No, Fox News Didn't Divide America

They also aren't destroying the media.

Liberals hate Fox News. Its in-your-face conservatism drives them up the wall. Its founder and driving genius, Roger Ailes, gives them fits. Its success—a billion dollars in profit into Rupert Murdoch’s cash register every year—gets their heads spinning. Liberals just can’t get over it.

And now they have a new opportunity to vent their outrage with publication of Gabriel Sherman’s big new biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country. According to the reviews, the book offers a portrait of a man with a seemingly congenital need to generate conflict and outrage. And that part of the book naturally has received abundant attention from liberal reviewers. Fair enough. By all accounts Sherman based his portrait on exhaustive research, and a man in Ailes’s position is certainly fair game for such attention.

So, leaving Ailes to his critics and any defenders who may wish to step forward, let’s look at the role of Fox News in American journalism and society. Has Fox News really divided the country in ways and to an extent that wouldn’t have happened if Ailes hadn’t created his news monolith?

The answer is no. Or, at any rate, according to Erik Wemple in his perceptive Washington Post review, Sherman failed to back up that assertion in the book. "This promise goes unfulfilled," writes Wemple, adding that nailing down this interpretation would have required a plunge into American politics that Sherman foregoes. Asked recently how precisely Ailes and Fox have driven a wedge through the country’s body politic, Sherman could muster nothing more compelling than this: "Because of his ability to drive a message. He has an unrivaled ability to know what resonates with a certain audience."

Like most news operations, Fox News is a mixed bag, offering some truly excellent journalism mixed with other elements of questionable value. But, before we get into its strengths and weaknesses, it may be helpful to put it and its emergence in a larger context. Three broad points bear notice.

First, Ailes’s success was based on a simple concept—that the news operations of the three traditional networks were all liberal in tone and outlook. Executives of those networks all disputed this vociferously, of course, which only made it easier for Ailes to sneak up behind them and capture the conservative viewers who previously had had nowhere else to go. With the three traditional networks splitting the liberal audience and Ailes galvanizing the conservatives, he quickly emerged as the ratings king.

This is not to say that the traditional networks perpetrated a conscious policy of spoon-feeding their political attitudes to their viewers; rather, they merely mistook their essentially liberal outlook for objective fare. Their news offerings for decades were sophisticated and solid—but tilted to the left. That was the reality, denied by network officials, that Ailes exploited on his road to success.

Second, technology is killing off the era of so-called objective or nonpartisan journalism. Full objectivity was never really achieved, of course, but the era was characterized by a stated devotion to the sanctity of objectivity as a journalistic goal. This era, which supplanted the era of the partisan press, was a product of technology—the advent of the telegraph, which spawned wire-service operations that needed to craft a brand of journalism suitable for all kinds of newspapers, including Democratic papers, Whig papers, ethnic papers, religious papers, etc. The only way to do that was to eschew any partisan leanings. Thus did a technological development breed a new brand of journalistic aspiration, which served the country well even when the goal wasn’t entirely met.

Just as technology spawned the era of objective journalism, technology now is in the process of killing it off. We’re back to something akin to the era of the pamphleteers of the early republic, when barriers to journalistic entry were minimal and journalistic success required a strong partisan identity and attention-grabbing pugilism. The journalists of those days, the pamphleteers, had to capture their narrow audience segments by distinguishing themselves from the general flow of information. Such is the challenge now for the bloggers and other web commentators of our time. For growing segments of the news business, objectivity is no longer the virtue it once was. That is driving journalistic sensibilities throughout the industry as it struggles with the disintegration of many of its business models.

But that doesn’t mean these journalistic entities can’t or won’t provide plenty of valuable information. In the early decades of the newspaper business, when high-speed presses driven by steam spawned newspapers with large circulations, the partisan tone remained, but many of those papers gave excellent fare for the money—solid reporting mixed with the partisan brawling.

A close look at Fox News shows that it fits into this tradition of old.

Third, major issues are dividing the country with an intensity that is rare in our history. Many of these issues are definitional in the sense that their eventual resolution will help define the country as it shakes off the current deadlocks and moves into the future. Immigration, gay marriage, the debt overhang, fiscal incontinence at all governmental levels, the outsized political potency of the big banks and public-employee unions, the growing size and intrusiveness of the federal government—these are all highly charged issues that drive big wedges through the national polity.