A debate is brewing about just how much influence Fox News exerts over the United States. In a New Yorker piece — “The Making of the Fox News White House” — Jane Mayer examines the intimacy between the White House and figures like Sean Hannity. “If the news on Fox is all about some kind of caravan of immigrants supposedly invading America, whose idea is that? It turns out that it is this continual feedback loop,” Mayer said in a New Yorker podcast. And in a New York Times Magazine piece, Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg trace the power of Fox News patriarch Rupert Murdoch — and how it “remade the world.”
Not so fast, says Michael J. Socolow, a professor at the University of Maine in The Conversation. The influence of Fox News is exaggerated, he argues — and Politico media critic Jack Shafer agrees. The myth, notes Socolow, starts with the network’s founder: “Like the Wizard of Oz, Roger Ailes inflated the image of his own potency and his network’s power. Recent events, such as the election of Donald Trump, apparently confirm the network’s influence. Yet when we pull back the curtain, the evidence that Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch, created and sustained our current political moment, appears far more circumstantial.”
We’ll take various strands of the argument one by one:
Let’s begin with the idea that Trump’s 2016 victory can be attributed to Fox News.
Such an assertion would be a lot more believable if Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes had wanted Donald Trump to be the 2016 Republican nominee.
But they didn’t.
Rebuttal: Whatever Murdoch and Ailes wanted to happen in the primary doesn’t much matter if key Fox News hosts such as Bill O’Reilly, Hannity and the “Fox & Friends” crew coddled the real estate mogul throughout the primary.
Furthermore, consider that “Fox & Friends” provided a weekly call-in platform for Trump starting in 2011 — a moment that allowed him to test out his various faux-populist talking points, not to mention forge a coziness with a cable news team that shows no signs of strain to this day. Even more important: Fox News projected programming sensibilities — slander immigrants; fearmonger on terrorism; pretend to care about working-class people while favoring economic policies that favor the rich — that Trump packed into his successful campaign. He had a road map provided by the programming that he has watched for years and years.
Despite paying her US$1 million per year, and providing ample airtime on supportive shows, Fox News couldn’t turn Sarah Palin into a respected Republican figure.
Rebuttal: Since when is the elevation of Sarah Palin a criterion for national influence? After all, it is Sarah Palin we’re talking about here.
On a more serious level, the outsize influence of Fox News finds corroboration in the desperation of all the Republican presidential wannabes to secure face time on the network. Recall how Trump, during the presidential primary, read off the cellphone number of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) at a campaign rally. How did he get the digits? As Trump told the story, Graham was “begging” him to help arrange an appearance on “Fox & Friends.” Who can blame him?
Journalists and scholars underplay the reality of Fox News’ small audience. On an average night in 2018, Fox News attracted about 2.4 million prime-time viewers.
That’s an impressive number. It made Fox News the most-watched cable television programming in 2018.
But the U.S. population in 2018 was approximately 327 million, which means that 99.3% of Americans weren’t watching Fox News on any given night.
About 26% of registered voters are either registered Republicans or identify as Republican, and in 2018 there were an estimated 158 million registered voters.
Thus, on a typical night in 2018, even if every Fox News viewer were a registered Republican (and they’re not), 94.2% of Republicans in the United States still wouldn’t be tuning in.
How few people actually watch Fox News? The lowest-rated broadcast network news program — the “CBS Evening News” — averaged more than double the number of Fox News viewers in 2018.
Rebuttal: The U.S. population figure cited by Socolow includes infants and children, which rather inflates the number not watching Fox. Here’s a more relevant figure: Forty percent of Trump voters cited Fox News as their “main source” of news about the 2016 campaign, according to the Pew Research Center. Next in line was CNN, which a mere 8 percent of Trump voters cited as their “main source.”
That same survey drives at why Fox News deserves special consideration in the pantheon of influential media organizations. Voters for Hillary Clinton showed no corresponding devotion in terms of their news sources, as 18 percent cited CNN, 9 percent cited MSNBC, 8 percent cited Facebook, and so on. There’s simply no outlet that dominates any other part of the political spectrum in the way Fox News dominates the right.
With that dominance, Fox News has done great damage. It’s not as if Fox News’s influence extends only however millions may be viewing in prime time. There’s what experts call a “media ecosystem” out there, where people take nonsense uttered on Fox News, then share it on Twitter, on Facebook, with their neighbor. Nonsense has a high pass-around rate.
Just take the whole “deep state” conspiracy theory, which holds that President Trump fell victim to a plot by national security establishment figures who felt threatened by his outsider policies. In their book “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts examine how the phrase “deep state” morphed from a nonpartisan description of dark forces to a highly partisan attack on Trump detractors. They found that Fox News played a key role, though not a solitary one:
As we look at the reshaping of the new “deep state” frame from its original, nonpartisan concern into a distinct narrative about a partisan attack on Donald Trump, we can certainly find critical moments at which Breitbart played a central reframing role. And we certainly find plenty of the craziest conspiracy theories hovering at the margins. But as we move now to analyze how this broad frame was translated over the course of 2017 into repeated concerted efforts to defend the president from the Russia suspicion, we see Fox News taking center stage in a much clearer and more distinctive way by deflecting attention and blame, interpreting the investigation in deeply partisan terms, and sowing confusion and doubt. And it is here too that the broad and loose gestalt frame takes on distinct falsifiable forms whose pattern fits that of a sustained disinformation campaign by a propaganda outlet, rather than as episodic errors by a journalistic outlet.
Another topic addressed in the book is Fox News’s May 2017 story fanning the conspiracy theory that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who was slain in D.C. in summer 2016, was the source of the WikiLeaks emails, and not Russian hacking. The authors argue that their data “shows the central role that the Fox DC affiliate and Fox News played in developing and propagating the story to other media, and how central YouTube was to disseminating Fox News network programming online, particularly Hannity.”
Benkler told the Erik Wemple Blog in an interview: “The right-wing media ecosystem has developed into a completely distinct and insular ecosystem that operates purely on identity-confirming narratives,” he says. “Fox News is the leading node in the right-wing ecosystem: It’s the primary source of stories, the primary source of accreditation, the primary source of attention.”
Then there’s the idea that the real power of Fox News originates in its uniquely close relationship to the Trump administration.
Specifically, former Fox News executive Bill Shine’s appointment to a supervisory role for White House communications — while he was still being paid by Fox News — indicates identical and shared communication goals between the White House and cable channel.
But there’s a long history of tight entanglement between broadcast corporations and the White House, with numerous examples of the same kinds of backroom deals that are likely occurring now.
Rebuttal: To advance his case about this “long history,” Socolow cites infractions during the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. That Socolow has to reach back that far into history doesn’t debunk the case that there’s something special about the Fox News-White House relationship; rather it advances the case that there is something special about the Fox News-White House relationship.
Criticism from The New Yorker and The New York Times only helps Fox News gain credibility with its constituents — the viewers at home, and the Republican Party in Washington. Such attention proves that Fox News continues to frighten its enemies.
Roger Ailes never feared criticism from respectable media.
Rebuttal: Oh yeah? Did you ever have a run-in with the Fox News PR shop?
Sean Hannity cannot snap his fingers and generate a federal indictment of Peter Strzok, nor can Steve Doocy snap his fingers and stifle President Trump’s most embittered critics. Media personalities aren’t omnipotent. Sure, Barack Obama secured two terms as president despite Fox News. Certain favored politicians of Fox nation may not have made it as far as they would have liked. These benchmarks, however, miss the bane of Fox News, which lies in its central mission of misinforming its Trumpite audience. The network is influential because it has banished a common set of facts for American political discussions.