- Fox News and the Performance of Ideology
For the first half of the 1990s, success in television programming eluded Roger Ailes, media consultant to several Republican presidents and later the president of Fox News Corporation. First as executive producer of The Rush Limbaugh Show (1992-1996), a syndicated television talk-show program featuring the right-wing talk radio icon, then as creator and president of NBC's conservative vox-pop cable channel, America's Talking (1994-1996), Ailes attempted to feature overtly ideological programming to attract conservative audiences, and in both instances he failed. With Limbaugh, he had the star power and the ideology but the wrong format; the visibly uncomfortable Limbaugh made for bad TV. With America's Talking, he had the populist-conservative ideology but few stars and weak formats.1
Yet with the creation of the Fox News Channel in 1996, Ailes was able to assemble all three ingredients in one location—star power (using familiar news reporters drafted from the broadcast networks, as well as successful talk-radio and tabloid TV hosts) and a conservative ideology, but also the right format for attracting audiences: the news genre.2 [End Page 178] Within a decade, Fox was crushing its cable news competitors in ratings and profitability. What is more, the network did so by presenting politically biased (that is, overtly ideologically conservative) news and opinion while also branding itself with slogans such as "Fair and Balanced" and "We Report, You Decide."
Apparently, the conjunction of a consistent set of ideological narratives sustained across programming within the genre of news accounts for Fox's tremendous success in developing a loyal audience (as well as its brand). That is to say, Fox's performances of ideology cannot be separated from their occurrence as news, and both—the genre and the ideology—are crucial in attracting and retaining audiences in the era of niche news.3 It is the genre of news that offers important and necessary "cover" for the network, helping to thwart charges of propaganda or partisanship. Fox thus benefits from the traditional legitimating aspects of the genre, including its authoritative language, the access it grants to political players, and its ability to craft political "reality" and structure audience receptivity to its messages. But it is also the performances in that genre that contribute to its believability as a source for the establishment of "truth." Those performances are examined in the following pages, first as aesthetic acts that shape political reality in ideological ways from the "raw material" of public life and, second, as performative acts that produce that which they purport to represent. Indeed, the case of Fox News demonstrates the ways in which representation within the news genre has changed—from the journalistic representation of events to the political representation of audiences.
That Fox News is, consistently and across all of its programs, offering a conservative ideological voice and doing so under the heading of "news" is, at this date, an undeniable point. Scholars and media-watchdog groups have provided detailed evidence of Fox's overtly ideological narratives in both its news and its opinion programs.4 The network itself even defends its conservatism by contending that it serves as a "counterweight" to the liberalism of mainstream news media outlets.5 And audiences too recognize Fox as conservative, as demonstrated by their opinions of the network, as well as by their viewing behaviors.6 What is the more important point of interrogation is not whether Fox News is or isn't ideological, but what does being overtly ideological do for the network? Part of the answer has to do with the pressures of operating within the cable television environment.
In the network era, the "big three" would interrupt their entertainment programming for thirty minutes of public service reports based on a rational-critical style and [End Page 179] framed by a logical-positivist approach. The end product, though, had ideological effects in that the networks shared an amazingly unitary vision of nation and events, one in which they constructed, as Geoffrey Baym argues, "a singular worldview that limited the range of understandings about the nature of the political domain and...