The key to decoding Fox News isn’t Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. It isn’t even News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch. To understand what drives Fox News, and what its true purpose is, you must first understand Chairman Roger Ailes. “He is Fox News,” says Jane Hall, a decade-long Fox commentator who defected over Ailes’ embrace of the fear-mongering Glenn Beck. “It’s his vision. It’s a reflection of him.”
Ailes runs the most profitable – and therefore least accountable – head of the News Corp. hydra. Fox News reaped an estimated profit of $816 million last year – nearly a fifth of Murdoch’s global haul. The cable channel’s earnings rivaled those of News Corp.’s entire film division, which includes 20th Century Fox, and helped offset a slump at Murdoch’s beloved newspapers unit, which took a $3 billion write-down after acquiring The Wall Street Journal. With its bare-bones newsgathering operation – Fox News has one-third the staff and 30 fewer bureaus than CNN – Ailes generates profit margins above 50 percent. Nearly half comes from advertising, and the rest is dues from cable companies. Fox News now reaches 100 million households, attracting more viewers than all other cable-news outlets combined, and Ailes aims for his network to “throw off a billion in profits.”
The outsize success of Fox News gives Ailes a free hand to shape the network in his own image. “Murdoch has almost no involvement with it at all,” says Michael Wolff, who spent nine months embedded at News Corp. researching a biography of the Australian media giant. “People are afraid of Roger. Murdoch is, himself, afraid of Roger. He has amassed enormous power within the company – and within the country – from the success of Fox News.”
Fear, in fact, is precisely what Ailes is selling: His network has relentlessly hyped phantom menaces like the planned “terror mosque” near Ground Zero, inspiring Florida pastor Terry Jones to torch the Koran. Privately, Murdoch is as impressed by Ailes’ business savvy as he is dismissive of his extremist politics. “You know Roger is crazy,” Murdoch recently told a colleague, shaking his head in disbelief. “He really believes that stuff.”
According to recent polls, Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers. They are 12 percentage points more likely to believe the stimulus package caused job losses, 17 points more likely to believe Muslims want to establish Shariah law in America, 30 points more likely to say that scientists dispute global warming, and 31 points more likely to doubt President Obama’s citizenship. In fact, a study by the University of Maryland reveals, ignorance of Fox viewers actually increases the longer they watch the network. That’s because Ailes isn’t interested in providing people with information, or even a balanced range of perspectives. Like his political mentor, Richard Nixon, Ailes traffics in the emotions of victimization.
“What Nixon did – and what Ailes does today in the age of Obama – is unravel and rewire one of the most powerful of human emotions: shame,” says Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. “He takes the shame of people who feel that they are being looked down on, and he mobilizes it for political purposes. Roger Ailes is a direct link between the Nixonian politics of resentment and Sarah Palin’s politics of resentment. He’s the golden thread.”
Fox News stands as the culmination of everything Ailes tried to do for Nixon back in 1968. He has created a vast stage set, designed to resemble an actual news network, that is literally hard-wired into the homes of millions of America’s most conservative voters. GOP candidates then use that forum to communicate directly to their base, bypassing the professional journalists Ailes once denounced as “matadors” who want to “tear down the social order” with their “elitist, horse-dung, socialist thinking.” Ironically, it is Ailes who has built the most formidable propaganda machine ever seen outside of the Communist bloc, pioneering a business model that effectively monetizes conservative politics through its relentless focus on the bottom line. “I’m not in politics,” Ailes recently boasted. “I’m in ratings. We’re winning.”
The existence of Fox News and the failure of other news outlets to call them out on their lies is proof that the so-called “Liberal Media” doesn’t exist.