Fairly Unbalanced

I challenge anybody to show me an example of bias in Fox News Channel.
—Rupert Murdoch, Salon, March 1, 2001

Years ago, Republican Party chairman Rich Bond explained that conservatives' frequent denunciations of "liberal bias" in the media were part of "a strategy" (Washington Post, Aug. 20, 1992). Comparing journalists to referees in a sports match, Bond explained, "If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is "work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time."

But when Fox News Channel, Rupert Murdoch's 24-hour cable network, debuted in 1996, a curious thing happened: Instead of denouncing it, conservative politicians and activists lavished praise on the network. "If it hadn't been for Fox, I don't know what I'd have done for the news," Trent Lott gushed after the Florida election recount (Washington Post, Feb. 5, 2001). George W. Bush extolled Fox News Channel anchor Tony Snow — a former speechwriter for Bush's father — and his "impressive transition to journalism" in a specially taped April 2001 tribute to Snow's Sunday-morning show on its five-year anniversary (Washington Post, May 7, 2001). The right-wing Heritage Foundation had to warn its staffers not to watch so much Fox News on their computers because it was causing the think tank's system to crash.

When it comes to Fox News Channel, conservatives don't feel the need to "work the ref." The ref is already on their side. Since its 1996 launch, Fox has become a central hub of the conservative movement's well-oiled media machine. Together with the GOP organization and its satellite think tanks and advocacy groups, this network of fiercely partisan outlets — such as the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative talk-radio shows like Rush Limbaugh's — forms a highly effective right-wing echo chamber where GOP-friendly news stories can be promoted, repeated and amplified. Fox knows how to play this game better than anyone.

Yet, at the same time, the network bristles at the slightest suggestion of a conservative tilt. In fact, wrapping itself in slogans like "Fair and balanced" and "We report, you decide," Fox argues precisely the opposite: Far from being a biased network, Fox argues that it is the only unbiased network. So far, Fox's strategy of aggressive denial has worked surprisingly well; faced with its unblinking refusal to admit any conservative tilt at all, some commentators have simply acquiesced to the network's own self-assessment. FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has decided to take a closer look.

Coming next, drug-addicted pregnant women no longer have anything to fear from the authorities, thanks to the Supreme Court. Both sides on this in a moment.
—Bill O'Reilly (O'Reilly Factor, March 23, 2001)

Fox's founder and president, Roger Ailes, was for decades one of the savviest and most pugnacious Republican political operatives in Washington, a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan campaigns. Ailes is most famous for his role in crafting the elder Bush's media strategy in the bruising 1988 presidential race. With Ailes' help, Bush turned a double-digit deficit in the polls into a resounding win by targeting the GOP's base of white male voters in the South and West, using red-meat themes like Michael Dukakis' "card-carrying" membership in the ACLU, his laissez-faire attitude toward flag-burning, his alleged indifference to the pledge of allegiance — and, of course, paroled felon Willie Horton.

Described by fellow Bush aide Lee Atwater as having "two speeds — attack and destroy," Ailes once jocularly told a Time reporter (Aug. 22, 1988): "The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it." Later, as a producer for Rush Limbaugh's short-lived TV show, he was fond of calling Bill Clinton the "hippie president" and lashing out at "liberal bigots" (Washington Times, May 11, 1993). It is these two sensibilities above all — right-wing talk radio and below-the-belt political campaigning — that Ailes brought with him to Fox, and his stamp is evident in all aspects of the network's programming.

Fox daytime anchor David Asman is formerly of the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page and the conservative Manhattan Institute. The host of Fox News Sunday is Tony Snow, a conservative columnist and former chief speechwriter for the first Bush administration. Eric Breindel, previously the editorial-page editor of the right-wing New York Post, was senior vice president of Fox's parent company, News Corporation, until his death in 1998; Fox News Channel's senior vice president is John Moody, a longtime journalist known for his staunch conservative views.

Fox's managing editor is Brit Hume, a veteran TV journalist and contributor to the conservative American Spectator and Weekly Standard magazines. Its top-rated talk show is hosted by Bill O'Reilly, a columnist for the conservative WorldNetDaily.com and a registered Republican (that is, until a week before the Washington Post published an article revealing his party registration — Dec. 13, 2000).