Murdoch, Ailes, and Fox: Right from the Start

A new book from reporter David Folkenflik details how Fox News’ shady practices have been around since day one.

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Roger Ailes, left, answers questions after Rupert Murdoch, right, announced Ailes would lead Fox News in 1996. (AP/Richard Drew)
Roger Ailes, left, answers questions after Rupert Murdoch, right, announced Ailes would lead Fox News in 1996. (AP/Richard Drew)

The scoops from reporter David Folkenflik’s new book, Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires, turn out to be the kind of things one suspected of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s style of operations but could not have known for certain until the author nailed it down. For example, not only do Fox News PR flacks put real journalists through any number of ringers should they try to get the truth about what is going on in that place, but they actually make stuff up and feed it to unfriendly journalists to make them look foolish when the story runs.

For instance, journalist Matthew Flamm of Crain’s New York Business was fed a story in early 2008 by a named source calling from within Fox. When Flamm ran with the story, however, it turned out to be false. After Flamm sought out the person who had allegedly given him the tip, she told him that she had never heard of him. The Hotmail account from which the tip was sent disappeared, and Flamm was left holding the bag.

Along similar lines, Fox expected its PR staff to scour the web—no corner was too obscure—for their trolling. According to Folkenflik, one former Fox PR staff member admitted to employing 20 different aliases to write pro-Fox rants in blog comment sections. Others were instructed to get cell-phone thumb drives for a wireless broadband connection that could not be traced back to Fox. “Even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked,” he writes.

Folkenflik also found that Murdoch’s top men at The Wall Street Journal stymied the paper’s coverage of the unfolding phone-hacking scandal in the summer of 2011, reporting of “stories that were blocked, stripped of damning detail or context, or just held up in bureaucratic purgatory” in order to protect what remained of Murdoch’s good name.

What I found most interesting about the book, however, was Folkenflik’s recreation of the moment of the founding of Fox News. (Fortunately, this also happens to be the chapter excerpted by Salon, so you can read it here.)

The star of this particular show is, of course, Roger Ailes, and as with Murdoch himself, it’s never been easy to figure out whether he means what he says when he talks, or if he is just playing a role for his intended audience. Folkenflik quotes an interview Ailes gave to Esquire in which he explained of Fox, at the time of its founding:

“I’ll tell you what television didn’t do at the time. … It didn’t reflect what people really thought. I mean, they’re sitting there saying, ‘Wait a minute, New York’s going broke, Los Angeles is broke, the United States is broke, everything the government has run is broke, Social Security is broke, Medicare is broke, the military is broke, why do we want these guys making all these decisions for us?’”

As it happens, this is total nonsense. At the time of the Fox News Channel’s founding in late 1996, the U.S. government was hardly “going broke.” In fact, it was reducing its deficit so fast that it was about to go into surplus. New York was being managed by Ailes’s favorite politician, Rudy Giuliani, who appears to have misused his power to help Fox get on the air.[1] Social Security, Medicare, and the military were not broke—or going broke either—not by any widely understood meaning of the term. Ailes was simply positioning Fox to be a place where, simultaneously, conservative anger would be stoked and ignorant prejudices indulged.

Folkenflik then explains another motive behind Fox News’ founding:

“Cable news punches above its weight, if you look at its influence,” former Fox News vice president David Rhodes once told me. “How many people are actually watching it, from moment to moment?” The highest-rated shows draw between 2.5 and 3.3 million viewers on any given night, at most a bit more than 1 percent of the U.S. population.

And this is the genius of Rupert Murdoch. It’s not that difficult, it turns out, to attract conservatives—especially older conservatives—to a television show that flatters their biases, and neither is it that expensive once you’ve started the thing. Yet over and over, we have seen Fox News drive the rest of the news business into its territory by repeatedly harping on a story that would otherwise likely be ignored—and often turns out to be untrue. For instance, just recently when CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired a phony segment on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi—for which the program was later forced to issue a humiliating, albeit extremely stingy, apology—Fox News celebrated the initial, false report for proving that they had been right all along in pretending that this had been another Watergate or worse.

A third value that the creation of Fox News offered conservatives was its portrayal of liberals as outside the realm of normal American sensibilities. The network’s Sunday news program was launched, with three guests on its first day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole. As Folkenflik observes, “For the desired core audience, the channel offered someone to root for, someone to root against, and someone to vote for.” But hey, look who represents the left? Farrakhan is roundly denounced by liberals for praising Hitler and generally denouncing white people. But he’s just the kind of person that right-wingers like to hang around liberals’ necks.

That was the program’s first day, but it has been standard operating procedure ever since—not only on Fox News Sunday, but across the entire Fox News empire.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.


[1] As Folkenflik notes:
Time Warner’s refusal to welcome Fox in New York City caused Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to threaten to carry the channel (along with Bloomberg TV) on the city’s public access station. Giuliani also implied he would revoke Time Warner’s lucrative cable franchise for the city. His brass-knuckled tactics showed a preference for one for-profit over another. …

Ailes had run Giuliani’s first, unsuccessful bid for the mayoralty in 1989, and they remained close. Top Murdoch executives (including Ailes) had spoken more than two dozen times with aides at City Hall to coordinate a strategy in a two-month period. The coordination was too cozy for the federal judge ruling on the case. “The city’s purpose in acting to compel Time Warner to give Fox one of its commercial channels was to reward a friend and to further a particular viewpoint. As a consequence, Fox was the recipient of special advocacy,” wrote federal judge Denise Cote. “The city has engaged in a pattern of conduct with the purpose of compelling Time Warner to alter its constitutionally protected editorial decision not to carry Fox News. The city’s actions violated longstanding First Amendment principles that are the foundation of our democracy.”

But this relationship was frequently ignored in the coverage of Murdoch and his minions, especially when his machinations were on the brink of being revealed to the larger world, a writer for The Economist wrote during the coverage of Murdoch’s phone-tapping scandal in Britain. “Few outside the liberal blogosphere” were “buying” the likelihood of any connection between the empire’s criminal behavior in Britain and its operations in the United States, according to its author. The proof? “Rudolph Giuliani, a moderate Republican and former mayor of New York, called Rupert Murdoch ‘a very honourable, honest man.’” Meanwhile, Ailes and Fox more than repaid the favor over time, up to allegedly urging one of his top employees to lie to federal investigators about an affair to protect Giuliani’s campaign.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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