Friday, May 4, 2012

Unfair and Unbalanced: Fox News and the Manipulation of the American Public

by J. M. Beach

           During the early 20th century, there was a shift in how "news" was defined.  Traditionally, news was something that had happened in the world, which was important to know because it effected the lives of many people.  But with the development of corporate and government propaganda, public relations, and advertising, the concept of the news began to change between 1920 to 1950.  News became less about the objective world and more about subjective perception and cultural values.  The news became a "product to be manufactured, something designed and transmitted to bring about a visceral public response" (Ewen, 1996, p. 171).  News was created to manipulate the public, rather than inform it.  Early tabloid and entertainment media eagerly embraced this change, but traditional print, radio, and television news organizations resisted this trend, trying to remain somewhat objective. 
            However, as television news became more popular and politically influential, it began to erode objective journalism.  Roger Ailes was a successful television producer in the 1960s.  He left his lucrative t.v. career to help Richard Nixon's political campaign.  Ailes used his skills a producer to manipulate the American public through two new types of television program: the political commercial and the scripted town hall meeting (Swint, 2008; Dickinson, 2011a).  Ailes used staged television shows and commercials to make Nixon look like a popular and responsive political leader, carefully scripting Nixon's talking points and packing the audience with hand picked Republican voters.  Ailes made sure Nixon stuck to a carefully organized script focused on emotional values rather than specific political issues.  Ailes also carefully selected audiences to avoid any confrontations and make it seem as if large crowds of Americans supported Nixon.  Ailes explained that his television audiences were an "applause machine.  That's all they are" (Dickinson, 2011a).  Ailes was also very careful to avoid any confrontation with real journalists who might ask substantial questions.  When asked about his avoidance of the press, Ailes responded, "Fuck 'em.  It’s not a press conference – it’s a television show. Our television show. And the press has no business on the set" (Dickinson, 2011a). 
            In the 1970s the rich conservative Joseph Coors (owner of Coors brewery) started an explicitly conservative television news network called Television News Incorporated (TVN).  While the motto of this news station was delivering "fair and balanced" information to the American public, the actual programming was anything but fair or balanced.  In fact, this network became so extreme that one news director quit because it was no more than a "propaganda machine" (Dickinson, 2011a).    Many of the staff pushed back against the conservative dictates of the upper management, but eventually the owners fired 16 staff members and brought in Roger Ailes in 1974 to lead the news division.  At TVN, Ailes perfected his art of delivering fake news that supported conservative political candidates and causes.  One of Ailes most successful tricks was the scripted press release as "news."  As he explained to The Washington Post in 1972, "I know certain techniques, such as a press release that looks like a use it because you want your man to win" (qtd. in Dickinson, 2011a).  But despite the funding of Coors and the strategy of Ailes, TVN eventually shut down in 1975 because the station was loosing money and it could not keep control over its journalists. 
            In the 1980s Ailes left broadcasting to work as a conservative political consultant for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.  In the 1990s he was funded by conservative businessmen to fight against specific causes, like Clinton's heath care initiative.  During this time, Ailes consistently used several effective methods to manipulate the American public into backing conservative leaders and conservative causes.  First, as Ailes told Ronald Reagan, “You didn’t get elected on details.  You got elected on themes” (Dickinson, 2011a).  Ailes scripted talking points emphasized vague conservative values that manipulated voters by using fallacies, like loaded labels, stirring symbols, and bandwagon appeals.  Often these fallacies were used to distract voters from specific legislative initiatives.  He used similar manipulative tactics to demonize particular groups deemed a threat to the American public, such as black criminals or communists.  Ailes used ad hominem fallacies to poison the well against his political opponents, especially muckraking journalists who asked difficult and critical questions.  Ailes genius was to attack critical journalists with the loaded labels of "bias" because they were a part of "the liberal media," which served as red-herring to deflect attention away from political issues and onto the suspect personality of the reporter (Dickinson, 2011a). 
            In 1984 Rush Limbaugh began a conservative talk radio show broadcast from Sacramento, California.  In 1988 Limbaugh's show became so popular that he moved it to New York and gained a national audience.  From 1992 to 1996 Roger Ailes helped Limbaugh produce a national television program based on Limbaugh's radio broadcasts.  Ailes and Limbaugh also worked together on various conservative political causes, like defeating Clinton's health care reform (Dickinson, 2011a; Rush, 2012).
            Limbaugh and Ailes were natural political allies.  Not only were they both radically conservative philosophically, but they both used the same underhanded tactics to manipulate the American public.  Here is one example.  Limbaugh and other conservative Republicans did not like scientific claims about the environment, which seemed to prove that industry was causing pollution and climate change.  Rather than take the scientists' claims and evidence seriously to prove them wrong, Limbaugh simply lied about this research and attacked these scientists as partisan extremists.  In response, several scientists wrote a report to explain the gross distortions and lies that Limbaugh used against his political opponents (Haimson, Oppenheimer, & Wilcove, 1994).  These scientists wrote, "[Limbaugh's] fallacies have created a great deal of confusion and have perpetuated the misunderstanding of a number of critical issues...[His claims are] misleading, distorted, and factually incorrect. Indeed, Limbaugh's claims often fly in the face of carefully considered scientific evidence" (p. 1).  But Limbaugh and Ailes have never been interested in facts.  They are only interested in winning political battles.  They engineer victories by demonizing their opponents, using fallacies, and lying outright in an effort to manipulate the American public.
            While both TVN and the television Rush Limbaugh Show didn't last long, in 1996 Roger Ailes was hired by international media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Alterman, 2003, pp. 234-35) to be the founding CEO of a new conservative television network: Fox News Channel.  Cynically, when asked about the clear conservative agenda of Fox News, Ailes denied it: "Fox is not a conservative network! I absolutely, totally deny it" (as cited in Alterman, 2003, p. 15).  But Ailes and many other conservatives were certain that there was a "liberal" conspiracy taking over America.  One of the main reasons behind the creation of the Rush Limbaugh program, and later Fox News, was the false conservative myth of the "liberal media" (Alterman, 2003, p. 1), which was seen as a nefarious ideological movement attacking American society.  Since the end of the Nixon administration, conservatives have believed that all mainstream news organizations were biased by political "liberalism," a political ideology that conservatives have never defined.  Conservatives believed that this ideology was anti-American and a threat to the country, just like the ideologies of "communism," "fascism," and "socialism" were deemed threats during the cold-war, WWII, and WWI.  Since the end of the cold war in 1989, conservatives invented a new enemy and waged a war of ideas against "liberals."  However, this ideology is not well understood by conservatives because they themselves are almost all liberals.  Liberals cherish the central value of freedom, especially freedom from governments, and they prize economic freedom in a capitalist marketplace.  Most Americans in both political parties, Democrats and Republicans, subscribe to this belief.
            Fox News struggled to gain a foothold at first, but gradually took over market share in television news.  With the election of the Republican president George W. Bush in 2001, Fox News became the unofficial official news organization for the Bush administration and the republican party, and by 2002 it became the top rated cable news station in America (Stableford, 2012).  Unlike TVN and Limbaugh's television show, Fox News became incredibly profitable, which is very remarkable given the overall decline of profitability of the news industry.  With the election of Barack Obama in 2009, Fox News became the first major news organization in recent history to declare open hostility against a sitting president.  Roger Ailes made it very clear that Fox News would do whatever it could to not only defeat Barak Obama's policies, but also to make sure that the president didn't get elected to a second term (Stelter, 2009; Dickinson 2011b).  This oppositional stance only increased the popularity and profitability of Fox News, vaulting it to the number one cable channel (not just cable news channel) in both 2008 and 2010.  According to The New York Times, "Fox News is believed to make more money than CNN, MSNBC and the evening newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS combined. The division is on track to achieve $700 million in operating profit" in 2010 (Carr & Arango, 2010).
            Talking about and even advocating conservative Republican issues and values is a legitimate goal for a news organization.  There are many media sources advocating all sorts of political points of view (from conservative to progressive to various stripes of radicals and extremists).  There are also political satires, such as The Daily Show, which mocks the pomposity of politicians and journalists.  Thankfully, there are traditional media and academic sources that try to be unbiased and factual, and these sources help us judge the more openly political sources.  Having such diversity of "news" and "opinion" is healthy for a pluralist democracy.  But the American public needs to be wary about who to trust and why.  In fact, the American public has become more and more worried about the quality of the news (Ramsay, Kull, Lewis, & Subias, 2010).   
            In this respect Fox News is especially worrisome.  Fox News is more than just an organ for voicing conservative issues and values.  Fox News is an openly political machine that tries very hard to appeal to voters, effect political elections, and effect the outcome of legislation.  Fox News is very concerned about selling its own stylized, conservative image of America, which includes not only its tightly scripted talking points, but also the physical style and image of its commentators and guests (Mundy, 2012).  While Fox News cannot be seen as a simple propaganda arm of the Republican party, Roger Ailes and his network are a major force supporting the Republican party and it helps decide Republican policy.  Former economic adviser for Ronald Reagan, Bruce Bartlett explained how Ailes "is qute open about offering his free advice to Republicans...If you visit New York City, you go see Roger Ailes and his his ring.  It's like the Vatican.  My guess is that there's a lot of back-and-forth between Ailes and whoever is at the pinnacle of power in the Republican Party" (as cited in Richardson, 2013, p. 11).
            Fox News also gives air to conservative extremists who threaten and intimidate anyone who disagrees with the official Republican party line or their own extreme conservative views.  Even some members of the Fox News staff have rubbed colleagues the wrong way due to extremist views or narcissistic careerism.   One of the most extreme Fox News commentators, Ann Coulter, has become famous for her intolerant threats.  After 9/11 she said of all Muslim nations, we should "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" (as cited in Alterman, 2003, p. 4).  Coulter has also said that conservatives need to "physically intimate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too.  Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors" (as cited in Alterman, 2003, p. 4).  Coulter not only believes in the myth of the "liberal media," but she has said that liberal journalists should be executed: "American journalists commit mass murder without facing the ultimate penalty, I think they are retarded" (as cited in Alterman, 2003, p. 4).  Thankfully, most commentators on Fox News are not like Ann Coulter, but some, like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity often come close.  It should raise concern that such extremists should have regular access to Fox News, a mainstream television news station that reaches most Americans.  But Fox News has began to cut loose some of the more extreme and disloyal voices on the network (Richardson, 2013).  Glenn Beck was cut loose in 2011.  In the fall of 2012, Sarah Palin, Dick Morris, and Karl Rove were marginalized after their embarrassingly partisan (and mostly false) reporting during the election.
            Fox News values politics and entertainment over reporting truthful information.  Partisanship, extremism and controversy attract viewership.  This kind of programming makes a lot of money.  Fox News has seen its daily average viewership rise from around 200,000 in 2000 to over 1.1 million in 2012, rising much faster and becoming much more popular than the politically neutral CNN, which has actually seen its viewership drop significantly over the past five years to less than 400,000 viewers a day ("unbiased," 2012).  Clearly there is a large audience for conservative values and ideas.  If Fox News was open about its agenda, truthful about its tactics, and fair with its opponents, then it would serve a valuable function in a diverse democracy.  There is nothing wrong with a news network devoted to social and political conservatism.  But Fox News deceitfully hides its agenda, engages in underhanded tactics to shamelessly manipulate its audience with tricks and lies, and the network routinely demonizes its opponents and smears them with ad hominen attacks, deliberate distortion, and lies. 
            Scholars have demonstrated that Fox News is one of the leading causes of widespread misinformation about various political issues in the U. S. (Ramsay, Kull, Lewis, & Subias, 2010).  As the Economist explains, and as John Stewart and The Daily Show demonstrate every week, Fox News is "ensconced in a parallel world of conservative news sources and conservative arguments" ("State of Denial, 2012, p. 36).  And Fox News puts this misinformation on endless loops knowing full well that "a reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition" (Kahneman, 2011, p. 62).  In February 2013, Public Policy Polling found that 46 percent of Americans distrusted Fox News, an increase of 9 percent since 2010 (Richardson, 2013).  Approximately 39 percent of Americans call Fox News their "least-trusted" news source, which is far higher than any other news network, including MSNBC which had a 14 percent "least-trusted" rating (Richardson, 2013).
          While voicing conservative issues and values is important to our democracy, lying and manipulating the American public is unethical, dangerous, and ultimately will corrode our political system.  As economist Jeffrey D. Sachs (2011) has pointed out, it is important to recognize "the vast gap between (1) what Americans believe; (2) what the mass media tell us Americans believe; and (3) what politicians actually decide, no matter what Americans believe" (p. 84).  News organizations that are explicit agents for political parties, like Fox News, drastically distort not only the facts of important public issues, but also the facts about what most Americans think about those issues.  There can be no informed debate or enlightened public policy if the majority of Americans are deliberately mislead about the beliefs of their fellow citizens, let alone about the facts of the matter at hand. 


      Since the re-election of Obama in the fall of 2013, Fox News has had a bit of an identity crisis, along with the Republican party as a whole.  It has been loosing credibility and viewership, and its audience is growing older and older.  The average viewer of Fox News was 65 years old.  Reed Richardson (2013) reported: "According to Nielsen data, Fox News' prime-time monthly audience fell to its lowest level in twelve years in January among the 25-54 demographic.  Daytime Fox News programming likewise say its lowest monthly ratings in this age cohort since June 2008.  Even the network's two biggest stars, O'Reilly and Hannity, have not been immune from viewer desertion:  Hannity lost close to 50 percent of his pre-election audience in the final weeks of 2012, and O'Reilly more than a quarter.  The slide hasn't sopped in 2013 either.  Compared with a year ago, O'Reilly's February prime-time ratings dropped 26 percent in the coveted 25-54 demographic, his worst performance since July 2008.  Hannity's sank even further, to the lowest point in his show's history...This past January, Fox could only muster 267,000 average nightly viewers - a 50 percent drop from 2009 levels, and not much more than MSNBC's 235,000 or CNN's 200,000" (p. 12).


Alterman, E. (2003). What liberal media? The truth about bias and the news. New York, NY: Basic 

Carr, D., & Arango, T. (2010, Jan 10). A Fox chief at the pinnacle of media and politics. The New     
     York Times
Dickinson, T. (2011a, May 25). How Roger Ailes built the Fox News fear factory. Rolling Stone
     Retrieved from

Dickinson, T. (2011b, May 26). Distort, attack, repeat: The Fox propaganda machine in action. 
     Rolling Stone. Retrieved from

Haimson, L., Oppenheimer, M., & Wilcove, D. (1994). The way things really are: Debunking Rush 
     Limbaugh on the environment. Environmental Defense Fund. Retrieved from  
     /documents/2432_ WayThingsReallyAre.pdf

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Mundy, L. (2012, Sept). Foxy ladies: Why one network applies so much makeup. The Atlantic.

Ramsay, C., Kull, S., Lewis, E., & Subias, S. (2010, Dec 10). Misinformation and the 2010 Election: 
     A study of the U.S. electorate. The Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of 
     Maryland. Retrieved from

Richardson, R.  (2013, April 29).  GOP-Fox circus act: Republicans have an unbalanced relationship 
     with their favorite news network.  The Nation, 11-15.

Rush Limbaugh. (2012, Aug 2). Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Sachs, J. D. (2011). The price of civilization: Reawakening American virtue and prosperity. New 
     York: Random House.

Stableford, D. (2012, Jan 31). Fox News on top: Cable net celebrates 10 years at #1 in ratings. Yahoo 
     News. Retrieved from

State of denial. (2012, Nov 10). The Economist.

Stelter, B. (2009, Oct 12). Fox's volley with Obama intensifying. The New York Times.

Swint, K. (2008). Dark genius: The influential career of legendary political operative and Fox News 
     founder Roger Ailes. New York: Union Square Press.

If the conservative cause is so noble and true then why does Fox News feel the need to lie, cheat and manipulate in order to defend it?  Here are some of the underhanded tactics that have made Fox News such as successful propaganda machine:

(1) Stay on Message

Most if not all of the talk show hosts on Fox News make the exact same points, many if not most of which come from official Republican Party memos.  Psychologists have proven that if you hear a point repeated at least three times then you are more likely to believe that it is true.  As the Nobel Prize winning behavior psychologist Daniel Kahneman has stated, "A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth."[11]

(2) Lie

There are man ways to lie.  First, Fox News commentators make statements that are not factually true.  They also deceitfully describe certain policies in hyperbolically good or evil terms.  Finally, reporters at Fox News do not acknowledge their own network's conflicts of interest.  They do this in two ways.  First, they rarely disclose their network's connection to particular stories, especially when the story is demonizing a person or group that actually has ties to Fox News.  They also do not acknowledge the connection of particular policies to the Republican party.  This later conflict of interest has two parts.  First, they do not disclose when their reporters simply read verbatim the talking points of the Republican Party.  Second, they do not disclose when policies they are attacking were actually Republican Party policies, like "Obamacare," which was a Republican policy and first enacted by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney).

Sarah Palin is a frequent liar.  For instance, Palin lied about Obama's “death panels” and claimed that the Department of Veterans Affairs was using a “death book” to encourage soldiers to “hurry up and die.”  She also failed to disclose that these same counseling materials had been promoted by the Bush administration.

This was rated a "pants on fire" lie by

Another example of a common Fox News lie is the ad hominen attack on a political opponent.  While this type of fallacious attack is bad enough, Fox News often makes outrageous attacks that have no basis in truth.  Take for example the way they criticized the group who wanted to build a mosque near the former Trade Center Towers in New York.  As Daily Show explains, Fox News reporters are either "evil" for lying and deliberately manipulating their audience, or they are incredibly "stupid" for making falsehoods and not researching the truth.

Rush Limbaugh is not on Fox News, but he also uses the ad hominem attack to lie about his opponents.

(3)  Deny that the truth exists.  Instead argue for common sense and fairness.

Conservatives have declared a war on scientific rationality.  They argue that evidence and rationality is "biased" in favor of "liberals."  Instead conservatives argue that people should "know" based on common sense "gut instincts."

(4) Interrupt, Cut-off, Mock, Insult, and/or Yell at your opponent

Perhaps for the first time in television history, Bill O'Reilly interrupted the president during an interview, not just once, but 48 times.

Glenn Beck goes ballistic on a caller

Ann Coulter insults a young Muslim girl

Author cut-off abruptly on-air because he criticizes Fox as extension of republican party

(5) Use Fallacies Instead of Evidence

Fallacies are tricks designed to manipulate an audience to believe a claim.  Besides the ad hominem attack, there are many other fallacies that Fox News commonly uses to prove points.

A.  Stirring Symbols: The American Flag

You will see the American flag on the screen, in the logo, in the studio, and warn by various reporters.  Because Fox News shows the flag as much as they do then they must be more patriotic and "American" then the other news shows.

B.  Slippery Slope

C. Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning

D. The Non Sequitur (twisted evidence leading to irrational conclusions)

Jon Stewart impersonates Glenn Beck

More Stewart exposing Beck's irrationality

(Appendix) Selected Daily Show Exposes of Fox Duplicity, Trickery, and Lies

Flip-Flopping on Middle East Democracy (9/17/2012)

Chaos on Bullshit Mountain (9/19/2012)

Fox Flip-flop over school lunches (9/27/2012) 

Sean Hannity Race-Baiting Hypocracy (10/3/2012)

Fox Flip Flop on Big Bird Chop (10/8/2012)

Fox Flip Flop and Lies on Employment Numbers (10/8/2012)

Fox News Reaction to the Re-Election of Obama (11/7/2012)

Hypocrisy over racial profiling

Books on Fox News

Video on Fox News

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