The Fox hunt

Culture | Fox News now sets the ratings standard for cable news, but its success goes beyond its conservatism

Issue: "Memorial Day 2003," May 24, 2003

Now that viewers are no longer watching the war-like a hit TV show that has had its season finale-ratings for the news channels will probably return to normal. But just as CNN made its name with its coverage of Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom has made a winner of Fox News.

Fox News has a reputation as the conservative news channel, and much of its success in beating rivals CNN and MSNBC is attributed to the way its "fair-and-balanced news" tilts to the right. But even setting aside its pro-American, pro-freedom, pro-family flavor-which the public clearly feels is refreshing-Fox News is still better than its competitors.

The anchors and reporters on Fox News just seem to have more personality, energy, and likability than their counterparts on CNN. Compare CNN's Aaron Brown, with oh-so-sensitive but ultimately sleep-inducing droning, to Fox's high-energy Shepard Smith. Or CNN's Larry King, asking softball questions to celebrities, to Fox's Bill O'Reilly, with his tough interrogations of guests.

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Fox has assembled a pool of distinguished conservative journalists-Brit Hume, Fred Barnes, Tony Snow, Cal Thomas, Sean Hannity-but even Fox's liberal personalities, such as Alan Colmes, seem to have more pizzazz and are less annoying than liberals on other networks.

Fox risked its reputation in some conservative circles by hiring the liberal Greta Van Susteren from CNN, and the Clinton cheerleader Geraldo Rivera away from MSNBC. But Ms. Van Susteren seems much more conservative than she used to be, and Mr. Rivera was a rah-rah supporter of the troops he covered.

Even though he was ejected from the field for revealing his unit's location, Mr. Rivera has uncharacteristically been a staunch supporter of President Bush and the war in Iraq. This proves that journalists, like teenagers, tend to conform to peer pressure, and the newsroom in which they are socializing goes a long way to shape their opinions.

Mr. Rivera and Ms. Van Susteren were hired for their personalities, not their ideas, and MSNBC, the third-place news channel, has tried to compete with personality journalism of its own. In fact, its personalities-ex-governor and ex-pro wrestler Jesse Ventura; the abrasive Chris Matthews; the touchy-feely Phil Donahue -are more over-the-top than those on Fox. MSNBC has even assembled some name-brand conservatives-Mike Savage, Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan-assuming that is the key to Fox's success. But for all of its efforts (and though the jury is out on some of these shows), nothing much seems to work for MSNBC.

Somehow Fox has assembled a group of TV journalists who connect with viewers, probably because they come across as normal people. Fox reporters almost never condescend to viewers. The other networks do so all the time, peering down on the vulgar masses from a social height (think Peter Jennings), or deigning to enlighten the public about things that only they understand (think Peter Arnett).

Thus, in the news vacuum after the war, we are having media-created stories that demonstrate how far removed are the mainline news outlets from the general public.

Sen. Rick Santorum's opinion that homosexuality is one of many other sexual perversions is arguably the view of most Americans. Yet the media tried to turn his remark into a Republican scandal. Time is uncovering the shocking truth that missionaries are trying to get people in other countries to change their religion, something most Americans already know and many support with donations.

Fox News lacks the sense of out-of-touch elitism that makes many Americans, whatever their politics, annoyed with the news media. Tom Brokaw's heir apparent Brian Williams on MSNBC dresses like a patrician, in those shirts with contrasting collars; MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield, in her sophisticated glasses, comes across as a blue-blooded sophisticate. Shepard Smith and Laurie Dhue, on the other hand, come across as regular folks.

The latest coup for Fox News is that its morning show, Fox & Friends, has outperformed a network morning show. In April, it drew an average of 2.91 million viewers, whereas The Early Show on CBS only attracted 2.8 million. This is quite an accomplishment, since CBS is free over the air. Fox News is only available on satellite or cable, and even then not all cable operators carry Fox News.

But millions of Americans would rather wake up to the wise-cracking Steve Doocy ("the weather guy"), the outspoken lady E.D. Hill, and the down-to-earth Brian Kilmeade than to the glamorous stars on the network morning shows.

The great irony of the left is that it has largely become an upper-class affectation. The educational and social elite are more likely to lean socialist than Marx's "workers of the world," a good number of whom vote conservative and watch Fox News.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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