After more than 20 years, Fox News Channel has abandoned its tagline “fair and balanced” as part of a larger effort to move past the legacy of its highly controversial founder, Roger Ailes.
While the slogan was widely mocked by liberals and the politically unaffiliated, it also helped the network establish a certain amount of credibility in the world of TV journalism, at least initially.
“If you come out and you try to do right-wing news, you’re gonna die,” Ailes once told a reporter for the Hartford Courant. “You can’t get away with it,”
New York magazine reporter and Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman first broke the news of the marketing change.
The slogan was also essential to the branding of the cable network as a place where conservatives could tune in to find news that comported with their sensibilities.
This is not widely known, but the “fair and balanced” mantra originated in the 1970s at a star-crossed startup that Ailes was involved with called Television News Incorporated. That company sold prepackaged news videos to local television stations as a means of circumventing the liberal journalists who dominated elite journalism at the time. At Ailes’ instigation, the company marketed itself as “the Independent News Service.”
In light of the journalistic imperative to question authority, the conservative sensibility with which Ailes imbued his creation provided some amount of oppositional power during President Bill Clinton’s administration. But after George W. Bush moved into the White House in 2001, Fox News shifted away from questioning authority and started protecting it, a posture that the channel resumed with a vengeance under the Trump administration.
As it turns out, however, the right-wing news empire that Ailes built is one that turned out to be based on a generational sensibility rather than a coherent political ideology. Young Republicans — though modest in number — simply aren’t interested in watching Fox News. The typical viewer of pretty much every program on the network is someone eligible to collect Social Security.
James and Lachlan Murdoch, the sons of Fox creator Rupert Murdoch, appear vaguely aware of this. While many of the other Murdoch properties lean to the right, they do so with nowhere near the animus and pettiness that Ailes’ Fox News did.
Trying to transition away from the pugnacious lifestyle conservatism of Ailes’ Fox News without alienating its existing audience is the fundamental question facing the younger Murdochs.
At first glance, that might sound like a business issue. But the cultural importance of Fox News means that the burden the Murdoch sons carry is far greater than the cable channel’s billion-dollar balance sheet, especially if a true “smoking gun” piece of evidence emerges linking President Donald Trump to an impeachable crime. In such a scenario, the importance of the formerly “fair and balanced” network, in terms of bringing a sufficient number of loyal Republicans to that conclusion, may prove the difference between a process that is protracted and painful and one that is endless and deadly.