Ailes is not a man ashamed to gloat. And, though he is perhaps prone to hyperbole, his pride is certainly not without reason: Fox News Channel came out of nowhere to beat cable news rival CNN in ratings after just five years in existence. In the third quarter of 2011, it averaged 1.9 million viewers a night, more than MSNBC and CNN combined. It outpaces competitors in revenue. It regularly ranks among the top five cable channels during prime time, while CNN and MSNBC often can’t crack the top 20. And it has, as Ailes put it, “changed the face of journalism forever.”
Whether that’s a good thing — for journalism or the American public — is the subject of debate.
Brit Hume had been ABC News’s White House correspondent for eight years when he got wind in 1996 that Rupert Murdoch was planning a 24-hour cable news channel. He heard that Ailes was going to lead the venture. Ailes had begun working in television production at age 25 before becoming an adviser to presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and ultimately signing on as president of CNBC. “Oh, boy,” Hume remembered thinking. “This is probably gonna go somewhere.”
Over dinner at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, Ailes made his pitch. “The news as it was being presented by all the major mainstream outlets was not balanced,” Hume recalled Ailes saying. “And there was a whole lot of opportunity to do stories in a different way — a legitimately different way, and to do stories that others were not interested in. And he also believed that there was an insufficient number of conservative voices being heard — very few at the major channels.”
Hume, of course, was employed by one of those major channels. “And I had become more conservative in my outlook and I could see that as clearly as anything,” he said. His wife, Kim, signed on as Fox’s Washington bureau chief and helped prepare the channel’s launch on Oct. 7, 1996. When Hume’s contract came up in December, he joined as managing editor.
Since then, Fox has become a very real force in America’s culture and politics. It has altered the national dialogue with its different sensibilities and given conservatives a platform. It has become the source of great equity or great evil, depending on your perspective.
Fox veterans speak with dreamy nostalgia about the early days, which they characterize as a David-vs.-all-the-Goliaths experiment. Though Murdoch spent tens of millions to launch, Fox staffers remember having a two-person crew, when the other networks had seemed to have a dozen people per crew. They were operating with a try-this mentality and doing it with the awareness of a protective, if frustrating, fact: No one’s really watching.