My favorite U.S. political historian and pundit, Heather Cox Richardson, has repeatedly asserted that Fox News is not actually a news station. She mentioned it again today in her weekly Facebook Live video on The History of the Republican Party, when she also made the point that the so-called “liberal media” consists of journalists who believe in reporting news based on facts and verified sources. This, of course, is why the right wing is so critical of the “liberal media”—not so much for its purported bias, but for its reliance on verifiable facts.
In any event, “Fox News” is merely a name, not a description. This goes a long way toward explaining how they get away with presenting lies and distortions as “news”—and how successful they’ve been at fulfilling Roger Ailes’ vision of building a right-wing propaganda machine. But how is this possible? HCR wrote about this in some detail back in June 2018, and it’s worth quoting in its entirety:
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While lots of folks think they are getting news from Fox News, in fact, “Fox News” is not a news channel. It is an entertainment channel whose name is “Fox News Channel,” the way the name of ABC is “American Broadcasting Company” and NBC is “National Broadcasting Company.” “Fox News” is simply the brand name; it is not a description of content.
FNC does have some news shows: those are the ones featuring Shep Smith [now with NBC News] and Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. These shows do choose stories and arrange their material to slant to the right, and they do use loaded emotional language to influence viewers, but they also fact-check their stories (although they sometimes ignore evidence that does not support their views) and they identify themselves as journalists.
But this gets even more confusing. FNC is a cable channel, which means it does not have to get a license from the Federal Communications Commission, as ABC and NBC do. The FCC licenses channels that use broadcast frequencies because the airwaves are limited, but since cable is virtually unlimited, there is no similar requirement for it. To get an FCC license, owners of a station have to prove that they contribute to the public good, by airing public announcements, for example. FNC does not have to do that. But local TV stations owned by the parent company of FNC do use the public airwaves and do have to have an FCC license, and they produce news shows that are as real as any other.
Fox News Channel officials appear to deliberately muddy the waters between their different programming. If you google “Fox News news programs,” you get them all jumbled together, and there is no easy way to figure out which are news and which aren’t. But when someone like Sean Hannity, for example, is called out for violating an obvious rule of journalism—like repeatedly attacking the federal raid on Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s office without revealing that Hannity, himself, was implicated in that raid, or by reporting so positively on Donald Trump when the two are personal friends—he claims [he] has no such journalistic responsibility because he is not a journalist.
[In February 2018], Shep Smith explained the difference between the news side of FNC and the entertainment side: “We serve different masters. We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules. They don’t really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want. If it’s their opinion. I don’t really watch a lot of opinion programming. I’m busy.”
Watch the opinion programming on FNC if you want, but recognize that it is not informed by facts or real investigations; it is designed purely to hold audiences by ginning up outrage. (Rupert Murdoch, who began FNC, always said it was just a business, and likened it to Dairy Queen.) If someone is repeating a story that seems crazy […] it probably is, and you would be crazy to believe it.
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By the way, have you noticed that the Fox News Channel quietly dropped its slogan, “Fair and Balanced”? They’re not even pretending any more.
As HCR said in a January 2020 post:
Until the rise of talk radio in 1987 and the establishment of the Fox News Channel in 1996, we honored the Enlightenment values on which our government was founded: politicians had to attract voters with fact-based arguments or be voted out of office. But talk radio and FNC pushed a fictional narrative that captivated viewers who felt dispossessed after 1954, as women and people of color began to approach having an equal voice in society. That narrative—of a heroic white man under siege by a government that wants to give his hard-earned money to black and brown people and grasping women—has led us back to where we started in 1776: a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism.
This is where we are now. God help us all.