Bartlett, Bruce, How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics (May 10, 2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2604679 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2604679

How Fox News Changed American Media and Political

Dynamics

Bruce Bartlett

The creation of Fox News in 1996 was an event of deep, yet unappreciated, political and historical importance. For the first time, there was a news source available virtually everywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a conservative tilt. Finally, conservatives did not have to seek out bits of news favorable to their point of view in liberal publications or in small magazines and newsletters. Like someone dying of thirst in the desert, conservatives drank heavily from the Fox waters. Soon, it became the dominant – and in many cases, virtually the only – major news source for millions of Americans. This has had profound political implications that are only starting to be appreciated. Indeed, it can almost be called self-brainwashing – many conservatives now refuse to even listen to any news or opinion not vetted through Fox, and to believe whatever appears on it as the gospel truth.

When Fox News went on the air in 1996, it advertised itself as “fair and balanced,” which implied that its competitors were neither. At the time, there was unquestionably a liberal bias in the major media; not a huge one, but it was pretty consistent across the three major networks, the

New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and the rest of the elite media. As Dartmouth communications professor Jim Kuypers put it in a 2002 study, “There is a demonstrable liberal bias to the mainstream press in America.” 1

Surveys regularly showed that very few reporters were Republicans; the bulk said they were independents, with a large percentage belonging to the Democratic Party. 2

Journalists argued that their professionalism kept bias out of their reporting and that, insofar as there was apparent bias, it was due to the nature of the news itself and the discipline of fact-based reportage. But even if the reporting itself was free of bias, there is no question that the issues that most interested reporters tended to be ones more likely to be liberal in nature than conservative. As the late journalist Michael Kelly once explained, “What journalists choose and how journalists frame inescapably arises out of what journalists believe. And, as a group, journalists believe in

liberalism and in electing Democrats.” 3 In any event, the view that the media was generally liberal was widespread among the public. 4

Liberal media Dominance

Liberal media dominance arose from several factors. One was simply the fact that liberal views were dominant in the country from the Great Depression through the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The conservative view on civil rights, that racial segregation and discrimination were not problems justifying federal contravention of states’ rights, was deemed to be illegitimate among the vast bulk of Americans after being exposed to police brutality against civil rights demonstrators and details about the reality of racism. The Vietnam War and Watergate made the media’s liberal bias even more pronounced even as the country had started to move to the right in many ways.

Another factor is that big cities, where the major newspapers have always been located, tend to be more liberal than small towns and rural areas. This is especially true for New York and Los Angeles, where the major networks and media companies are based. In part, big city liberalism is just a function of their nature, but also because liberally-minded people gravitate there from the more conservative countryside. This has been true forever.

It should be added that liberally-minded people have long tended to gravitate as well to journalism, just as conservatives are attracted to careers in the military, law enforcement and business. Newspapers have long complained that the liberalism of their reporters was less intentional than due to the lack of conservatives getting degrees in journalism and seeking careers as reporters.

A final factor contributing to liberal bias is that newspaper consolidation tended to eliminate ideological competition in the industry. As a competitive business, politics and ideology were ways in which newspapers differentiated their product and attracted readers wanting to read news and commentary friendly to their point of view. Thus in any 2-newspaper town, one would generally be conservative if only for competitive advantage. 5 For historical reasons, the afternoon paper was usually the conservative one. But as growing traffic congestion made it harder and harder to deliver afternoon papers in a timely manner and work and lifestyle changes

reduced demand for them, afternoon papers began to die out. This gave the morning paper, which was usually the more liberal, a dominant position in many markets.

The loss of competition from the right reinforced the liberalism in already liberal newsrooms. As former Washington Post editor Richard Harwood noted in the mid-1990s, after the first big wave of media consolidation:

One of the most interesting aspects of today’s premier news corporations – the ones with the rich editors, officers and shareholders – is the counterintuitive fact that almost without exception they have encouraged or acquiesced in the leftward drift of their newspapers over the past quarter-century.