In his article "Roger Ailes’s New Journalism,” Ken Auletta writes about Fox News, the all-news cable channel that, since it was designed and launched in 1997 by Rupert Murdoch with Roger Ailes at its head, has become the cable-news leader, making media stars of figures like Bill O'Reilly along the way. Here Auletta talks to The New Yorker's Amy Davidson about Fox, its conservative political agenda, its personnel, and its future.
AMY DAVIDSON: You spent four months watching Fox News. What did you see?
KEN AULETTA: I saw a news network that was not, as advertised, free of bias and "fair and balanced." This is not to say that Fox News doesn't do some things well. It is to say that the network, like many political candidates, is not always what it claims to be. The network proclaims, "We report. You decide." But, too often, Fox both reports and decides. The anchors are opinionated throughout the day, not just in the evening hours, with Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. Too often, the commentators tilt to the right and don't provide both sides—certainly not the nonconservative side—and many of the network's "liberal" commentators are somewhat meek. Many Fox reporters do offer opinions. In its desire to right the excesses of what it sees as liberal press bias, Fox often goes overboard.
Who watches Fox News?
The largest segment of cable-news viewers is made up of conservatives. According to a Pew Research Center poll, forty-six per cent of Fox viewers identify themselves as conservative, compared with forty per cent of CNN viewers. But, because Fox viewers are more intense, they watch seventy per cent more cable news than CNN viewers do. This intensity of viewing on Fox helps account for its ratings success, since length of viewing and not just total number of viewers is counted by the Nielsen ratings service. Fox's core viewers are conservatives, and they would seem to identify with Fox as their club for news. Thus, on the occasion of Ronald Reagan's birthday, in February, Fox treated it as a cause for celebration, with live remotes throughout the day from the Reagan ranch and with interviews with former friends and associates.
How much have the personality and opinions of Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, defined the network? Or are the important opinions not his but Rupert Murdoch's?
Rupert Murdoch has long believed that the news media are dominated by liberals and that one of his missions is to counter this. He tries to do this with his more than a hundred and seventy-five newspapers, including the New York Post. He had long been frustrated not to have a television news network, and eventually hired Roger Ailes to build Fox News in 1996. Murdoch signs the checks. But, in Ailes, Murdoch found a kindred spirit, a man who shared his conservative politics, his lust for battle, and his view that a liberal bias dominated the media. In Ailes, Murdoch got more than an acolyte. There are those who believe that Fox News succeeds because it simply excites a core conservative base of viewers. This is the cartoon version of Fox's success. Roger Ailes is a skilled former television producer and former campaign operative—he worked for Nixon—who knows how to enliven a broadcast and how to decipher what an audience wants. He is also an executive who knows how to build and inspire a team, and who is considerably tougher (and rougher) than his cable-news competitors in seeking victory.
Ailes also used to work for the elder President Bush, and he and others at Fox have a lot of friends in the Administration. Has there been payback for the support that Fox has given to the current Bush White House, both in terms of access and in terms of regulatory decisions that might benefit Fox's corporate parent, News Corp?
There is no question that the network most Republicans in Washington turn to is Fox. There is also no question that Rupert Murdoch has brought important regulatory issues before the same Bush Administration that his reporters cover. Already he has helped persuade the F.C.C. to reject the merger of the two largest satellite operators, DirecTV and EchoStar, opening the way for Murdoch to acquire DirecTV. Just last week, the F.C.C. recommended that companies like Murdoch's News Corp be allowed to reach more households with the TV stations they own. In the media world, the government regulator is often the eight-hundred-pound gorilla, and on three continents Murdoch has more often than not tamed the gorilla.
With Ailes, his relations in the Bush Administration may have helped Geraldo Rivera. When Rivera carelessly exposed the position of the American unit he was embedded with in Iraq, the Defense Department wanted him yanked from Iraq. Worried that this would embarrass the network as well as Geraldo, Ailes called friends in the Bush Administration. Geraldo and Fox were spared major embarrassment.
What kind of a war did Fox News have? Was it a turning point?
If judged by ratings, Fox had a good war. For the first time in a breaking news story or a crisis, Fox News bested CNN. If judged by journalism, Fox News was not No. 1.
CNN used to be alone as an all-news channel. Now there are Fox and MSNBC. You write in your article about how the competition forced CNN to rethink its identity. Has it done so successfully? And has MSNBC?
Neither CNN nor MSNBC has yet come up with a strategy to counter Fox, whose ratings lead has widened. Each forgot a key lesson in any competition: know who you are and stick to an identity. In a world where mass audiences dwindle and the proliferation of news sources transforms news into a commodity, finding a niche becomes more important. Fox found its niche; MSNBC hasn't, and CNN seems to have lost the one it had.
What about network news programs? Has cable forced the networks to make changes of tone or format?
I think an aggressive Fox News has made the networks more defensive, and no one is more sensitive to criticism than journalists. When Fox and its sister New York Post go after other news outlets for their alleged biases those news outlets often pull back. Some of this is healthy, a vital check and balance; some of it makes journalists meeker than they should be. ♦