subscriber.
But to fully understand how Fox became the news empire that it is today, you need to understand the man central to the entire operation. His name was not Rupert Murdoch, but Roger Ailes. The Chairman, as he became known, was a grotesque figure whose jowls would expand like a toad’s vocal sac when he was irate (an employee once put a frame around a hole in the wall and wrote: “Don’t mess with Roger Ailes.”).
This anger — part pathological, part driven by what he saw as a corrosion of American values — informed much of Fox’s coverage. This became clear from the very first sequence of the channel’s launch: criminals, flag-burning, and protests formed the basis of Fox’s nightly news coverage. These were topics that the liberal media refused to cover, argued Ailes, and America wanted to hear them. As he later said:
“I’ll tell you what television didn’t do at the time. … It didn’t reflect what people really thought. I mean, they’re sitting there saying, ‘Wait a minute, New York’s going broke, Los Angeles is broke, the United States is broke, everything the government has run is broke, Social Security is broke, Medicare is broke, the military is broke… Why do we want these guys making all these decisions for us?’”
A former Nixon operative, Ailes learned from his boss how to mine and re-package feelings of resentment back to his base. He cultivated an us-vs-them mentality among viewers (and voters) that put them on a permanent war footing. Using tough, earthy language, news anchors would speak to viewers like they were foot soldiers, warning them that Christians were under attack, liberals were starting a war and the media was out to get you.
Crucially, there was always an enemy, which again stemmed from Ailes’s own paranoia. In fact, so petrified was the Chairman of being attacked by gay rights activists in the 1990s that he installed bomb proof glass in his office window. When Fox was first established, he situated its newsroom in a windowless bunker replete with an in-house research unit — known as the “brain room” — that required special security clearance to gain access. “The brain room is where Willie Horton comes from,” said one Fox insider. “It’s where the evil resides.”
Indeed, there was something faintly ridiculous about the whole thing. On the Fox sofa would sit a chopstick-thin blonde wedged between two Irish-American walruses telling viewers that their country was under threat. They were, in effect, trying to mobilise a patriot army, even though the median age of that army was 65. Programmes would therefore be interrupted by commercials (of which there were many) that were largely geared towards class action hip-replacement lawsuits and wonder drugs for erectile dysfunction. It was like an army general having to remind his soldiers to check their catheter bags before going to battle.
But there was a scintilla of self-awareness too; a nod and wink to the camera that this was entertainment as much as it was news. In fact, Fox had one-third the staff and 30 fewer bureaus than CNN, and the organisation did very little in the way of original reporting. Instead, it decided what the news was, telling its viewers what to care about, and sometimes even waiting for Democrat leaders to respond to a story before it took the opposite line (as it did with Obama and the George Zimmerman shooting).
All the while, Fox’s influence grew, far outstripping that of its rivals. By 2008, it had more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined, pulling in over two million viewers a night. Politically, it was pushing viewers to the Right, too. One study showed that in districts where Fox News was available, there was a Rightward drift in voting patterns while another found that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008.
Such was Fox’s influence that Republican leaders would beg Ailes and other executives to ordain them; even Barack Obama — who faced grim levels of racist coverage before and during his presidency — held a behind-closed-doors meeting, agreeing to do more interviews in exchange for dialling down his coverage. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” said David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter. “Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.” Having tipped the electoral balance in George W. Bush’s favour by prematurely declaring him president in 2000, this was undoubtedly true. Ailes, too, was keenly aware of this fact. By 2010 Fox’s power was so great that the chairman declared that he wanted to “elect the next president”.
Yet it was not until Trump that Fox and the White House became almost inextricably linked. Throughout Trump’s presidency, it was never quite clear if Fox was the tail wagging the dog or the other way around. Between 2018-2020, Trump live-tweeted Fox news programmes 1,100 times, so much so that Fox and Friends began talking to Trump rather than about Trump. On one occasion, the hosts of Fox and Friends asked the President to flash his lights on and off in the White House if he was watching.
This close relationship between the President and network was bound to turn ugly if and when the two fell out. This occurred after the 2020 election when Trump deemed Fox to be insufficiently zealous in toeing his stolen election line. He called on his supporters to instead watch OAN and Newsmax, two Right-wing insurgents that made Fox look like C-Span: in one viral OAN clip from last month, a presenter pulled the plug on an interview with a veteran for criticising Trump, as well as his predecessors, for the country’s military problems in Afghanistan. He then pledged his allegiance on camera to the dear leader.
But Fox’s rivals were not just queuing up on the Right. During last year’s election, moderates and Democrats also flocked to MSNBC and CNN, which led to Fox suffering its worst ratings in 20 years. For the most part, though, Fox remains dominant. In recent months, it has restored its position at the top of the leaderboard, securing an average prime time audience of 2.4 million nightly viewers.
And so Fox News remains king of Red America. It’s certainly helped that every week, liberal late night talk show hosts laugh at the dumb rubes featured on Tucker Carlson Tonight or the Ingraham Angle. But what they don’t understand is that this mockery and condescension were the basis for Fox’s birth: a platform for disenfranchised, disillusioned conservatives who felt looked down upon by coastal elites and Washington. Every sneer, jibe and insult since only justifies Ailes’s project. This is Fox’s world; America just lives in it.