A decade after being dubbed the most trusted man in America, in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Walter Cronkite retired as primary anchor of CBS News. In retrospect, it marked not only a changing of the guard but the beginning of the end of the idea that Americans would have an unfailing belief that any one newsman, whatever his personal biases, could be trusted to practice impartial journalism.
Mr. Cronkite’s last year, 1981, coincided with the rapid growth of cable television as an entertainment and information medium. And Mr. Reagan’s reign ushered in the first media-savvy presidency that went beyond merely governing. It wanted to change the agenda concerning values and morality.
Nearly 24 years later, we have a Republican administration that once again has an agenda that includes values. The difference is that this time around Americans have more ways to get news than ever before-broadcast, cable, radio, print, the Internet, supermarket displays, cellphones and more. But instead of making us feel as if we are better served, it has left us confused and skeptical.
We intuit that a lot of the media can’t really be trusted. That has made us feel as if “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” (billed as “The most trusted name in fake news”) or filmmaker Michael Moore or commentator Rush Limbaugh offer an alternate form of news that somehow is more credible. Major media news anchors are no longer the most trusted people in America.
It is against this backdrop that we have seen in the past year the rise of the Fox News Channel, founded only in 1996, as one of the most important news media in our culture. While the broadcast networks struggle to find their focus in this environment, hoping to draw viewers who have one hand on their remote, Fox has engaged an ever larger audience that is amazingly loyal to the FNC brand. On Election Day 2004, the Fox News ratings were (by Fox News estimates) 238 percent larger than on Election Day 2000. Fox News came within less than 2 ratings points during key periods of the 2004 election period of beating broadcast network CBS.
While viewers may not trust any news outlet completely, large numbers-especially of those viewers living between the coasts-have found in Fox a friendly harbor. It appears to give them great comfort in a confused, changing and often ugly world. They don’t need trust. They want news that reinforces their own belief systems.
It is hard to overstate the immensity of this change, or the implications it has for our future. Fox News, in combination with a network of conservative talk radio commentators, has changed the way many Americans process news-despite or maybe because of the adamant opposition of numerous intellectuals, journalists, celebrities and others who still can’t believe what has happened.
It leaves Bill Shine, 42, VP of production and executive producer for Fox News, bemused that his competitors and critics have been run over by the wildly popular Fox News Channel but still don’t know what hit them.
“If after eight years of looking at us you still don’t understand what we do or what we are about,” Mr. Shine said last week, “if you just want to place us in some little corner, `Oh, they’re just a righty network,’ that’s fine. … If you don’t understand what we do, if you don’t get `fair and balanced,’ you’re never going to beat us.”
For much of the day, FNC grinds out news that looks a lot like what everyone else offers but with snappier graphics and faster pacing. You have to pay attention to understand stories they do, like the current obsession with anything perceived as anti-Christmas (such as a ban on public displays of Christian celebration), to understand there is always an agenda.
It becomes most obvious when the sun sets and personalities take over, such as Bill O’Reilly (whose views can be surprisingly complex), Sean Hannity and Brit Hume. Mostly their opinions come out of their lives and merge with their journalism.
Mr. Shine is adamant that FNC does not toe any party line and isn’t part of anyone’s conspiracy. He pointed out that Mr. O’Reilly this past year criticized such administration figures as Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and occasionally even President Bush. On the other hand, he said with a chuckle, commentators like Mr. Hannity are consistently conservative in their politics. “Sean is to the right and is a die-hard conservative,” Mr. Shine said. “We pay him because he holds those views, the same as we pay [somewhat liberal commentator] Alan [Colmes] because he holds those views.”
Fox has reaped ratings, if not respect, in all quarters. Will success change the channel, I asked Mr. Shine. “One of the main reasons this channel is so successful is because there is one voice who we take commands from,” he replied, “and that’s obviously Mr. [Roger] Ailes. He is the chairman and CEO. And what Mr. Ailes has always instilled in us is to have this way to go about work as if you are an underdog, as if today is a new day and you have to go out and work harder than you did yesterday. Don’t let up. Don’t let go. Go forward. Be No. 1. Keep going. And although we have been No. 1 for years now, Mr. Ailes has not let us forget that.”
As this year ends with President Bush pushing his values agenda for four more years, Fox has got game and isn’t going away. The challenge will be for all the other dispensers of news, be it Brian Williams on NBC or some pundit on the Web, to find a way to build as loyal an audience and keep it coming back again and again.
A final note: A column earlier this year about Fox News Channel’s public relations department (TVWeek, July 26) described its tough-love approach to dealing with fellow media. When Fox felt unfairly treated by a reporter, it stopped returning his or her calls, even when that person represented major media such as the Associated Press. In some cases the ban lasted years.
However, within a few weeks of that column’s publication, Fox News PR appeared to reinvent itself, taking a much more congenial approach. It began talking again with every journalist mentioned in that report. Last week a Fox spokeswoman insisted things “really didn’t change that much.” She said there are still journalists Fox won’t deal with because, in Fox’s view, they have not been fair. However, she declined to name names of those currently on the “out” list.