As Washington reeled from one of the most tumultuous weeks in recent political history, another event stopped Americans in their tracks.
The death of Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, marked the passing of one of the most significant figures in American media and politics, and one who profoundly shaped the tone and tenure of political debate in the US.
It was said by many that Donald Trump owed his presidency to Ailes, although it was believed that the two did not talk in recent months. Ultimately Ailes didn’t survive professionally to steer through the early months of the Trump presidency, having, by a quirk of timing, been ousted as chair of Fox News just as Trump was being crowned Republican presidential nominee at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July.
Slogans such as “Fair and balanced” were ridiculed by many, but its new style of combative, partisan journalism worked
Born in Ohio in 1940, Ailes was moulded by a typical blue-collar upbringing of mid-century America. After dabbling in acting in high school, he studied journalism at Ohio State University and immediately took a job in TV in Cleveland. It was there, in 1967, that he met Richard Nixon, who hired him on the spot, sensing the emerging power of TV on the political landscape. After producing Nixon’s campaign programmes, he forged a career as a political consultant, going on to work for Ronald Reagan and later George Bush snr.
In the 1990s he moved into television full time and was recruited by Rupert Murdoch to found Fox News Channel, an offshoot of Fox News. Buoyed by the round-the-clock drama of the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s, Fox News swiftly emerged as a major force in American journalism.
Offering a conservative alternative to channels such as CNN and MSNBC, its slogans such as “Fair and balanced” and “We report, you decide” were ridiculed by many, but its new style of combative, partisan journalism worked.
By 2002 the network had surpassed CNN in terms of viewership, a position it cemented over the next decade as it became the nation’s most-watched network. Profits swelled under Ailes’s stewardship, with the network posting profits of more than $1 billion in 2014 – in part a result of Ailes making the strategic decision to substitute more costly on-the-ground reporting with news anchors who specialised in opinion rather than journalism.
But in recent years the network began to run into difficulty. Rumours of sexual harassment at the channel culminated in a lawsuit by Fox News presenter Gretchen Carlson against Ailes. Top star Megyn Kelly also left the network, accusing the chief executive of sexual harassment. In July last year Ailes was finally forced to resign amid a string of sexual harassment allegations.
Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News presenter, also stepped aside this year amid revelations that he had settled numerous lawsuits with several women. Although a federal investigation in New York was under way at the time of Ailes’s death, he consistently denied the allegations.
It would be hard to overestimate the pervasive power of cable news, and partisan networks such as Fox, to shape political discourse and opinion in the US. In a country deeply divided over the presidency of Donald Trump, the cable news media has helped entrench those divisions.
This week, as the world and most of the mainstream liberal press were fixated by the series of political controversies unfolding in Washington, a very different narrative was presented on Fox News, the US’s most-watched network.
As the story broke that Trump had shared classified information with Russia during a meeting in the Oval Office last week, the story did not feature heavily on the prime-time evening slot. Discussion the next day on reports that the president had pressed former FBI director James Comey to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn focused almost exclusively on Comey’s own character, and the “obsession” of the left-leaning media with Russia.
The channel’s ratings slipped this week in the midst of the Trump scandals, with CNN and MSNBC pulling ahead in viewership
Although the reporting does reflect the backing most Trump supporters still give to the president, there are signs that perhaps Fox News is losing its dominance.
Figures this week show that that the channel’s ratings slipped this week in the midst of the Trump scandals, with CNN and MSNBC pulling ahead in viewership figures for the first time since the Trump presidency. The channel’s apparent attempt to downplay various scandals appears to have backfired as viewers switched to other channels for coverage of the fast-developing stories.
With the loss of big figures such as Ailes and O’Reilly, and the decision to back a figure as divisive as Trump, Fox News could be facing a pivotal moment. How it handles the next batch of White House revelations could significantly affect its future.