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Fox News at 25
How "disgusting pig" Roger Ailes launched a network and stole an election
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Thanks to one cable “news” network, it’s now impossible in many parts of America for people of opposing views to have a reasonable conversation based on agreed-upon facts.
These fact-free zones have been overrun by Fox News-watching, MAGA-hat-wearing, Confederate-flag-flying, tiki-torch-wielding, anti-masking extremists.
They’re the kind of people who believe that God will protect them from a virus even though they need an assault weapon to feel safe when they go to the grocery store.
If you attack them with a fact, they will scream at you. If you ask them to stick to facts, they will insult you. If, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, you request that they show concern for your child or a vulnerable family member, they may even cough on you.
Even in the most liberal corners of America, most of us know someone who’s been driven completely bonkers by Fox News. Maybe it’s a colleague at work. Maybe it’s the owner of a store you don’t shop at anymore. Maybe it’s someone you had to unfriend on Facebook. Maybe it’s even your own dad.
In 2013, a couple of years after a novel I wrote about the death of print was published, I was asked by the Open Rights Group to write a piece for their ORGzine site about news consumption in the social media age.
In that article, I briefly described the media world before Fox News:
It was 1996. We all had cable TV. And 20 million of us were waiting patiently for our dial-up internet connection to go through. But “news” was still “news.” Despite the predictions of media experts, CNN hadn’t killed newspapers or even newsmagazines. In fact, when big stuff happened live or was given saturation coverage on CNN, print sales went up—people’s desire to read about what happened, to understand it, to put it into the context of our shared history, actually increased.
Until 1996, most of America received and trusted its nightly news from network anchors like Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather, or tuned into CNN when big things were happening, or read about them in a newspaper they had delivered the next morning—or picked up one of the millions of newsmagazines such as Time or Newsweek that appeared on newsstands, in subscribers’ mailboxes and in doctors’ offices and beyond every week. In general, most Americans agreed with Daniel Patrick Moynihan that, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
On October 6, Fox News will celebrate 25 years of misinforming America.
When it launched in October 1996, Fox News reached only 10 million homes (CNN was then in 68.5 million homes) and had no reach in New York or Los Angeles. Its slogan was “Fair and Balanced” but, as the New York Times reported, Ailes’ agenda was already clear:
Mr. Ailes said Fox News Channel, or FNC, would have 16 hours of live programming a day… Starting at 5 P.M., the channel plans to broadcast hourlong shows with the main anchors… (including) Bill O’Reilly… The final program of the day will emphasize debate, featuring Sean Hannity, a conservative commentator, and what Mr. Ailes jokingly called an “L.B.T.D. -- Liberal to Be Determined.”
Twenty-five years later, both the now-deceased Roger Ailes and the disgraced-but-still-grifting Bill O’Reilly have long been exposed as serial sexual harassers and all-round sleazebags. But their longtime partner-in-propaganda Sean Hannity is still misleading Fox viewers, to deadly effect, having long since jettisoned the perspective of an “L.B.T.D.” or any pretense of being either “fair” or “balanced.”
Teaming up with Rupert Murdoch gave former Nixon-consultant Roger Ailes a second chance to build a right-wing TV network. (His first failed attempt in 1974 lasted only until 1975.) And, as The Guardian wrote in 2017: “Over the next 20 years, Ailes would build the business into the most profitable part of the Murdoch empire and a formidable rightwing news machine.”
(Note: Ailes resigned from Fox News in 2016 amid a scandal in which multiple female employees accused him of sexual harassment, including unwanted advances and a variety of sexist and harassing behavior, with one accuser branding him a “disgusting pig.” One month after Ailes resigned in disgrace, fellow misogynist and serial sexual harasser Donald Trump hired him to help him prepare for his debates with Hillary Clinton. Ailes died after a fall in his Palm Beach, Florida home in 2017.)
How Fox News stole the 2000 election
In its first few years—i.e. during Clinton’s second term—Ailes made sure that Fox News downplayed America’s booming economy and Clinton’s historic balancing of the budget (and the looming, pre-9/11 threat of “radical Islamic terrorism”) to concentrate instead on comparatively inconsequential stories such as Whitewater (a real estate “scandal” in which the Clintons lost money) and the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Fox News viewers were programmed to salivate every time they heard the name “Clinton” and be scandalized that Bill Clinton, a self-made Rhodes Scholar, had once puffed on a joint. Meanwhile, these same viewers were trained to view C-student George W. Bush as a man of great wisdom while overlooking his history of drunk driving and cocaine abuse.
Apparently, the “Democrats bad, Republicans good” narrative was exactly the kind of “fair and balanced” news that America’s long-suffering-from-white-privilege conservatives craved. By the 2000 election, Fox News was available in more than 50 million homes.
Even in the network’s early years, the “Fox News Effect” was having an influence on elections. One scholarly analysis showed that Fox News “shifted” nearly 11,000 votes in Florida to Bush in the 2000 election.
But even that wasn’t quite enough. As I wrote in 2013:
By 2000, Fox News was so powerful that when it hired a cousin of George W. Bush and allowed him to award the 2000 Presidential Election to George W. Bush even though the election was still “too close to call” by any traditional journalistic standards, all the other networks went along with the plan. (Later, when traditional journalistic organizations actually counted all the votes, it turned out Al Gore had actually won.)
As then-Washington-Post media reporter (and now Fox News host) Howard Kurtz wrote in November 2000:
Even as he was leading the Fox decision desk that night, John Ellis was also on the phone with his cousins—“Jebbie,” the governor of Florida, and the presidential candidate himself—giving them updated assessments of the vote count.
Ellis’s projection was crucial because Fox News Channel put Florida in the W. column at 2:16 a.m.—followed by NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC within four minutes. That decision, which turned out to be wrong and was retracted by the embarrassed networks less than two hours later, created the impression that Bush had “won” the White House….
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said: “The notion that you’d have the cousin of one presidential candidate… in a position to call a state is unthinkable. Fox’s call precipitated all the other networks’ calls. That call—wrong, unnecessary, misguided, foolish—has helped create a sense that this election went to Bush, was pulled back and he is waiting to be restored.”
Ellis’ election night call—the very definition of “fake news”—allowed the GOP and Fox News to wage a campaign over the next few weeks that painted Al Gore, the true winner of the election, as a “sore loser.”
It was a campaign that helped George W. Bush, the actual loser of the election, overcome the stigma of illegitimacy that would otherwise have tainted his entire time in office.
Simply put, within four years of launching Fox News, Roger Ailes had built a cable network that was not just influencing elections. It was helping Republicans lie and cheat to steal them—something it has, one way or another, been doing ever since.