No reasonable person would sincerely deny that Fox has a distinct bias favoring Republicans, and conservative Republicans especially. Even Fox used to admit as much. When he started the network, Ailes was straightforward in talking about his desire to redress what he saw as ideological bias in the mainstream media. He wanted to address the same “silent majority” his old boss Richard Nixon had sought to serve. This is nowhere more apparent than in the guests who appear on the network. On the day in question, other than short video clips of news conferences or other public appearances, Fox didn’t put a single Democrat on the air except as a foil for Republican or Fox commentators.
This appears to be politically motivated, but that could be just an artifact—the content seems political but the primary aim is much more likely commercial. Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast. At any given moment, there are a relative handful of people (in peak hours less than five million and in non-prime hours half that, out of the U.S. population of 320 million) watching all of these networks combined. American Idol, in contrast, routinely draws 30 million. Although cable news is a comparatively small market, it is a small market with a much larger mindshare, mainly because the media are self-reflective, creating a kind of virtual echo chamber. It is also lucrative. Advertisers want exactly the sort of educated, higher-disposable-income audience news programming tends to attract.
Ailes has proven an extraordinarily acute businessman who has, according to an excellent piece by David Carr and Tim Arango in the January 9 New York Times, turned a fledging news operation that barely existed a decade ago into the runaway market leader in cable news and a profit engine that turns out more than $500 million annually for Rupert Murdoch’s global News Corporation.
Ailes’s most valuable insight was that sharp opinions do not necessarily chase an audience away. In fact, they seem to have created one. There is no worry of offending a broad audience, because there is no broad audience to start with anymore.
It’s worth noting that MSNBC languished in the cable news ratings competition until becoming more sharply opinionated, in that way becoming a left-leaning analog to Fox. It’s highly doubtful this change was due to political considerations. In other ways, though, MSNBC is not a Fox analog at all. Although its overall operation is sharply to the left of Fox, it offers a wider array of guests and doesn’t completely shut out Republicans. Matthews, for example, on the day in question conducted a friendly interview with two Tea Party Republican activists. The existence of Morning Joe, starring outspoken conservative Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC’s morning air offers further evidence.
Ailes, by his programming choices, sees no need to have a liberal counterpart to Scarborough on Fox. Why should he? He’s got the ratings, the money, and a political operation that is nearly pure in its adherence to contemporary populist Republicanism.
But is it an arm of the GOP? Not unless you think Roger Ailes would actually work for Michael Steele. It is more likely the other way around. Steele, in some broader cultural sense, works for Ailes, who is without close contest the most powerful Republican in the country today. The national Republican Party has shrunk to a narrow base with no apparent agenda other than to oppose everything the Obama administration proposes. This extends even to opposing policies Republicans either created or once supported. In explaining these reversals, Republicans frequently say that their changes of position—for example, on deficit-reduction measures that they routinely dismissed when in the majority—owes mainly to changes in national circumstances. But the main circumstance that seems to have changed is their loss of formal power in Washington. This suits Fox perfectly, and gives heft to its self-definition as an insurgency.
*CLARIFICATION: A Fox News spokeswoman says she never mentioned Neil Cavuto or Greta Van Susteren as being among the network’s opinion-driven personalities. She says both host news shows.