Michael Massing says that now Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is under examination, it’s time to scrutinize Fox News.
Since being launched in 1996, Fox has had a profound and toxic effect on the press and politics in this country. With a daily prime-time viewership of around 2 million—more than that of CNN and MSNBC combined—it has become the Republican Party’s most powerful booster. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox,” David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, has observed. Fox has put several Republican presidential hopefuls on its payroll and allowed other candidates to fund-raise on its shows. After appearing on Sean Hannity’s program, for instance, 2010 senatorial candidate Sharron Angle boasted that that she had raised $40,000 before even leaving the studio.
Fox has helped to foster the Tea Party and amplify its message. In the days prior to the nationwide Tea Party gatherings on April 15, 2009, Fox ran more than 100 promos touting both its coverage and the movement. (“Americans outraged over unfair and crippling taxes,” went one. “They fight for their future. Neil Cavuto [a Fox anchor] is giving them a voice.”) The endless publicity given the Tea Party, in turn, helped make possible the sweeping Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections. According to New York magazine, FOX News president Roger Ailes, disappointed with the Republican presidential field, called New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to urge him to enter the race—one of a number of king-making bids by Ailes, who, the magazine observed, has in a sense become “the head of the Republican Party.”
Unlike the News of the World, there’s no indication (as of now) that Fox has engaged in illegal activity. What it has done is violate every journalistic and ethical standard. It has promoted preposterous conspiracy theories, peddled blatant falsehoods, and given a soapbox to all sorts of cranks and crackpots. It ballyhooed President Obama’s “terrorist fist jab,” spread false reports that he attended a madrasa, gave Donald Trump a platform for questioning the president’s US citizenship, and endlessly promoted “Climategate,” the faux-controversy surrounding the leak of emails from climate specialists at the University of East Anglia in England. According to a public-opinion study released six months after the invasion of Iraq, 67 percent of regular Fox viewers believed that the United States had found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with al-Qaeda; another poll released last December reported that 60 percent of Fox viewers believe that most scientists have concluded that climate change is not occurring—examples of how the network has contributed to the steady seepage of know-nothingness throughout the American body politic.