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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fox News: Partisanship over Profit?

Roger Ailes “is the most successful executive in television by a wide margin, and he has been so for more than a decade. He is also, in a sense, the head of the Republican Party, having employed five prospective presidential candidates and done perhaps more than anyone to alter the balance of power in the national media in favor of the Republicans. ‘Because of his political work’—Ailes was a media strategist for Nixon, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush—‘he understood there was an audience,’ Ed Rollins, the veteran GOP consultant, [said]. ‘He knew there were a couple million conservatives who were a potential audience, and he built Fox to reach them.’”

“For most of his tenure, the roles of network chief and GOP kingmaker have been in perfect synergy. Ailes’s network has dominated the cable news race for most of the past decade, and for much of that time, Fox News attracted more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. Throughout the George W. Bush years, the network’s patriotic cheerleading helped to marginalize the Democrats. . . . The problem wasn’t that ratings had been slipping that much— [Glenn] Beck’s show declined by 30 percent from record highs, but the ratings were still nearly double those from before he joined the network. It was that, with an actual presidential election on the horizon, the Fox candidates’ poll numbers remain dismally low (Sarah Palin is polling 12 percent; Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, 10 percent and 2 percent, respectively). Ailes’s ­candidates-in-­waiting were coming up small. And, for all his programming genius, he was more interested in a real narrative than a television narrative—he wanted to elect a president.”


The last sentence is particularly revealing: “he wanted to elect a president.”  With Beck’s 30% drop in ratings still leaving him with a profitable rating, Ailes’ motive was not commercial, neither was it to improve the network’s journalism. Typically, news networks are criticized for sacrificing good journalism for commercial interests. Here, journalistic integrity and profit play second fiddle to partisan objectives.

To be sure, this case can be used to illustrate a point regarding stockholder (property) rights. Were Ailes’ political strategy that of the Fox owners, it would point to the right of property wherein profit is merely the default objective for corporate wealth. That is to say, a corporation’s owners can have their corporate wealth used toward any number of legal objectives. The owners of Ben & Jerry’s, for example, made selling ice cream not just about profits. Theoretically, a company could limit profit to that which is necessary for the company to continue—with the remaining profits to be spend on whatever aims the stockholders choose.

Even so, if a given company is presented as a news network only to use its situs to elect the next U.S. president, the duplicity is ethically squalid. If the objective of shareholders is to use Fox News in order to advance political partisan aims, that division should be presented as such rather than under the guise of journalism, for the subterfuge has a sort of gravitational pull on the news companies that would otherwise be content to manage journalistic integrity and commercial interests. In other words, American journalism itself may have already taken a hit in going down a slippery slope due to the duplicity at Fox News.

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Gabriel Sherman, “The Elephant in the Green Room,” New York Magazine, May 22, 2011.