The problem isn’t Fox News, it’s the media’s obsession with Fox News

The American press seems fixated on Fox News and its owners, the Murdoch family.

Recently, The New York Times purported to explain “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.” This followed The New Yorker’s investigation into the “making of the Fox News White House.”

Both articles claim to reveal the true political impact of Fox News, and patriarch Rupert Murdoch, over contemporary politics.

And both articles would have delighted the late Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News. The pugnacious Ailes fostered a Fox News brand identity that continues to be reaffirmed by the respectable press years after his death.

Fox News, Ailes claimed, would always remain the underdog and be forever denigrated by mainstream rivals. Though Ailes was fired when credible accusations of sexual assault emerged, the current Fox News lineup reflects much of Ailes’s original vision.

Like the Wizard of Oz, Roger Ailes inflated the image of his own potency and his network’s power. Recent events, such as the election of Donald Trump, apparently confirm the network’s influence.

Yet when we pull back the curtain, the evidence that Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch, created and sustained our current political moment, appears far more circumstantial.

And the idea that Fox News’ power emerges from an unprecedentedly close relationship with the Trump administration also falls apart under scrutiny.

Rupert Murdoch. Reuters/Mike Blake

Failures, not victories

Let’s begin with the idea that Trump’s 2016 victory can be attributed to Fox News.

Such an assertion would be a lot more believable if Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes had wanted Donald Trump to be the 2016 Republican nominee.

But they didn’t. Both The New York Times and New Yorker pieces admit this.

So rather than put Trump in the White House, Ailes and Murdoch were unable to stop Republicans from voting for him.

But this failure to persuade Republicans in 2016 isn’t really a surprise.

Let’s consider the record.

In 2008, the channel promoted other candidates, but Republican voters selected John McCain. McCain returned the antipathy, calling himself “a Reagan Republican. … Not a talk radio or Fox News Republican.”

Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination despite not being supported by Fox News’ management. Those who point to Fox’s kingmaking powers seem to have forgotten that Rupert Murdoch strongly promoted Rick Santorum that year.

Neither the Times nor The New Yorker explain these failures. Yet they are unquestionably relevant to an assessment of the influential power of Fox News.

The numerous scholars who argue that “Fox News is a critically important actor in American politics … [that’s] actively reshaping American public opinion” also downplay many Fox News failures.

There are too many failures to list in this article, but one is particularly illustrative. Despite paying her US$1 million per year, and providing ample airtime on supportive shows, Fox News couldn’t turn Sarah Palin into a respected Republican figure.

Former Alaska Gov. and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Fox News, June 17, 2013. Fox News screenshot

Chasing, not leading

Journalists and scholars underplay the reality of Fox News’ small audience. On an average night in 2018, Fox News attracted about 2.4 million prime-time viewers.

That’s an impressive number. It made Fox News the most-watched cable television programming in 2018.

But the U.S. population in 2018 was approximately 327 million, which means that 99.3% of Americans weren’t watching Fox News on any given night.

About 26% of registered voters are either registered Republicans or identify as Republican, and in 2018 there were an estimated 158 million registered voters.

Thus, on a typical night in 2018, even if every Fox News viewer were a registered Republican (and they’re not), 94.2% of Republicans in the United States still wouldn’t be tuning in.

How few people actually watch Fox News? The lowest-rated broadcast network news program – the “CBS Evening News” – averaged more than double the number of Fox News viewers in 2018.