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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Tabloid blood would circulate through the arteries of what would become a new American television network, breaking the monopoly of the big three. In 1985 Rupert Murdoch acquired six television stations in the nation’s largest ten markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., from John Kluge’s Metromedia conglomerate. The deal, constructed before Murdoch had acquired 20th Century Fox, put the creation of a fourth network within reach. When Murdoch bought out Marvin Davis’s stake in both Fox studios and the stations that year, the Australian newspaper king was suddenly America’s newest multimedia mogul—with major holdings in print, movies, and television.
At its debut in 1986, the Fox network broadcast but a night or two a week. Even when Fox became full-fledged, it provided just two hours of nightly prime-time programming. It offered magazine shows inspired more by the New York Post and daytime television than nightly news programs. In fact, Fox had built no indigenous news division to cover the news.
“A Current Affair” was a syndicated scandal and entertainment TV show that originated in 1986 from News Corp’s flagship local TV station WNYW Channel 5 in New York City. One of its stars was Steve Dunleavy. He wore a trench coat, chain-smoked like Bogart, and cut a memorable figure with a jutting chin and unavoidable pompadour. And he chased just about anything with two X chromosomes. The oft-recycled claim was that he had been in coital vigor with a Scandinavian heiress late one snowy night outside a bar when a city snowplow ran over—and broke—his foot. Dunleavy was said to be so soused that he continued his aerobic affections unabated.
The tabloid columnist Pete Hamill joked, “I hope it wasn’t his writing foot.”
Dunleavy shone as a reporter for Murdoch’s tabloid Mirror in Sydney before breaking stories for the National Star. He headed to greater glories on the Post. During the height of the scare over the Son of Sam serial killings in the New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, Dunleavy wrote a florid front-page piece advertised by the headline “Gunman Sparks Son of Sam Chase.” Readers learned right before the article’s conclusion that the gunman was not the Son of Sam at all.
After helping to launch “A Current Affair,” Dunleavy surfaced yet again for Murdoch on the early Fox weekend show “The Reporters,” another hour of gossip and crime. “In its first couple of years, television was considered a foul little business that no self-respecting journalist wanted anything to do with,” Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote at its debut in 1988. “Fox Broadcasting is trying to bring those days back.”
“The Reporters” didn’t last long, but Dunleavy never lost his luster with Murdoch. Fox did not need to develop refined taste. The early reality Fox show “Cops,” an exceptionally cost-effective production that taped raids by patrolling police officers on low-level criminals, frequently beat its competition in the ratings. “The Simpsons,” a spin-off of Tracey Ullman’s comedy show, became a breakaway hit. “Married with Children,” coarse by anyone’s definition, helped brand the network as edgier and younger than its network elders and prefigured some of its recent successes, such as Seth MacFarlane’s animated “Family Guy.”
Meanwhile, local Fox stations conjured up newscasts with a brisker, more tabloidy feel. By 1992 Murdoch decided that the local stations Fox owned and ran itself would no longer carry CNN’s feed (which he had obtained from CNN founder Ted Turner at a dear cost). In 1995 Murdoch brought to New York one of his foremost British executives, Andrew Neil. To be precise, Neil was a Scot, like Murdoch’s grandfather, but not stereotypically dour. The mirthful former reporter and editor for the Economist had served for nearly a dozen years as editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times; he was also the founding chairman of Sky TV, later merged into BSkyB, today one of the most important holdings the Murdochs control. Neil came to the U.S. to help guide the creation of Fox News.
The birth of Fox News sprang from Murdoch’s decision to create a television empire around sports, as he had previously in Australia and the U.K. In 1993 Fox bought the rights to broadcast the games of the NFL’s then dominant NFC division, swiping football from CBS for nearly $1.6 billion. “We’re a network now. Like no other sport will do, the NFL will make us into a real network,” Murdoch exulted to Sports Illustrated. “In the future there will be 400 or 500 channels on cable, and ratings will be fragmented. But football on Sunday will have the same ratings, regardless of the number of channels. Football will not fragment.”
He was right. And he wanted a winning weekly bookend for football to strike at another top-rated CBS program. “At that stage, Rupert Murdoch had in mind to set up a Fox News answer to ’60 Minutes,’” Neil told me. “It was to be an hour-long news show going out after the NFL football program on Fox.” His costar was to be Judith Regan, a young woman who had sliced her way to the top-selling echelons of the book publishing business. Smart, and possessed of finely sharpened elbows, Regan had by this point been rewarded with her own imprint, ReganBooks, at Murdoch’s HarperCollins publishing house. Neil started getting uneasy as Murdoch brought in a consultant to help punch up the concept of what news would look and sound like on Fox. The idea of creating a show yielded to the idea of creating an entire cable network—a niche news channel.
The new network would speak to viewers who felt the rest of the press was too liberal, like the New York Times, even 60 Minutes itself. The consultant had been a political strategist for presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, the executive producer of a TV show starring Rush Limbaugh, and the head of financial news channel CNBC.
His name was Roger Ailes.
MSNBC launched at about the same time. It was a partnership of Microsoft and the giant manufacturing and finance conglomerate GE’s NBC division. In short, its executives had very little idea of what they were doing other than amortizing NBC News’s costs across an additional channel. A parade of executives came and left in the ensuing decade.
Under Ailes, Fox’s vision was clear and pure. Its cultural sensibility offered a modern version of a “Mad Men” world, where opinions were declarative: men were confident; professional women smart, young, and sleek. And it chased stories of dysfunction in Bill Clinton’s America.
“I’ll tell you what television didn’t do at the time,” Ailes later told Esquire magazine. “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?’”
The American news consumer of just fifteen years ago would not have been able to recognize the country’s current media landscape—the range of choices, the technological innovations, and in particular the cacophony. And no other news organization has done more in recent years to reshape that terrain than Fox. Just about every news organization either mimics or reacts against the way Fox presents the news and the values it represents.
That’s not because Fox News breaks many big stories. It doesn’t. (Part of the brilliance of its financial model is to have a lean reporting staff.) That’s not because the channel draws the biggest audiences in news. Nor does it do so in television news, with some exceptions, though it is a dominant force in cable television.
What Fox News does, instead, is to determine what it believes should be the story of the day. It is a choice intended not just to select its own coverage, but to force others to pay attention—day after day. Fox News does so with an eye for episodes overlooked by other major news outlets. It particularly seeks storylines and themes that reflect and further stoke a sense of grievance among cultural conservatives against coastal elites.
“Cable news punches above its weight, if you look at its influence,” former Fox News vice president David Rhodes once told me. “How many people are actually watching it, from moment to moment?” The highest-rated shows draw between 2.5 and 3.3 million viewers on any given night, at most a bit more than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
When not inflamed, the channel’s anchors often look as though they’re having fun. And the network’s news staff includes some professionals whose work could appear on any number of outlets.
At the outset, Ailes made a couple of key moves on the news side to shore up its credibility on the air. He hired John Moody, a veteran of Time magazine and United Press International (UPI), as a senior news executive. Fox’s first reporters included Jon Scott and Gary Matsumoto of NBC. Catherine Crier of CNN and Court TV became an early anchor. Tammy Haddad, the executive producer and creator of CNN’s “Larry King Live,” was briefly employed to develop a Sunday public affairs interview show carried on both the Fox network and on the cable channel. As perhaps Washington’s premier booker of top-shelf guests, Haddad also helped to plot the show’s launch more generally. The first day, anchors interviewed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole. For the desired core audience, the channel offered someone to root for, someone to root against, and someone to vote for.
On the first day, Bill O’Reilly, formerly of ABC, CBS, and the tabloid television show “Inside Edition,” appeared on his new program “The O’Reilly Report” (later rechristened “The O’Reilly Factor”). “How did television news become so predictable and in some cases so boring?” O’Reilly asked viewers. “Few broadcasts take any chances these days and most are very politically correct. Well, we’re going to try to be different—stimulating and a bit daring, but at the same time, responsible and fair.”
Those remarks sounded much more temperate than O’Reilly proved to be. He had a calibrated sense of rights and wrongs, and a hair-trigger temper. With O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, a forceful conservative paired with a relatively weak liberal, Alan Colmes, and Bill Shine, who oversaw the opinion hosts, the new network was defined at least in part from its earliest days by three Irish Catholics from Long Island who liked a good rumble.
One of the most important new faces of Fox was Brit Hume. He had been a political reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun and did legwork and writing for Jack Anderson’s investigative column. (The CIA had briefly put Hume under surveillance after the column featured some scoops involving the agency.) He had risen to become the chief White House correspondent for ABC News. Tall and courtly, his suits often accompanied by a pocket square with a printed pattern complementing his ties, Hume bestowed credibility and class on the brash new network. His wife, Kim Hume, had left ABC to become Fox’s first Washington bureau chief before he arrived.
Brit Hume was a hardworking reporter with a textured understanding of political combat and a sly appreciation for irony. He had been the one to make the considered case for the journalistic soundness of the Fox way. Most reporters and editors, he argued, approached their jobs with professionalism but could not escape a culturally liberal outlook. Reporters covered gay rights and environmental activists through this prism, Hume said, seeing parallels to the civil rights movement, and failed to subject them to the same scrutiny social and religious conservatives faced.
“A very large percentage of readers and viewers out there were really insulted and found their sensibilities offended,” Hume told me some years later. “I had always had the feeling that if somebody built a broadcast network that challenged that, that there would be a remendous market for it.” Stories not being told by the other news outlets represented “low-hanging fruit,” the kinds of pieces that could be reported evenhandedly by anyone but were not selected for broadcast or publication elsewhere.
A push for new EPA rules might strike the Washington Post or CBS News as a story about the debate over cleaner water. Fox might frame the same story around small business owners struggling to keep pace with red tape from Washington.
Perhaps most important, Ailes instinctively recognized good television and understood how to create it—defining “good” as something viewers would want to watch and keep watching. It was close to Murdoch’s definition of the public interest. In this case, Ailes knew that Fox’s defining feature would require a highly cultivated resentment toward other news organizations. The “fair and balanced” slogan alone was an increasingly explicit assertion that mainstream press organizations were not fair or balanced. “We report. You decide,” provoked the same reaction in viewers and the competition. On Fox, the news programs served to get out the mission statement: the other news organizations look down on you and your beliefs. Here, you’re home.
Fox initially had to fight to force cable system providers to carry the network. Luckily for Ailes, he had a powerful friend in the nation’s most populous metropolitan region. Time Warner’s refusal to welcome Fox in New York City caused Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to threaten to carry the channel (along with Bloomberg TV) on the city’s public access station. Giuliani also implied he would revoke Time Warner’s lucrative cable franchise for the city. His brass-knuckled tactics showed a preference for one for-profit over another. He argued that Time Warner was favoring its own station, CNN.
Murdoch had been angered by Time Warner’s roadblocks. Ailes had run Giuliani’s first, unsuccessful bid for the mayoralty in 1989, and they remained close. Top Murdoch executives (including Ailes) had spoken more than two dozen times with aides at City Hall to coordinate a strategy in a two-month period. The coordination was too cozy for the federal judge ruling on the case. “The city’s purpose in acting to compel Time Warner to give Fox one of its commercial channels was to reward a friend and to further a particular viewpoint. As a consequence, Fox was the recipient of special advocacy,” wrote federal judge Denise Cote. “The city has engaged in a pattern of conduct with the purpose of compelling Time Warner to alter its constitutionally protected editorial decision not to carry Fox News. The city’s actions violated longstanding First Amendment principles that are the foundation of our democracy.”
Yet Time Warner yielded. And Fox took advantage to build a greater audience. It covered the Clinton impeachment as ABC built “Nightline” on coverage of the Iranian hostage drama—an ongoing crisis with an uncertain outcome of national import. Only Fox News would tell the full truth, its tenor implied.
The pacing was fast, the graphics crisp and lively. Fox’s Ailes wanted viewers to enjoy what they saw. And he made enough liberals part of the mix to ensure some ideological clashes. Ailes hired people he had battled during earlier political campaigns, including Geraldine Ferraro and Bob Beckel, Walter Mondale’s campaign manager. Children of such prominent Democratic families as the Kennedys and the Jacksons found work at Republicans’ new favorite place to watch TV.
In 2000, Fox News covered the political conventions for the first time. In news from the Middle East, Fox won favor with many Jewish viewers by employing the term “homicide bomber,” rather than the more common “suicide bomber,” to keep the emphasis on the deaths of innocents, not the perpetrators. Fox painted those who did not climb on board its various campaigns as opposed to the country’s well-being.
Excerpted from “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires“ by David Folkenflik. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.
David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent. More David Folkenflik.
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