The Fox Phenomenon

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The non-objectivity of the nightly news has long been a topic for cultural studies, and it has certainly never been any secret that the Fox News Network, with its Limbaugh-to-Beck-to-O'Reilly-to-Hannity lineup, has long been a poster child of ideologically positioned news broadcasting.  But the recent fall of Roger Ailes—the man who made it all possible—is still a potent topic for classroom analysis, not simply for the purpose of exploring exactly what happened at Fox, but also for the much larger purpose of revealing what Fox effectively did to the news itself.  Because by illustrating the power and profitability of not even pretending to abide by the traditional standards of journalistic objectivity, Murdoch's men have effectively changed not only the way the news is broadcast in America, but also America itself.


This is a particularly important topic today for popular cultural studies, especially because most of your students are highly unlikely to have much contact with any of the traditional news media, getting their news instead from such digital sources as Twitter and Facebook.  Eschewing radio and television news sources, they may think that their own news consumption has been entirely unaffected by the face-off between such unabashedly partisan networks as Fox and MSNBC.  But the fact is that the new news model, centered in social media, has much in common with the model that Ailes created—is, in fact, almost an extension of it.  Let me explain.


As always in a semiotic analysis, we need to begin with a little history.  For the purposes of this blog, that history can begin with the radio, and subsequently television, career of CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.  While I don't want to give the impression that Murrow was some sort of godlike creature who, alone among mere mortals, was able to present the news with perfect objectivity, he certainly did much to earn his enduring reputation as a man who at least stood for the principle of principled and objective journalism.  This mantle of journalistic integrity was inherited by Walter Cronkite, who, while being no more superhuman than Murrow, at least was believed to be a benevolently neutral purveyor of the news.


All of this began to change (at least noticeably change) with the accession of Dan Rather to the CBS throne.  Widely accused of being a sort of left-wing shill, Rather inaugurated the journalistic era that is taken for granted today: that is, one in which it is assumed that news broadcasters, and the corporations they work for, are politically biased and operate with a palpable agenda.


So when Ailes took over at Fox News and openly crafted the network as an organ for conservative politicking, he was bringing into the open a historical tendency that had already begun.  Going all out in this direction by lining up such conservative luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity, Ailes found that he could not only generate enormous profits for Fox News, but that he could also transform Fox into a major player in American politics, harnessing the allegiance, and votes, of millions of Fox consumers who, in turn, would drive Ailes's Republican party ever further to the right and facilitate the rise, first, of the Tea Party, and then of Donald Trump.


The left responded with comedic ridicule (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report) and ideologically positioned news broadcasting of its own (MSNBC).  The result has been a news landscape that plays out like an unending WFC smackdown: the news as political entertainment.


But there have been more profound results.  The explicit politicization of the news has contributed in a crucial way to the increasingly unbridgeable gap between two Americas, a gap that will remain, and fester, no matter who wins the approaching presidential election.  This gap is only being widened by the echo-chamber effect of what I'll call "the social mediacization" of the news, wherein, just as with the Fox phenomenon, consumers of the news "tune in" only to those sources that tell them what they want to hear.  And while it is fair to say that Fox started it, the condition has now become well nigh universal, with Americans from all over the political spectrum becoming hardened  in both their political positions and in their entire apprehension of reality, because, in effect, they are living in different realities.


And so, as everyone wonders how we ever came to the predicament in which we now find ourselves—both generally and with respect to the presidential campaign— we can see that while Roger Ailes helped get us here, no amount of finger pointing will resolve the problem, because the pointing is now in every direction.  Simply recognizing this dismal fact will not change anything of course, but we can't even begin to address the problem without illuminating its manifold sources.  And that, finally, is what popular cultural semiotics is for.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.