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. The network has also drawn criticism over its right-wing tilt, drawing claims that it focuses less on accurately and dispassionately reporting the news and more towards confirming its viewers’ preconceptions. So is Fox News bringing much-needed balance to a one-sided media universe, or is it simply a propaganda mouthpiece pandering to older 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. A 2004 Pew survey, for example, polled national media and found that among the press self-identified liberals outnumber conservatives nearly five to one. Journalists are professionals, and part of that professionalism is putting their own views aside to report a story accurately. However, it is unrealistic to think ideology plays no part. And there are certainly cases of journalists letting their worldview trample journalistic standards – for example, Rolling Stone’s later-retracted 2014 article on an alleged rape at the University of Virginia.
Right-leaning Americans need a voice
Significantly, their liberal leanings put most of the media at odds with the average American. In the same Pew survey, conservatives outnumbered liberals more than two to one. This helps explain why many Americans do not 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. Recent years, though, have seen the rise of numerous far-right networks, from Breitbart News to the conspiracy theory-filled Infowars. And 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, with journalists including Emmy Award winner Chris Wallace. The site has, on many occasions, criticized Trump. And 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 election), that is a small market. The average primetime Fox News show has around 1.5 million viewers, less than 10 percent that of an episode of The Big Bang Theory. And while these viewers may see their preconceived notions reaffirmed, few of them are swing voters taking Sean Hannity at his word.
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, winning over conservative viewers has meant lowering news standards.
At its worst, this has led the network to promote baseless conspiracy theories, such as since-retracted claims regarding the death of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and bogus accusations that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Perhaps more damaging is the reflexive partisanship, which in recent years has manifested itself in a constant vilification of Obama and uncritical defense of President Trump.
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 them from challenging their own perspective; it also limits their ability to persuade and engage others. Trump’s presidency has highlighted this challenge. 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 low-quality journalism
The difference between Fox News and other networks is not simply where they fall on the political spectrum. Fox may also be less committed to accuracy and journalistic standards than its competitors. 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. That is not the case at Fox.
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?