Fox News was launched in 1996, created as an alternative to news stations like CNN. The station quickly became a favorite among conservative viewers and soon shot past its rivals in the ratings. It has recently been plagued by controversy, including revelations that its star commentators promoted Donald Trump’s 2020 election fraud claims even while knowing they were false. Before that, there were numerous and continual sexual harassment cases against some of its biggest names, including its founder, the late Roger Ailes. But even before these controversies, the network long drew criticism over its right-wing tilt, specifically claims that it focuses less on accurately and dispassionately reporting the news and more towards confirming – and catering to – its right-wing viewers’ preconceptions (some say misconceptions) about current events.
Is Fox News bringing much-needed balance to a one-sided media universe, or is it simply a propaganda mouthpiece, pandering to older, more conservative white Americans? We take a look at three arguments for each position.
Fox News provides necessary balance
The media really does have a liberal bias
While it has become a cliché to criticize the mainstream media’s liberal bias, it is also a stretch to say such a bias does not exist. It is perceived that in most newsrooms, left wing views dominate, which can be attributed to the fact that only 7% of journalists self-identify as Republican. Not to mention reports that assert that Google tends to push news stories for left-leaning readers. Journalists, whether at Fox News or elsewhere, are professionals, and part of that professionalism is putting their own views aside to report a story accurately, as Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson did when warning about the dangers of coronavirus earlier than most, if not all, of his colleagues. However, it is unrealistic to think ideology plays no part. Just look at the effect of the media bubble after the 2016 US presidential elections. Most of the country was shocked by the newly elected President Trump’s victory, perhaps a result of the media letting its left-leaning views cloud reality on the ground.
Right-leaning Americans need a voice
Significantly, the media’s liberal leanings put most TV news channels at odds with almost half of America. In a 2021 Gallup poll, 43% of Americans described themselves as Republicans compared to 46% as Democrats. Additional reports suggest that liberal bias has given way to another problem: journalists overall are too cautious to avoid being labeled as too liberal or too conservative. This helps explain why half of Americans in a recent survey indicated that they believe news organizations deliberately mislead them. Critics of Fox News tend to assume that the network is responsible for this distrust, yet even amid recent court filings that have verified instances of false reporting, its ratings have held steady among its base.
Additionally, recent years have seen the rise of numerous far-right networks, from Breitbart News to the conspiracy theory-filled Infowars. For all its faults, Fox News is much closer to the mainstream than these sources. Without Fox News, sites like Infowars would benefit more than CNN.
Fox News is not to blame for radicalism
To say that Fox News is responsible for the beliefs of its viewers is to reverse cause and effect. Right-leaning voters have always been attracted to politicians and pundits who buck the liberal mainstream, from President Nixon to Barry Goldwater to George Wallace. The news channel did not create these viewers, it just appeals to them. Fox is also not the powerhouse liberals imagine. While it has historically dominated cable news in the ratings contest (and still remains the most-watched cable news network among the key demographic despite the Dominion lawsuit controversy), that is a small market. Its primetime programming boasted 2.3 million viewers in 2022, which seems significant, but not compared to Sunday, Monday or Thursday Night Football (between 10-20 million viewers) or the TV hit Yellowstone (11 million viewers).
Fox News has harmed political debate
At Fox News, ideology comes first
Having a conservative voice among the news channels to question assumed wisdom and counter perceived bias makes sense in theory. But at Fox News, winning over conservative viewers has sometimes led the network to promote baseless conspiracy theories. These include the Fox Chariman Rupert Murdoch and several commentators’ privately rejecting election conspiracy theories even while promoting them online, since-retracted claims calling the coronavirus a Democratic-backed impeachment scam, and bogus accusations that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Perhaps more damaging is the reflexive partisanship, which in recent years manifested itself in a constant criticism of Obama and seemingly uncritical defense of former President Trump. Plus, the former president’s hiring in the summer of 2018 of former Fox executive Bill Shine to head White House communications strengthened the perception that the network and Republican party were closely linked. (Shine subsequently left the post in March 2019 to reportedly join Trump’s failed re-election campaign. Let’s also take note that it was Fox News’ Tucker Carlson who reportedly convinced President Trump not to go to war with Iran in June 2019.
It creates an ‘echo chamber’
Conservatives have long disagreed with the mainstream media’s liberal tilt. But before the launch of Fox News, they were at least forced to engage with the news seen by a major share of Americans. With many right-leaning viewers now getting their information from Fox News (along with the rise of partisan online media sites), though, they are not exposed to the viewpoints many Americans take for granted. Not only does this stop conservatives from challenging their own perspective, it also limits their ability to persuade and engage others. For instance, while the majority of Americans were taking efforts to ward off exposure to the coronavirus, a small minority (12%), many of whom reportedly watched Fox News, weren’t concerned, mirroring the station’s initial lackadaisical coverage of the pandemic. Having an additional viewpoint is positive but creating a bubble (a phenomenon present on both sides of the partisan divide) is not.
It is perceived by some as low-quality journalism
The difference between Fox News and other networks is not simply where they fall on the political spectrum. Some consider Fox as less committed to accuracy and journalistic standards than its competitors. The news channel has been criticized for making light of the January 6 capitol riots. This starts at the top: The Chief Executive of Fox Corporation Lachlan Murdoch was reportedly unaware of the decision by Fox News hosts to play down the threat of the coronavirus on air, giving precedence, instead, to a potential business deal. In the past, Politifact, a non-partisan fact-checking website, rated more than 150 statements made on Fox News by pundits or their guests. Sixty percent were rated Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire. This compares to just 27 percent for CNN, and 41 percent for MSNBC, the network’s liberal competitor. Fox News has also never won a Peabody Award (though other Fox affiliates, including FX, have). There’s a place for punditry, but at other networks, it takes a backseat to journalism. This is not necessarily the case at Fox News.
The Bottom Line:No one can question the impact that Fox News has had on the worlds of American broadcast news and politics in the last two-plus decades. Is this a positive development? Has diversifying the news landscape helped hold traditional media accountable? And how will the network continue to evolve?