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Does Fox News add balance or propaganda to the media landscape?

By Andrew Vitelli
 Getty / Spencer Platt
*Updated 2020
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. While it has been plagued in recent years with controversy surrounding numerous and continual sexual harassment cases against some of its biggest names, including its founder, the late Roger Ailes, the network has long drawn criticism over its right-wing tilt. There are claims that it focuses less on accurately and dispassionately reporting the news and more towards confirming its viewers’ preconceptions, including the station’s initial, somewhat questionable, coverage of the coronavirus.
Is Fox News bringing much-needed balance to a one-sided media universe, or is it simply a propaganda mouthpiece, especially regarding the coronavirus, 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. 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 presidential elections. Most of the country was shocked by the 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 of them at odds with the average American. In a 2004 Pew survey, conservatives outnumbered liberals more than two to one. Though the gap is narrowing today, conservatives still outnumber liberals. Some more recent 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 many Americans (41%) don’t trust the media. Critics of Fox News tend to assume that the network is responsible for this distrust, believing these viewers would otherwise get their news from mainstream sources. However, in 2014, Pew found that among the conservatives it surveyed, there was a greater distrust than trust of 24 of the 36 news sources measured, while 88% of conservatives trusted Fox News.

Additionally, recent years have seen the rise of numerous far-right networks, from Breitbart News to the conspiracy theory-filled Infowars. (Although radio host Rush Limbaugh’s ascent predates the network’s launch.) For all its faults, Fox News is much closer to the mainstream than these sources, and features Emmy Award-winning journalists, like Chris Wallace. The news station has even, on many occasions, criticized Trump and has given coverage to many non-Trump-friendly issues much to the chagrin of Trump. Not to mention, it depends on major companies for advertising – which, as the firing of former host Bill O’Reilly shows, helps maintain accountability. 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 (though MSNBC has caught up since Trump’s 2016 election), that is a small market. Its primetime programming boasted 2.4 million viewers in 2018, which seems significant, but not compared to any episode of The Big Bang Theory, which had anywhere from over 18 million viewers that same year.


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 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 President Trump. Plus, the president’s hiring in the summer of 2018 of former Fox executive Bill Shine to head White House communications strengthens the perception that the network and Republican party are closely linked. Shine left the post in March 2019 to reportedly join the president’s 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 are taking efforts to ward off exposure to the coronavirus, a small minority (12%), many of whom reportedly watch Fox News, aren’t concerned, mirroring the station’s initial lackadaisical coverage of the pandemic. Having an additional viewpoint is a 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. 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. Politifact, a non-partisan fact-checking website, rated more than 150 statements made on Fox News by pundits or their guests in 2015. 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?

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