Fox staffers point to coverage of various events that catapulted the network to prominence. Perhaps it was the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the 2000 Florida recount, Sept. 11, 2001, or Hurricane Katrina. By its 10th anniversary, executives had put together a video montage of quotes from early critics who pooh-poohed the channel’s chances. The not-so-subtle message: “Eat crow, wouldya?”
Among the things that set the channel apart was an underlying belief that news needed to double as entertainment. Even his sharpest critics agree that Ailes’s skills as a TV producer are unsurpassed. He made the graphics flashier, the segment titles more arresting and pushed the pacing to match that of a multi-tasking public.
He had a discerning eye for talent, signing Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Shepard Smith and Greta Van Susteren. And he pushed his new team to alter the role of the on-air journalist.
“The reporter and the host became personalities,” said Tom Goldstein, director of media studies at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “They became almost more important than the stories.”
Other news channels followed suit, adding visual pizazz, such as the news ticker that Fox began running after the Sept. 11 attacks. They also gave their journalists more leeway to emote, though none to the degree of Fox.
Sometimes, explained veteran anchor Shepard Smith, his team has worked on a story for months, “and I’ll do anything to get you to watch it. . . Anything short of altering the truth, we’ll do.”
Critics say that includes sensationalism, fear-mongering and partisanship. “Fox News in essence sort of became a right-wing talk radio station but with pictures,” said Steven Livingston, a media professor at George Washington University.
But for all those who deplore the network, there’s no debating that its approach has attracted a large and loyal cadre of viewers.
“They provided a source for news to a lot of folks who were disgruntled with their choices up to that point,” said Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University. Now, “if you want to run for office or if you’ve got policy moves you want to make, at some point you’ve got to address the audience that is watching Fox. They’ve put themselves in a position where they can’t be ignored anymore.”
Stocking up from the right
Fox’s biggest departure from its competitors was its political orientation. The network programmed mostly news during the day and opinionated talk during prime time. While it hired a few Democrats, such as Joe Trippi and Evan Bayh, it stocked its editorial pundit ranks with prominent Republican officials and candidates.
Before the 2008 election, for instance, Fox News hired George W. Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove, as an analyst. And it has rotated through contributors who were expected to be Republican contenders in 2012, including Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.