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Wemple writes: "A debate is brewing about just how much influence Fox News exerts over the United States."

Fox News studio. (photo: AP)
Fox News studio. (photo: AP)

Yes, Fox News Matters. A Lot.

By Erik Wemple, The Washington Post

11 April 19


debate is brewing about just how much influence Fox News exerts over the United States. In a New Yorker piece — “The Making of the Fox News White House” — Jane Mayer examines the intimacy between the White House and figures like Sean Hannity. “If the news on Fox is all about some kind of caravan of immigrants supposedly invading America, whose idea is that? It turns out that it is this continual feedback loop,” Mayer said in a New Yorker podcast. And in a New York Times Magazine piece, Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg trace the power of Fox News patriarch Rupert Murdoch — and how it “remade the world.”

Not so fast, says Michael J. Socolow, a professor at the University of Maine. The influence of Fox News is exaggerated, he argues — and Politico media critic Jack Shafer agrees. The myth, notes Socolow, starts with the network’s founder: “Like the Wizard of Oz, Roger Ailes inflated the image of his own potency and his network’s power. Recent events, such as the election of Donald Trump, apparently confirm the network’s influence. Yet when we pull back the curtain, the evidence that Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch, created and sustained our current political moment, appears far more circumstantial.”

We’ll take various strands of the argument one by one:


Let’s begin with the idea that Trump’s 2016 victory can be attributed to Fox News.

Such an assertion would be a lot more believable if Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes had wanted Donald Trump to be the 2016 Republican nominee.

But they didn’t.

Rebuttal: Whatever Murdoch and Ailes wanted to happen in the primary doesn’t much matter if key Fox News hosts such as Bill O’Reilly, Hannity and the “Fox & Friends” crew coddled the real estate mogul throughout the primary.

Furthermore, consider that “Fox & Friends” provided a weekly call-in platform for Trump starting in 2011 — a moment that allowed him to test out his various faux-populist talking points, not to mention forge a coziness with a cable news team that shows no signs of strain to this day. Even more important: Fox News projected programming sensibilities — slander immigrants; fearmonger on terrorism; pretend to care about working-class people while favoring economic policies that favor the rich — that Trump packed into his successful campaign. He had a road map provided by the programming that he has watched for years and years.


Despite paying her US$1 million per year, and providing ample airtime on supportive shows, Fox News couldn’t turn Sarah Palin into a respected Republican figure.

Rebuttal: Since when is the elevation of Sarah Palin a criterion for national influence? After all, it is Sarah Palin we’re talking about here.

On a more serious level, the outsize influence of Fox News finds corroboration in the desperation of all the Republican presidential wannabes to secure face time on the network. Recall how Trump, during the presidential primary, read off the cellphone number of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) at a campaign rally. How did he get the digits? As Trump told the story, Graham was “begging” him to help arrange an appearance on “Fox & Friends.” Who can blame him?


Journalists and scholars underplay the reality of Fox News’ small audience. On an average night in 2018, Fox News attracted about 2.4 million prime-time viewers.

That’s an impressive number. It made Fox News the most-watched cable television programming in 2018.

But the U.S. population in 2018 was approximately 327 million, which means that 99.3% of Americans weren’t watching Fox News on any given night.

About 26% of registered voters are either registered Republicans or identify as Republican, and in 2018 there were an estimated 158 million registered voters.

Thus, on a typical night in 2018, even if every Fox News viewer were a registered Republican (and they’re not), 94.2% of Republicans in the United States still wouldn’t be tuning in.

How few people actually watch Fox News? The lowest-rated broadcast network news program — the “CBS Evening News” — averaged more than double the number of Fox News viewers in 2018.

Rebuttal: The U.S. population figure cited by Socolow includes infants and children, which rather inflates the number not watching Fox. Here’s a more relevant figure: Forty percent of Trump voters cited Fox News as their “main source” of news about the 2016 campaign, according to the Pew Research Center. Next in line was CNN, which a mere 8 percent of Trump voters cited as their “main source.”

That same survey drives at why Fox News deserves special consideration in the pantheon of influential media organizations. Voters for Hillary Clinton showed no corresponding devotion in terms of their news sources, as 18 percent cited CNN, 9 percent cited MSNBC, 8 percent cited Facebook, and so on. There’s simply no outlet that dominates any other part of the political spectrum in the way Fox News dominates the right.

With that dominance, Fox News has done great damage. It’s not as if Fox News’s influence extends only however millions may be viewing in prime time. There’s what experts call a “media ecosystem” out there, where people take nonsense uttered on Fox News, then share it on Twitter, on Facebook, with their neighbor. Nonsense has a high pass-around rate.

Just take the whole “deep state” conspiracy theory, which holds that President Trump fell victim to a plot by national security establishment figures who felt threatened by his outsider policies. In their book “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts examine how the phrase “deep state” morphed from a nonpartisan description of dark forces to a highly partisan attack on Trump detractors. They found that Fox News played a key role, though not a solitary one:

As we look at the reshaping of the new “deep state” frame from its original, nonpartisan concern into a distinct narrative about a partisan attack on Donald Trump, we can certainly find critical moments at which Breitbart played a central reframing role. And we certainly find plenty of the craziest conspiracy theories hovering at the margins. But as we move now to analyze how this broad frame was translated over the course of 2017 into repeated concerted efforts to defend the president from the Russia suspicion, we see Fox News taking center stage in a much clearer and more distinctive way by deflecting attention and blame, interpreting the investigation in deeply partisan terms, and sowing confusion and doubt. And it is here too that the broad and loose gestalt frame takes on distinct falsifiable forms whose pattern fits that of a sustained disinformation campaign by a propaganda outlet, rather than as episodic errors by a journalistic outlet.

Another topic addressed in the book is Fox News’s May 2017 story fanning the conspiracy theory that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who was slain in D.C. in summer 2016, was the source of the WikiLeaks emails, and not Russian hacking. The authors argue that their data “shows the central role that the Fox DC affiliate and Fox News played in developing and propagating the story to other media, and how central YouTube was to disseminating Fox News network programming online, particularly Hannity.”

Benkler told the Erik Wemple Blog in an interview: “The right-wing media ecosystem has developed into a completely distinct and insular ecosystem that operates purely on identity-confirming narratives,” he says. “Fox News is the leading node in the right-wing ecosystem: It’s the primary source of stories, the primary source of accreditation, the primary source of attention.”


Then there’s the idea that the real power of Fox News originates in its uniquely close relationship to the Trump administration.

Specifically, former Fox News executive Bill Shine’s appointment to a supervisory role for White House communications — while he was still being paid by Fox News — indicates identical and shared communication goals between the White House and cable channel.

But there’s a long history of tight entanglement between broadcast corporations and the White House, with numerous examples of the same kinds of backroom deals that are likely occurring now.

Rebuttal: To advance his case about this “long history,” Socolow cites infractions during the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. That Socolow has to reach back that far into history doesn’t debunk the case that there’s something special about the Fox News-White House relationship; rather it advances the case that there is something special about the Fox News-White House relationship.


Criticism from The New Yorker and The New York Times only helps Fox News gain credibility with its constituents — the viewers at home, and the Republican Party in Washington. Such attention proves that Fox News continues to frighten its enemies.

Roger Ailes never feared criticism from respectable media.

Rebuttal: Oh yeah? Did you ever have a run-in with the Fox News PR shop?

Sean Hannity cannot snap his fingers and generate a federal indictment of Peter Strzok, nor can Steve Doocy snap his fingers and stifle President Trump’s most embittered critics. Media personalities aren’t omnipotent. Sure, Barack Obama secured two terms as president despite Fox News. Certain favored politicians of Fox nation may not have made it as far as they would have liked. These benchmarks, however, miss the bane of Fox News, which lies in its central mission of misinforming its Trumpite audience. The network is influential because it has banished a common set of facts for American political discussions.

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A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+7 # johnescher 2019-04-11 17:22
Wherever there's a dragon, there's someone or something who wants to deny it.
+2 # MidwestDick 2019-04-11 22:05
Poor Rush. Deflated and forgotten in the corner. He is the father of trumpism and now he doesn't even rate a mention. Where's the justice?
+2 # Jim Rocket 2019-04-11 23:34
Fox news was conceived as a propaganda machine first and a News organization second. Let's not forget that a law, the Fairness Doctrine, had to be repealed so Fox News could do what it wanted to do. That doctrine was put in place to prevent propaganda warping the political conversation. Without Fox News and right-wing talk radio Donald Trump could never have become president. I think the Democrats should make reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, or something similar, a central campaign promise.
-3 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-04-12 16:06
JR -- "Fox news was conceived as a propaganda machine first and a News organization second."

This is true of many important media organizations. The WashPost was conceived this way. It was taken over by Philip Graham in the late 40s when he moved from OSS to the CIA and then to owner of the Wash Post. He said openly that he could do more to further the CIA's goals as publisher of the Wapo than as a CIA officer.

If you go back to the 1920s and read people like Walter Lippman a writer for the NY Times, propaganda was openly the main function of news media. Chomsky and Herman in their book "Manufacturing Consent" study Lippman carefully. The phrase "manufacturing consent" comes from Lippman's book "Propagands" published about 1925.

FOX is really not new. It is only new in that it was made to appeal to working class and old white people. As you say, however, it was a by-product of the elimination of the fairness doctrine -- which never would have applied to cable anyway.
+3 # PABLO DIABLO 2019-04-12 12:19
It wasn't only Fox news that shown the spotlight on Trump, WAPO, NYT, CBS, NBC, ABC, etc. all couldn't get enough of that publicity hound while nearly ignoring Bernie Sanders.
-3 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-04-12 12:50
I used to like Jane Mayer but she has contracted a bad case of TDS. She no longer makes any sense. I saw this clip from Tucker Carlson last night on the news about Assange's arrest. While Carlson is rightly called an odious and self-righteous right wing FOX blowhard, this segment on Assange is about the most sane piece of reporting I have seen.

I don't watch FOX but I do read the NYT and Wapo. I cannot imagine how FOX could be worse than they are. Jane Mayer is writing this in the New Yorker, a more banal tabloid of trash simply cannot be found on earth.

And Eric Wimple is writing this review of Mayer in the WashPost. Enough said.

FOX is the media channel of the right wing. The oligarchs have their media channels too. Many of them. The right wing has a right to express its views and to try to influence debates. This is true for the NYT and the Washpo which are mouthpieces for the oligarchs and Deep State. The have a right to speak.

As readers, we need to be critical about what we read and think. Slavishly following the NYT or WashPo is just as bad as slavishly following FOX.
-4 # jazzman633 2019-04-12 14:39
FOX gets one thing right: the drifting-leftwa rd insanity of the Democratic Party and its obsession with identity politics, its violent intolerance of dissent, its totally demented vision of a government-guar anteed paradise -- just print more money.

Can anyone deny that the left is preaching division(separa te sets of pronouns!)and economic ruin? Or that all the leading D candidates support reparations?

I am not a conservative. But I think that someone has to call them out on this.
+2 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-04-13 06:07
jazz -- "Can anyone deny that the left is preaching division(separa te sets of pronouns!)and economic ruin?"

Yes, I can deny that. Identity politics is NOT the left. It is the product of right-wing democrats who will not mention any of the issues important to the Left -- anti-war, socialism, control of monopoly capitalism, unionism, labor issues. Identity politics is about making personal interests or problems the focus of politics so that people will seem to be important but the really substantive issues can be avoided.

Identity politics is what neo-liberalism looks like at the political campaign level. It is the by-product of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is radical ultra-right wing market fundamentalism.

You are right that Identity Politics promotes division. And it is also ironic. White supremacists practice identity politics, too. All identity politics is about the privilege of certain groups against the rights of others.

The real Left has nothing to do with Identity Politics.
+3 # draypoker 2019-04-12 16:39
Rupert Murdoch has had three careers. He has operated in three countries. He started in Australia where he degraded the press there with a programme of lies and rightwing nonsense and hatred. He then moved to Britain where he operated the tabloid paper
0 # draypoker 2019-04-14 10:56
Rupert Murdoch has had three careers. He has operated in three countries. He started in Australia where he degraded the press there with a programme of lies and rightwing nonsense and hatred. He then moved to Britain where he operated the tabloid paper "The Sun" supporting the very rightwing Tory policies of Thatcher - having converted the former Labour owned paper the Daily Herald). Then he moved to America where he continues his career.

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