Book Club: How Fox News Built Its Scream Machine In The Obama Era

Roger Ailes, chairman and chief executive officer of Fox News, listens as anchor Shepard Smith, seen on screens in front and behind him, as Smith talks to the audience via satellite from Israel, at the Summer Televis... Roger Ailes, chairman and chief executive officer of Fox News, listens as anchor Shepard Smith, seen on screens in front and behind him, as Smith talks to the audience via satellite from Israel, at the Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, July 24, 2006. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon) MORE LESS
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As Obama cruised to a win on Election Day [in 2008], liberal commentators triumphantly wrote about the marginalizing of Fox in a progressive era. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon wrote that Fox “seemed a weak and piteous thing . . . staring mortality in the face.”

Yet Fox News mapped out a strategy to ensure that times would be fatter than ever, as Bill Shine, Fox News senior vice president for programming, later told me. “With this particular group of people in power right now,” Shine observed, “and the honeymoon they’ve had from other members of the media, does it make it a little bit easier for us to be the voice of opposition on some issues?” It did. The Fox News audience grew so much after the election that ratings estimates placed it among the highest-rated of all basic cable channels, above the usual strata of cable news.

Bill Sammon, a conservative columnist and author who had previously written for the Washington Times and the Washington Examiner, took responsibility for directing political coverage as the network’s Washington managing editor. But tension emerged between Fox’s Washington and New York shops over the tenor of its coverage.

During the campaign, Sammon to varying degrees had tied Obama to socialist and Marxist thought–often by connecting him to the charged rhetoric of the president’s fiery former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Wright’s radical rhetoric, replete with anti-American and anti-white overtones, was first disclosed on a national level by ABC News. The Obama camp could not ignore it.

“Candidate Barack Obama stood on a sidewalk in Toledo, Ohio, and first let it slip to Joe the Plumber that he wanted to, quote, ‘spread the wealth around,'” Sammon later told patrons of a 2009 fund-raising cruise in the Mediterranean for Hillsdale College, a conservative school. “At that time, I have to admit that I went on TV on Fox News and publicly engaged in what I guess was some rather mischievous speculation about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism, a premise that privately I found rather far-fetched.”

Sammon went on, however, to justify that speculation: “The debate over whether America was headed for socialism seemed anything but far-fetched.”

Amid those bailouts and stimulus spending, Bill O’Reilly could be found in full-fledged populist dudgeon against the liberal social engineering government bureaucrats he said were favored by the new president. Hannity had been newly unshackled from liberal cohost Alan Colmes and hammered the White House. And most outraged and outrageous was Glenn Beck, recently arrived from CNN Headline News, who quickly doubled the audience of Fox’s 5:00 PM time slot.

In those early days of 2009, I marveled as I watched Beck on set at Fox News in Manhattan and interviewed him in a waiting room off his studios. In person, Beck was self-deprecating and often buoyant. On Fox, he depicted a bleak country run by shadowy forces. … Only partially in jest, Beck also repeatedly invoked Stalinist imagery in characterizing the administration’s proposals.

Beck was a masterful broadcaster, keenly conscious of every element of his performance. And he was self-aware enough occasionally to wink at its ridiculousness. For the moment, Fox was just fine with the whole package: the divisive conspiracy theories, the flights of fancy, the grandiose self-aggrandizement, all of it. He was the network’s newest star.

On the news side, Fox worked hard to win recognition for its anchors. The network’s primary news anchor was Shepard Smith, a maverick figure in the basement studios of Fox News in Manhattan. Deeply tanned, truly mischievous, proud of his red state roots in Mississippi,
and fit to the point of being gaunt–he would puncture pomposity wherever he encountered it yet struck appropriately respectful tones without lapsing into sentimentality during sensitive moments on the air. Smith was equally capable of apparently spontaneous takes on torture, gay marriage, and even the news business itself.

On several occasions, according to several colleagues, he refused to promote themes that recurred on other Fox shows. He liked to rattle O’Reilly in the hallway and openly mocked Beck on the air. His occasional shouting matches with high-ranking colleagues over stories made fewer headlines. Smith was cheered for saying what he thought, especially by non-Fox journalists, and Fox kept rewarding him with new contracts in the high seven figures. His ratings were strong, and publicly executives cited his unexpected sallies as part of Fox’s claim that it let employees say what they thought while reporting the news straight. Behind the scenes, executives would occasionally argue that Smith was cheered for saying opinionated things that fell on the left side of the political ledger. More proof, they claimed, of the mainstream media’s ingrained bias.

Bret Baier, a competent reporter who had covered the White House and Pentagon, took over Hume’s responsibilities as the chief political anchor. A genial presence with a million-watt smile, Baier had a show that was often the second-highest rated in cable news, behind Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, with roughly 2 million viewers a night. While Baier’s Special Report relied heavily on reported segments, fully one-third of the show was consumed by a discussion he moderated among pundits dubbed the “Fox News All-Stars.”

I reviewed six months’ worth of Baier’s panels and found a consistent formula: two clear-cut conservatives and another analyst. That other person was sometimes a Democrat or liberal–say, former Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers. But often that third slot was filled by a reporter from a news outlet that strives not to adopt ideological outlook in its reporting, such as Politico or the Washington Post. As I told Baier, his panels’ blend of personalities seemed to underrepresent the left and also to cast nonideological reporters as liberals. The pattern suggested Fox defined balance as a counterbalance to other media outlets rather than a program that in itself was fully balanced as the network’s executives pledged.

Adapted from the book Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires by David Folkenflik. Excerpted by arrangement from PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.

David Folkenflik is an award-winning journalist who has been NPR’s media correspondent since 2004, and he previously covered media and politics for the Baltimore Sun. He edited the 2011 book, Page One: Inside The New York Times And The Future of Journalism. Folkenflik lives with his wife, the radio producer Jesse Baker, and their daughter in New York City.

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