In this issue we present two views of the “conservative” news media giant Fox News. The essay by Douglas Burton verges on the celebratory and recounts the merits of the Fox News enterprise and the bold vision of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian press baron, who launched this 24-hours-a-day American news service on Oct. 7, 1996.
Murdoch came to his task well-equipped not only because of his extensive experience in journalism, but also because he had done a trial run for his American news channel in the United Kingdom in 1989. There he had undertaken an earlier venture with a 24-hour news service, but without the entertainment value and wide audience that became associated with the later American model.
Murdoch is also a visionary who shares the neoconservative hope that the U.S. should be the leader in creating a democratic world order. Murdoch hopes to see the American superpower work toward his vision in conjunction with our partners in building a more democratic world, the Anglosphere and Israel. This world vision is reflected in varying degrees in the media enterprises that Murdoch has financed, from Fox News to the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal to The Jerusalem Post. Fox’s invocation of American “exceptionalism,” linked to America’s universal founding creed, is basic to Murdoch’s view of this country and its role in the world.
Fox News has achieved two goals that have eluded other media enterprises. As Burton observes, it has turned politics, which can be deadly dull or an unpleasant irritant, into entertainment. In doing so, Fox and Murdoch have also decisively shaped the boundaries of today’s conservative establishment. Neither development occurred accidentally; both pertain to the chief reasons that Murdoch and his co-investors built Fox News. Although their enterprise functions as theater, with carefully arranged debates and colorful monologues delivered by “opinion hosts,” it is hard not to notice the ideological themes behind this entertainment. These persistent focal points may explain why Fox personalities care so much, for example, about maintaining the Likud coalition in Israel and American military defenses, but don’t give a rap about whether Confederate statues are being torn down or whether army bases in the South long named for Confederate commanders will have their names changed in accordance with politically correct etiquette.
With “Fox Nation,” Murdoch’s channel provides a virtual homeland for American patriots, populated by crusaders for American democracy and featuring virtual visits to historical sites. Brian Kilmeade and other Fox personalities offer, for a monthly subscription, a prepackaged picture of the American past.
This “safe space” for the right basically recycles the 1980s neoconservative narrative of America, or an updated version of what American progressives taught in the 1950s. To summarize this narrative: America exists as an experiment in democracy predicated on the creed that “all men are created equal.” Although racism and slavery marred our beginnings as a nation, Abraham Lincoln was the Redeemer President who cleansed us of that sin through a devastating but necessary civil war. We began to address our racism seriously during Reconstruction, but that attempt at reform was upended and had to wait until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, during which the Christlike Martin Luther King, Jr. died bringing racial justice to our land.
In this view, despite the zigging and zagging of our march toward the Good, the outcome has been supposedly consistent with our founding and the Declaration’s core message of universal equality. This egalitarian idea fueled feminism and then the struggle for gay rights. Although both were originally, from this establishment conservative perspective, worthy causes, they have now allegedly fallen victim to extremists and Marxists. Such excesses, we are told, are incompatible with what America stands for—and the ideals for which our brave soldiers sacrificed their lives. The enemy that all true patriots are asked to combat is not, however, cultural radicalism, but socialism and Marxism. Since the gays and feminists who flood Fox are now against the Democratic Party, they too belong to the world of “Fox Nation.”
The debates between Fox’s carefully chosen guests make clear exactly where the channel’s viewers should stand on the issues of the day. Although Michelle Malkin and Patrick Buchanan used to be invited on to the programs of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, most members of the Old Right, the traditionalist conservatives, are now antiseptically kept out of view. Those entering these staged debates on the side of the faux right are establishment conservatives usually associated with Republican thinktanks or Republican newspapers or else just Fox regulars.
Among the chosen debating partners are the 30-to-40-odd Fox-authorized leftists who are attached to the channel, some of whom, like Juan Williams, are handsomely paid for their ritualistic opposition. Although these exchanges for me are utterly insipid, I can easily imagine they appeal to less-demanding viewers who are hungry to hear “our side” vindicated on television—to see a conservative “own the libs,” so to speak.
Not surprisingly, these debates promote Murdoch’s worldview by shaping permissible political disagreement. For example, on Fox’s faux right we have Tammy Bruce, a lesbian and feminist, arguing with even more progressive social radicals; or Guy Benson, a gay man married to another gay man, taking on debating partners on the political left. We also encounter black Republicans debating black Democrats who supposedly have failed to uphold the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Usually the black Democrats in these debates seem to have the more accurate historical memories.
Fox’s recent moves to the left, which Larry Schweikart documents in our second feature on the history of Fox News and American conservative broadcast television, should cause no surprise. Fox has moved this way before, as the political culture (which Fox has a hand in shaping) has moved in the same direction. What makes the present case different from Fox’s earlier veering to the left, however, is the seemingly blatant character of the shift, away from the central figure of Republican populism, Donald J. Trump.
Schweikart duly notes the rising popularity of the alternative conservative channel Newsmax among disenchanted Fox viewers, who understand the meaning of Fox’s “fair and balanced” slogan differently from, say, Bret Baier or Chris Wallace. For these viewers, a truly fair and balanced conservative network would provide the other side of the story to what one hears repeatedly on mainstream network TV or receives from The New York Times or The Washington Post. It may not impress some of these viewers that Fox personalities Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Judge Jeanine Pirro, and Sean Hannity sometimes defend Trump later in the evening, that is, after he has been hammered nonstop between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. and then by Chris Wallace on Sunday. It may be the cumulative effect of this hammering, particularly the recent contemptuous dismissal of Trump’s seemingly credible claims of electoral fraud on Fox, which has created the present viewer dissatisfaction.
Of course, there were signs this was coming. Anyone who listened to the Fox News All-Stars in recent years would have noticed the presence of Trump-scorners, such as Charles Lane of The Washington Post, Mara Liasson of National Public Radio, and Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg of the neoconservative website The Dispatch. Chris Wallace has been supplying his own version of “fair and balanced” for years, the nature of which became particularly obvious when Wallace moderated one of the Trump-Biden debates last fall. While Wallace energetically sparred with Trump, most of what he threw at Biden were softballs. In August 2019, a war broke out between Trump and several Fox regulars, most conspicuously Neil Cavuto, who took to the airwaves to tell the president, “We don’t work for you.” This came after Cavuto and others on Fox had excoriated Trump for his verbal overindulgence, and Trump opined that “Fox isn’t what it used to be.”
The truth is that Fox was never as much in Trump’s corner as he, National Public Radio, and CNN liked to believe. Unlike those positions that Fox commentators never abandon, such as support for the ruling coalition in Israel and spending more money on weapons, being cheerleaders for Trump was never a unanimous position among the “Fox family.” One could see this in the Fox 2020 electoral polls, which vastly exaggerated, until the day of the election, how far Trump was running behind Biden. Even now, one wonders how accurate is a recent Fox poll indicating that 42 percent of respondents consider Trump to have been one of America’s worst presidents. I’ve a sneaking suspicion the Fox family thumb may have been on the scales that weighed public opinion, as a way of pushing The Donald off the historical stage.
Let me also express disagreement with the opinion, expressed indirectly by Schweikart in this issue as well as by commentators in The American Spectator, that Fox may be committing suicide by going against Trump. For Fox and the Murdoch family, Trump is just an episode in the history of their venture, and not a personality on whose success their channel rises or falls.
For anyone who knows me, it should be clear that I am offering these observations without pleasure, since I consider what Rupert Murdoch and his subordinates have achieved to be ruinous for the American right. But one can’t reasonably argue with Burton’s judgment that Fox has made politics into a winning form of entertainment. Equally relevant, it provides would-be conservatives with talking points, so they can sound coherent in talking to leftist relatives at family gatherings.
The potential alternative that Schweikart and The American Spectator point to is far from exciting. Newsmax churns out lots of talk against a no-frills background. I also wouldn’t hold my breath until it reaches out to conservatives outside the establishment, such as members of the Old Right, paleoconservatives, or paleolibertarians, as guests or regular commentators. Further, Fox’s hard news division covers many of the daily news items that are discussed on Newsmax; and in such cases as the Russian collusion hoax and the Chinese government’s gifts to the Biden family, Fox’s coverage has been remarkably thorough. It is hard to believe that Newsmax will drive down Fox’s ratings over the long haul, unless it can secure the resources to improve its product considerably.
I’ve been thinking as I write about a dead colleague whose life centered on Fox, and who began every conversation by telling me what Brit Hume, Charles Krauthammer, or Sean Hannity had said the night before. My friend, who was a lifelong Republican and a disciple of Russell Kirk, watched Fox with rapt attention every day. He even brought a small TV set to his office so that he could stay tuned between classes. Although Fox had no appeal for me (I told my colleague that I preferred watching football games), it clearly mesmerized him and lots of other Republicans.
And it still does even today. A Southern conservative friend complains to me nonstop about Fox but never stops watching its programs. It is noteworthy that this diehard admirer of Robert E. Lee would be drawn to a channel that treats his ancestors and the “Cause” with utter loathing. It’s like an Israeli nationalist who becomes hooked on Al Jazeera. But my acquaintance continues to watch Fox, and I doubt he would give up that viewing pleasure permanently for Newsmax.
Even more important, because of their vast media and publication outlets, Rupert and his progeny have perhaps irreversibly determined what “conservatism” means for most Americans. About 20 years ago, one of my political science majors, ostensibly a conservative, told me that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the greatest conservative of the second half of the 20th century. King forced us to fulfil the promise of our founding as a nation, which was grounded in universal ideals of equality, he told me.
My student also informed me that most great Americans who were considered progressives in their time, like Lincoln, FDR, and Harry Truman, were conservatives. The radicals were the Confederates in the Civil War, who rejected the “all men are created equal” passage in the Declaration (which is apparently the only phrase in that document worth remembering).
Not coincidentally, this young man listened to Fox faithfully every evening. Although I regret that Fox propagates these “conservative” ideas and excludes any challenges to them, I am not pooh-poohing its dubious accomplishments. They are, to use a cliché popular among adolescents, truly “awesome.”