Conventional wisdom says Fox News, or quite commonly “Fox” has shaped, even driven conservative thinking and behavior. Even that of the MAGA version of conservatism. Fox it is believed describes the picture to be painted, and then tells it’s conservative viewers to actually ensure it gets painted. That’s the way it is, and has always been. Right? Actually, according to an article by The Atlantic I read this morning not so much. I, and I’m pretty sure most people have had it all ass-backwards.

Let’s start with what we know, or have assumed we’ve known. From The Atlantic:

For at least two decades, Fox’s alleged Svengali-like control of Republican voters has been an article of faith among academics and in much of the mainstream media. One 2017 study in the American Economic Review, for example, suggested that Fox alone could explain the entire increase in American political polarization from 2000 to 2008, a stunning conclusion given the complicated dynamics at play among tens of millions of voters.

The article talks about the (huge) importance of Fox as THE platform for Republican candidates and influencers, how it has relentlessly attacked every Democratic President and candidate (or potential candidate) and its relentless creation and promotion of culture war issues. The “War on Christmas” was a biggie (unmentioned but just as huge was anti-gay talk), and more recently I’m sure you remember the COVID misinformation that got so many people killed and wrecked the economy.

However, despite it’s cultural and ratings clout when you take a closer look Fox hasn’t ever actually been able to dictate Republican electoral politics!  You’re probably saying Nah. That can’t be right. So, let’s go back a few decades. Before what we know as Fox, as in the Fox News Channel creation of Roger Ailes there was the Fox Network which had of course a news division headed by Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan. It might have claimed the “Fair and Balanced” nonsense but it never was. It was always a staunch supporter of the GOP and wanted the GOP in control of all of government.

In the runup to the 1992 election it was, at least well into 1991 a given that George H.W. Bush would handily win re-election. Many would be Democratic Presidential wannabe were hesitant to even run and of those that did (including a young Arkansas Governor) doing so was more of a practice run for a real attempt at the Presidency in 1996. Then the economy took a hit and slid towards recession. Pat freaking Buchanan became popular with the masses (my aunt who once had been a Democrat was enthralled with him) and suddenly all bets were off. Bush would wind up being the nominee but not without a bruising fight that culminated with a fiery address by Buchanan at the GOP convention which turned off a lot of Americans. Fox couldn’t keep all that from happening.

In any case, in 1996 Lachlan moved from Fox to bigger and better things and the elder Murdoch turned over the keys to Fox News to Roger Ailes with the formation of the Fox News Channel which has driven Fox News ever since. Including their evening prime time “opinion journalism” that’s must-see-TV for the average conservative. Backing Baby Bush over Gore was a reflexive act. Fox had spent eight years trashing all things Clinton so they didn’t need to get involved in picking a candidate. Baby Bush “avenging” his father’s loss to Clinton was a natural reaction and while there were concerns (W blew through a LOT of money in the primaries) they were shunted aside.

Fox would have backed Bush’s re-election over any Democrat in 2004, again reflexively and their manufacturing of culture war crap again helped them get their wish of a Republican in the WH. The point though is there was never really any doubt on their part they’d back Bush 43. It’s after that things get interesting and the pattern emerges. In 2008 Fox initially was smitten by Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee who went on to win Iowa. Then despite Fox’s support faded and the GOP voters chose John McCain. In 2012 they went all-in on frequent Fox contributor Rick Santorum who won Iowa in an upset, but like Huckabee soon faded and the GOP voters went with Mitt Romney who was hardly the kind of fire breathing conservative Fox hosts wanted to see. Santorum would actually become an object of ridicule. Remember the long running gag where people made sure a Google search’s on “Santorum” first response was a vulgar definition related to anal sex?

It’s worth noting that during this time, and in fact over a five year period Fox kept trying to recycle Sarah Palin as a candidate. We know that effort (thankfully) failed but not for lack of Fox trying to get conservative voters to give her another chance. That brings us to 2016. Like everyone else Fox saw Trump and thought “This dudes a joke but he ought to be good for ratings for a while” and decided to ride the wave like everyone else. Like everyone else, I’m sure Murdoch and probably even Ailes was horrified when it became clear that Trump had gone and created MAGA Nation and was headed towards the nomination. Unlike other networks (most notably CNN) who also kept giving tons of free coverage to Trump, Fox couldn’t start questioning his fitness for Office.

An unholy, shotgun marriage took place and we’ve all been living with the consequences since. Fox at times wanted to move on but MAGA wouldn’t let them. Every time they’ve tried it’s literally cost them. Viewers, and therefore ratings (at least with the right demographics for top ad rates) and money. Fox has been stuck with Trump, including his Big Lie and it has cost them. The Dominion settlement for example. Don’t forget (I’m sure Fox hasn’t) there’s a much larger one yet to come and SmartMatic is in no mood to settle anytime soon. They probably will but at least for double, perhaps even triple the 787 Dominion got. Fox also, due to trying to create some distance from Trump allowed other media entities to gain some market share.

Fox has been between a rock and a hard place for some time because of Trump who has made no secret of his desire to have his MAGAs keep the pressure on even as the Dominion lawsuit was unfolding and Fox was clearly going to take a big hit. Depositions showed executives knew what their prime time hosts were saying over and over on the air was bullshit but they were afraid to call a stop to it:

The now-obvious reason: Fox’s leaders feared that their audience would light out for other, even more strident TV networks if Fox didn’t keep hammering Dominion. This was not irrational. Incensed that Fox had called the election for Biden, Trump encouraged his supporters to abandon the network. “The great @FoxNews daytime ratings CRASH will only get worse!” he tweeted two weeks after Election Day.

Newsmax surged out of obscurity and Fox had a choice to make. The recommitted to Trump and sure enough their ratings rebounded. The Atlantic summed it up perfectly writing:

The lesson was obvious: Fox holds less sway over its audience than its audience holds over Fox. The viewers demanded that their delusions be catered to. Fox, chasing ratings, complied. (This dynamic recently prompted Ron DeSantis, of all people, to complain, of Fox and Trump, “They don’t hold him accountable because they’re worried about losing viewers.”)

Fox HAD a virtual monopoly on conservative television news and it was broken. MAGA is large enough to do real damage and what MAGA wants (clear, unquestioned support of Trump by Fox) then MAGA gets. However much Fox wants to break from Trump every time they try MAGA jerks them back into line and other conservatives aren’t all that worked up over that either. So when you look at the big picture and over time, Fox has repeatedly tried to tell viewers who to support and time after time viewers have instead effectively told Fox “We KNOW who we want and you will hype them or we’re gone.”

I actually was going to write about this as soon as I read the linked article from The Atlantic. However something nagged at me and I held off. Then the light bulb came on in my head. It illuminated the article’s recounting of Fox pushing candidates and conservative voters rejecting them, AND the whole pre Roger Ailes version of Fox News the article didn’t talk about. It’s an awful thought but the fact is Fox never, NEVER shaped conservative thought. It was always out there, before Fox became a network in 1986 and almost failed. It was the harnessing of all that conservative anger, grievance  or whatever you want to call it that Fox harnessed when creating it’s initial version of national news coverage.

Fox didn’t, and never has shaped/molded or directed conservative thinking. All it’s ever done is give voice to a massive number of Americans views and helped them realize there were far more of them out there than they realized. Too much is out there to erase all the history of the rise of Fox News and the role it’s played in our politics. History’s judgement will ebb and flow for countless generations to come. It will be interesting to see how with enough time, say at least five hundred years it all shake out. Assuming the human race somehow lasts that long.

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. “Before what we know as Fox, as in the Fox News Channel creation of Roger Ailes there was the Fox Network which had of course a news division headed by Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan. It might have claimed the “Fair and Balanced” nonsense but it never was. It was always a staunch supporter of the GOP and wanted the GOP in control of all of government.”

    Um, no. This is incorrect. The Fox Network, when it began was the “Fox Broadcasting Company” but it had NO regular news programming. The network’s schedule ran from 8pm ET to 10pm ET from Monday through Friday and 7pm to 10pm ET on Sundays (Saturday was largely left to the local affiliates to fill with their own programming much as it still does). During the network’s first decade, Fox went on a bit of a spree, getting VHF channels to switch from the Big 3 to them; a lot–if not most–of Fox’s earliest channels were in the UHF band (channels 14 and up) which meant a tuning dial that wasn’t always precise and the signal faced more wavering (you might have the dial set “perfectly” and an hour later, the signal would start having snow or static, requiring an adjustment). By the early 90s–but before the onset of the Fox News Channel–most of the UHF band issues had been resolved as cable became more common and TV manufacturers were giving up the VHF dials in favor of digital programming (no need for the dials when your remote could get the channel for you). Most cable systems prioritized the local channels to the old UHF numbers (your local “Channel 43” NBC affiliate could now be found as “Cable Channel 6”) and the “cable channels” (like MTV, Nickelodeon, USA Network, etc) wound up on the old VHF numbers (if there weren’t enough local channels, the cable channels could be set in the lower range but it didn’t really make any difference since the remotes could handle anything from 2 to 99, either with or without needing a 2-digit entry).
    Anyways …………………….
    Fox, after acquiring all those local affiliates in the early 90s, now had access to THOSE channels’ news broadcasts but the affiliates remained largely independent news of the network and Fox did start making an occasional foray into a national news program which aired on the REGULAR Fox network. But they failed.
    Now, Murdoch did have his history with news channels in Australia and the UK but he didn’t seriously consider a separate cable news network until 1995 and he didn’t make the formal announcement of the network until early 1996 and the network only launched just ahead of the 1996 presidential election.
    Fox News had largely been run completely separately from the regular Fox network (where “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” and “American Idol” aired) although Fox News hosts would act as the hosts for the occasional news event programs (like the State of the Union) but regular Fox was run as a completely separate entity from Fox News. ABC, CBS and NBC are monoliths where their news divisions are just that–divisions of the network. They’re forced to compete for ratings just as if they were a series like “NCIS” or “Survivor” or “Monday Night Football” (and many of the long-time news pros at all three networks largely began departing/retiring when the networks started expecting their news divisions to operate the same way as the entertainment divisions).
    Fox News and its vile subsidiaries like Fox Business Channel are utterly reprehensible primarily because they’re considered CABLE CHANNELS. People can file complaints with the FCC if Fox runs outlandish propagandistic program or something that purports to be factual but is filled with blatant lies; if Fox News or Fox Business runs some outlandish propagandistic program or something purportedly factual but filled with lies and there’s no authority to complain to. (Well, the judicial system but that’s only going to be an option for corporations with pretty deep pockets–like Dominion. The average person who invests their life savings in a stock they heard about on Fox Business and it turns out the Fox Business host who hyped that stock just happened to sell his shares within 24 hours of the broadcast, making a huge profit because the suckers bought into his hype, and then the stock becomes worthless just 24 hours after that, well, there’s no recourse for that guy. Sure, he could try suing but the network shows the disclaimer at the bottom of the screen that runs in tiny type and at a rate the equivalent of running the full text of the Constitution on screen in just 2 seconds. The law doesn’t usually say the disclaimer has to be comprehensible–it’s always up to the consumer to do due diligence.)

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