The Fox Formula

The author of a new book on Roger Ailes talks about the world of Fox News.

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Although Fox News has been the dominant cable news channel for a decade, there are indications that, while its ratings continue to dominate, its influence is ebbing. Take for example the 2012 election, when the channel did all it could to help Mitt Romney get elected, yet fell short (despite Karl Rove’s now infamous standoff with Megyn Kelly on Election Night).

The man behind FNC is Roger Ailes, who first came to prominence in the 1960s working on The Mike Douglas Show, and then as a media consultant to Richard Nixon’s presidential run in 1968. A new book by New York magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice in the Room, documents his story. Earlier this month I spoke with Sherman about the book, beginning with Bill O’Reilly’s interview on Super Bowl Sunday with President Obama.
GET REAL: Sherman contrasts mainstream media reality with "Fox News reality."
  • GET REAL: Sherman contrasts mainstream media reality with "Fox News reality."


Gabe Sherman:
It was a window into the two realities. You have the reality that exists in the mainstream media, where there’s coverage of the president, and then you have the Fox News reality, where every one of those scandals is covered as if it’s the tip of the iceberg of a second Watergate. And what I find so interesting is that, on Fox as the beacon of conservative media, there never is an answer that is enough for their anchors. You saw O’Reilly’s hectoring of the president. It’s almost like just by asking the question they keep the story going.
I’m an investigative reporter. I live for reporting. And so, all those stories — Benghazi, IRS — I don’t know why Ailes doesn’t have a team of investigative reporters digging into the president, and if it is a second Watergate, that’s a story that he should be aggressively pursuing. … Because my feeling is that as a reporter my job is to give my readers answers, so by asking questions it’s in service of seeking an answer and seeking the truth. But to me, O’Reilly was just simply asking questions to present his narrative that the president is embattled and engulfed in scandals.

CL: You write how the Swift Boat Vets for Truth, the group of former Vietnam vets who challenged the narrative about John Kerry’s record in Vietnam, marked a turning point in cable news coverage. How so?
It’s interesting. You can compare the 2004 election with the 1998 Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. And the point I make in the book is that in 1998 when Bill Clinton was engulfed in the media storm around Whitewater and the Lewinsky saga, that was a legitimate story. Bill Clinton’s failures as a president was legitimate news, was covered aggressively. His supporters would say too aggressively. He was hounded by the media, but what was interesting was the mainstream media — the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC News — they were chasing the Lewinsky story as aggressively as the conservative media was. The difference between that and the Swift Boat story was that in 2004 the Swift Boat attacks started as a piece of political propaganda. It was an advertisement created by an independent group that debuted on Fox News that became a campaign flashpoint, and so the point about illustrating that episode in the book is that by 2004 a cable news controversy, a confection that was distributed to the American people by cable news, then became a major national news story. So cable news was driving the agenda. Whereas the Clinton scandal was started as a case of the president’s personal failings that was fueled by being a legitimate news story.

The Democratic Party and President Obama at times have gone to figurative war with Fox News.
Well, the Democrats’ relationship to Fox is really interesting, and I trace the evolution of it. Over the last 10 years there have been two major schools o
BOWL GAME: O'Reilly's Super Bowl interview was about hectoring Obama, not truth-seeking.
  • BOWL GAME: O'Reilly's Super Bowl interview was about hectoring Obama, not truth-seeking.
f thought in the Democratic Party about Fox News. There is what I call the Bill Clinton school, which is pragmatic and political, and that wing of the party sees Fox News as something that should be cultivated, or at a minimum, not ignored.

And Bill Clinton supporters in the Democratic Party argued for engagement with Fox. That you should never let the right wing go unanswered and you should always go on the offensive. The other wing of the party, which grew up around Howard Dean’s candidacy in 2004, was the grassroots, progressive wing of the party, the Netroots. And their philosophy was: Fox News is simply a propaganda machine, it’s not legitimate news, therefore Democrats should not treat it as a legitimate news outlet and should marginalize and isolate the network as such.
And we’ve seen those two philosophies kind of battle each other and at certain times the Clintonian engagement strategy has been employed, and then at other times the Howard Dean isolationist strategy has won out. The fact that the president gave an interview to O’Reilly is not indicative of any macro shift in the White House’s stance towards Fox. The president has a tradition of giving interviews to whatever network hosts the Super Bowl, so that was a kind of unique case. I think the Obama White House from my reporting feels that Fox News is what it is, and they’re not going to change anyone’s minds at the network, so they’re essentially going to freeze them out, and to the extent that they engage with them, it’s on a case-by-case basis. But I don’t think the Obama White House feels that they can win Fox over by rolling out the red carpet and doing a charm offensive. 

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