by Jay Whig
New, but not improved, Fox News has chosen to present its election coverage with a strong pro-Joe Biden bias, calling Arizona early (it is still in question eight days after Election Day), predicting Democrats would pick up five seats in the House of Representatives (Republicans appear to have picked up as many as a dozen), calling the election prematurely (Biden is not the “president-elect”), and suppressing news on election fraud and related litigation (it’s real and ongoing). This is the story of the rise and fall of Fox News, and the rise of Newsmax and One America News.
Once upon a time in America there were three news networks. A function of FCC control of airwaves, three major networks ABC, CBS, and NBC were licensed to broadcast VHF television.
Incoming signals were free. The sale of advertisements paid for the broadcasting. The Nielsen rating/share—a measure of eyeballs—drove the value of advertising time. This oligopoly structure disciplined the media.
Each network competed for a three-way news hour rating/share. When it came to broadcast news, ABC, CBS, and NBC each targeted a broad audience. News had to appear trustworthy to many people, and bias had to be carefully structured to preserve a strong trust signal to a large number of people. “And that’s the way it is,” became left-biased Walter Cronkite’s signature signoff from CBS News.
An Evolving Bias Model
Journalism’s ethos was different then. Separating news reporting from analysis and opinion was the best way to get a broad ratings/share. But this separation was also a moral commitment. The basic news format thus favored a stylistically dry, “In Michigan today, counting continues, as one campaign raises doubts about the possibility of fraud and the other denies it.”
The news would often close with an explicit opinion piece, “In an act of desperation, the campaign has refused to concede in the face of a fair and clear election.” But a broadcaster could not alienate its audience with a single opinion bias. The next night the broadcaster might close with “The importance of confidence in free and fair elections means the counting must go on, even if the apparent winner objects.” And so on.
Ted Turner, a liberal tycoon, invented 24-hour cable news television in 1980. Rather than running evening news at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., CNN ran an evening news all day and night long. CNN employed a “trust” format. Explicitly audiences were to consider CNN “the most trusted name in news.”
CNN, quickly popular with viewers seeking up-to-the-minute news, did not break out in a large way with the public until the 1991 Persian Gulf War. CNN carried the war in real time, and the public was glued to CNN coverage of the fighting. War plus 24-hour cable news equals entertainment. Entertainment equals ratings share which equals money.
The success of CNN led to a proliferation of specialty news channels, each chasing increasingly narrow markets. With the chasing of narrow audiences, however, bias had to become more apparent, because narrow audiences wanted their biases confirmed. And this trended Left, so much so that, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush ran against television news media bias using the slogan “Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.”
Fast forward to 1996. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, seeing an opening, launched Fox News. Fox News would shake up the cable television news market. The trust model shifted: Fox News would claim to be “fair and balanced.” Left and Right biases would be presented, but with the Right bias getting the upper hand, filling an empty niche in the news world. Fox News thus pioneered an infotainment style of news with opinion shows such as “Hannity and Colmes,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” and attractive female anchors situated at glass tables.
Fox News was an enormous success, and the success bred imitation. The number of specialty news channels grew to include MSNBC, which indulged left-wing middle-brow interest in opinion, rants, and outright delusions from partisans like Keith Olbermann, who would scream about “the worst person in the world” in his segments, echoing the fictional Howard Beale of the 1979 movie “Network,” who snatched up ratings by threatening to blow his brains out on television.
The amplitude of the bias continually increased and intersected with a change in journalism’s ethos, percolating in the journalism schools and already in practice in the niche newsroom. The broadcasters departed from the pretense of honest fact gathering and reporting. The “news cycle” drove events rather than merely reporting them, and narratives displaced who, what, where, and how as the key news elements. In 2004, legendary CBS News anchor Dan Rather, a biased old dog confronted with a new trick, found himself fired for running a takedown story about George W. Bush that was sourced with clearly fraudulent documents.
With the departure of Rather, the networks continued to segregate according to audience bias, chasing ever shrinking infotainment micro-markets. During the Obama Administration, Jon Stewart’s show on Comedy Central conflated satire and news. Young leftist audiences lapped it up, taking narrative a step further. Journalism is not just telling the story of the day, but making it up, and laughing in someone’s face.
Enter social media and Donald Trump. By 2016, social media had segregated audiences by affinity, using algorithms designed to squeeze the last drop dopamine out of confirmation bias. Unexpectedly, Trump was able to bypass conventional media with Twitter, evading the soft-filter bias pervasive in the cable and broadcast networks and strong-filter bias in the newer news media sources, such as late night television.
With Trump’s election, CNN targeted the strongly anti-Trump audiences and drafted a narrative for the undecided by pumping out gossip and misinformation about President Trump and his supporters. Fox News broke hard for the pro-Trump half of the country.
The end result: a partition of trust in broadcast media. If you trusted Fox News, you did not trust CNN. If you trusted CNN, you did not trust Fox News. Each network’s audience regarded the other’s as idiotic.
In a fully biased—and in some cases, fully based—world of multiple news sources with each churning narrative rather than reporting, there remained for discerning consumers the ability to scan a variety of news sources and re-filter that information to get at the who, what, where, when, and how of events. You might not be able to figure out what is going on listening to Fox News or CNN alone, but you could figure it out if you surfed enough sources and didn’t cling on too tightly to your own biases in the process.
For the 2020 election, however, the social media tycoons joined the journalism-narrative game. They suppressed critical information on Facebook and Twitter. The naïve view of these plutocrats seems to have been that if people cannot see information they could not possibly think of it. Predictably, this had the opposite effect. In the absence of information—when the data is no good because of human manipulation—people think of the missing data, and they assume the worst.
Fox News—with programming led by Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, and Sean Hannity—remained through the 2020 campaign the only large venue for diverse, if biased, information. That ended on Election Night. The James and Lachlan Murdoch power structure inside Fox News made a decision to deploy a heavy pro-Biden bias as results were coming in. In theory, Fox News was to ape the old model of trust. In practice, Fox News shattered all trust at a critical moment.
By constricting the diversity of fact filters through the shut down of right-leaning coverage of the election, Fox News compelled right-leaning audiences to disregard all information that all media was delivering.
Our nation is on the brink. The market is now ripe for the growth of new conservative news media, such as Newsmax and OAN. Ramping up production values and original reporting with an explicit right-leaning bias would make for a better public understanding, and will make Newsmax and OAN a lot of money.
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J. Whig is an attorney practicing in New York and a resident of Connecticut specializing in insolvency and restructuring. Opinions are his own.