COMMENTARY

Fox News: 25 years of making everyone's lives progressively crappier

Conservative media was going to birth a network eventually. But Fox has made life worse, even if you never watch

By Melanie McFarland

Published October 7, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Megyn Kelly, Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Megyn Kelly, Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Fox News Channel has offered us oh so many ways to mark its 25th anniversary. How could we possibly count them? Creating a chronological list of its Achievements in Outrage would be a massive undertaking; someone else is welcome to it.

Retracing its history back to the start, when the late Roger Ailes launched the network with an array of opinion-based programming packaged to resemble news and calling it "fair and balanced," has been done. Citing poll data and statistics proving the extent to which the network's dedicated viewership is more misinformed than other news' outlets consumers would be similarly redundant.

Instead, let's simply pause for a moment and marvel at the spectacular impact a quarter of a century's worth of Fox News has had on American life itself. Whether a person watches the channel or never tunes in does not matter. In some way, Fox News has made your life remarkably crappier.


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That pandemic we're still in? Fox News' prime time hosts have taken joy in helping to prolong it, and purely for the sake of harpooning a Democratic president's approval rating. Mask-wearing and vaccines, two common sense mitigants to get the spread of COVID-19 under control, are partisan issues dominating airtime on Tucker Carlson's and Laura Ingraham's shows. 

Were you hoping to get a break from the sanity-testing anxiety created by the 2020 presidential election? Sorry! Joseph Biden's win meant Fox News lost the main source of its ratings, Biden's orange opponent. So it turned to a fresh energy source: amplifying The Big Lie and assaulting the integrity of our elections by echoing the losing party's baseless claims that the results were rigged.

This may make it sound like Fox News has made life worse solely for liberals but, hate to break it to you Fox News fans, it's also made life crappier for you.

Between Bill O'Reilly's nightly "Talking Points Memo" propaganda post-its, Megyn Kelly's obsession with Jesus' whiteness, Glenn Beck's rants and the contents of any Sean Hannity or Carlson transcript from the past half decade, Fox News has become rich by drawing you into a loop of anger and paranoia.

That loop was built to keep you watching Fox News and primes you to doubt or fully reject other news sources. Outlets that base their reporting on helpful, illuminating details like data, input from accredited experts. Some of them also publish lovely recipes for quick and delicious weeknight meals.

Worse than all of that, Fox also somehow persuaded you to place your faith in hucksters like Rudy Giuliani, who became so legally radioactive that even they had to ditch him, and Mike Lindell, who may have persuaded you to sleep on his terrible pillows.

This is on top of convincing people that risking severe illness and death is worth it, so long as you protect your personal freedom to refuse scientifically proven preventative measures to protect you from that severe illness and death.

Back to those of us who aren't necessarily saddled with relatives drooling a gravy of lies, illogic and outright bigotry all over otherwise pleasant family gatherings.  O'Reilly's manufactured War on Christmas still managed to cast a mild pall on the simplest interactions with strangers. Remember that inanity?

Anyway, those were simpler irritants of a bygone era, when we did things like go over to other people's houses, or spend time in large crowds without fear of infection or sudden outbreaks of hand-to-hand combat.

Change the lens to a wider view, and Fox's destructive role becomes nothing to joke about.

Fox shaped the nation's narrative by emboldening rewrites of history, reinterpreting fact and encouraging the disbelief of one's own eyes. It wins by purposefully repeating misleading information reduced to catchy bumper sticker summations of divisive topics presented with little nuance and devoid of context.  

Television news' overall quality is worse as a result, since Fox's political influence and popularity shoved all mainstream news coverage rightward. The network infected journalism with the disease of false equivalency and obfuscation, as organizations contorted themselves to placate accusations of liberal bias. This is explains why, for a short time, NBC tripped over itself to hire Kelly before attempting and failing to normalize her, hoping the audience would eventually forget about her past. And they would have gotten away with it too, if not for her addiction to defending blackface.

The slippage began around the time of the 9/11 and the Iraq War, when Fox first surged ahead of other networks. But it accelerated in the lead-up to the 2008 election and during Barack Obama's presidency when, among other feats, Fox amplified the birther lie.

The urge to ensure representations of all voices on all stories led to such situations as, for example, Republican energy lobbyist and climate change denier Rick Santorum being called upon to offer insights about a damning U.S. National Climate Assessment issued in 2018. He was featured on a news segment instead of a respected climate change scientist and author – who was bumped.

Fox News didn't do that, by the way. That was CNN, doing its best to give a voice to "both sides."

In fairness, and for the sake of balance, it would be silly to blame Fox News for everything that's gone wrong in America over the last 25 years. Republican operative and strategic racist Lee Atwater planted the seeds from which our modern version of partisanship blossomed by the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, long before Fox came into existence.

Rush Limbaugh's toxic version of 1990s conservative talk radio was a fixture in media predating Fox as well. Certainly he gathered the first members of what would evolve into the channel's flock. Ailes tried to launch Limbaugh in syndicated television before attempting to bring him over to Fox. He ended up settling for Sean Hannity instead.  

Point being, some version of a conservative news channel would have emerged eventually. And might have even been far worse. 

Still, one wonders how such a network might have fared if it emphasized journalistic integrity while incorporating a conservative point of view instead of perpetuating an endless cycle of fear, loathing and rage.

Don't think about it for long: Fox tried that. That effort is called its news division, prime time's parasitic twin that management calls forth from the lineup's innards every election night like Kuato. But even the journalistic side succumbed to Breitbart's influence after the 2016 election; with Fox's older viewership dying off, disaffected young white men are replenishing the ranks. 

Indeed, for Fox to not have become what it is today, the Republican party, conservative talk radio and the Internet would have to be remarkably different entities than they are and always have been.

America itself would have to be different.

While you cannot blame the network for all that ails America and its imperiled democracy, you can certainly place a surfeit of responsibility upon it for the majority of the ills that befell us over the last six and continues to bedevil us now.  

Rupert Murdoch himself claimed credit for getting the 45th president elected and was happy for his network to serve as the administration's propaganda arm.

You remember what happened after that, don't you? Not the details of the blur, the low-grade despair born of being dragged in its current. In the past, when Republicans had an actual agenda, Fox helped sell it to the American people with no apologies. Maybe that meant persuading viewers to hating the French for no reason other than to prove one's patriotism. Maybe it meant making up a non-existent threat like the New Black Panther Party to further stoke its viewers' fear of being governed by a Black president.

Now, Fox's talking heads drum up reasons for people to be afraid of or angry at people dedicated to making their lives better, such as teachers and scientists. Once the network drums up a misinformation campaign, there's little that can be done to stop it from proliferating and mutating into its own virus.

Fox News hosts were key players in transforming "critical race theory," which is taught in law school, into a plot to make white schoolkids feel bad by learning about slavery's foundational role in the making of America. Carlson, the channel's top rated personality is promoting the supposed "great replacement" of the white electorate by non-white immigrants, and spreading anti-vaccine and anti-mask rhetoric.

Crowds of people who could be engaging in any number of worthwhile pursuits – baking, reading, getting vaccinated – are intimidating school boards, threatening election officials and attacking healthcare professionals.

And at 25 Fox is still the top-rated cable news channel. According to Nielsen, in its third quarter the network's ratings averaged 2.372 million viewers in prime time, beating MSNBC (1.267 million viewers) and CNN (822,000 viewers). All three networks suffered a year-over-year ratings decline, with Fox News down by 32% in prime time.

Its overall viewership may be declining, but that matters less than the channel's gravitational pull. Think of the right wing mediasphere as the Star Wars equivalent of the Imperial armada – it's a dreadnought, towing along all the smaller ships like OAN and Newsmax, destroyers and all.

Depressing, isn't it?  But that's why Fox News is inescapable. Have a few conversations with people you know, and odds are one of them will reveal they believe President Biden stole the election, or that the threat posed by the Jan. 6 insurrection is overblown, because Tucker said so.

Even if you live in a partisan bubble, someone in your circle of acquaintances is taking ivermectin or believes hydroxychloroquine can be used to treat COVID-19, because "The Ingraham Angle" touted these treatments.

They may have received that information from another source such as OAN, Newsmax, their yoga instructor or Joe Rogan. Rest assured you can draw a line right back to Fox News.

How do we move forward from this? Every answer is insufficient and exhausting. Fox News management isn't interested in reining in its prime time hosts because they're the channel's main ratings magnets. De-programming experts have all sorts of suggestions on how to save the rabid Fox addicts in your life, but once again that places the burden on reasonable people to wade into a reservoir of hatred that's been steadily filling for two and a half decades.

Oddly enough, I stumbled upon another response while watching a 1993 episode of "Northern Exposure," where the characters gather for a feast to celebrate, yes, the 25th anniversary of the local media company owned by the town's version of Roger Ailes, Maurice Minnifield. This is not a perfect parallel, since Maurice was the type of conservative Clinton-era liberals wanted to believe in, which is to say that despite his prejudices, he tended to behave humanely towards others.

Still, to mark that milestone, the town's sage and disc jockey Chris Stevens raises his glass, looks the devil in the face and speaks honestly, calling Maurice a homophobe and a bigot. Then he adds, "One thing you can count on, there's no hidden agenda with this man. Maurice Minnifield is not gonna stab you in the back! No, you're going to see him plunge that dagger right into your belly, pull it up, and twist, and twist, until your guts spill right out onto your shoes."

That doesn't make the blade poking our belly feel any better – but like the man said, at least the adversary is right in our face. What matters next is how the media and democracy responds.

Tellingly Fox, at 25, has changed its slogan to "Standing Up for What's Right."


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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