The notion that Fox News has been defeated would seem absurd if you judge solely by the numbers. The year just ended was the network’s twelfth in a row as the most-watched cable-news network. Its number of total viewers surpasses CNN and MSNBC combined. As the longtime Rupert Murdoch–Fox News watcher Michael Wolff wrote of the cumulative 2013 ratings, “Nobody has come close to competing” with Ailes. “He gets larger, everybody else gets lesser.” But as Wolff also observed, “The cable audience, for all the attention heaped on it for its theoretical political sway, is not that large.” To put it mildly. As the overwhelming leader in its field, Fox draws just over a million viewers in prime time—a pittance and a niche next to even the ever-declining network newscasts, of which the lowest rated (CBS Evening News) still can attract a nightly audience as large as 8 million.
Fox News’s political sway in the real world, as opposed to its power to drive MSNBC viewers and their fellow travelers nuts and to generate ridicule from late-night comics, is also on the wane. Speaking to the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles in January, Jeff Zucker, the former NBC chief executive now trying to revive CNN (averaging a mere 568,000 prime-time viewers in 2013), complained like countless before him that Fox is an arm of the GOP “masquerading as a cable-news channel.” It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that out: No fewer than five Republican presidential hopefuls, not to mention Karl Rove and Glenn Beck, were on-camera as paid Fox personalities at the start of the 2012 election season; Murdoch is a GOP donor; and Ailes is a former Republican political operative whose partisan record extends back to his big break as Richard Nixon’s media guru in 1968. But there’s nothing in Fox’s viewership numbers, either in magnitude or in demographic hue, to suggest that there’s a significant number of voting-age Americans who at this point do not already know that Fox News is a GOP auxiliary and view it, hate-watch it, or avoid it accordingly. The masquerade that Zucker seems to find a revelation was unmasked years ago.
Back at its creation, in 1996, Fox News was a true stealth threat to the body politic. The network was assumed by many viewers to be as advertised: a good-faith competitor to CNN, which then was in its sixteenth year of dominating the still-developing genre of 24/7 television news. (MSNBC also would arrive in 1996.) Fox’s guise of impartiality would start to erode with its prurient overkill on the Lewinsky scandal, but still, its Clinton coverage wasn’t all that more sensational than the competition’s. It wasn’t until Fox threatened to dethrone CNN in the ratings after the Bush-Gore debacle of 2000 that the left started to take serious notice and decry what Fox was peddling under its Orwellian rubrics of “We Report. You Decide” and “Fair & Balanced.” By 2004, when Fox lent its growing might to the Swift Boat smears of John Kerry, a concerted opposition started to crystallize. It took the form of a revelatory documentary (Outfoxed) by the television producer Robert Greenwald, the advent of the ill-fated liberal radio network Air America, the creation of an explicit O’Reilly Factor parody in The Colbert Report, and the formation of Media Matters, an aggressive and well-financed watchdog operation conceived by the right-wing journalistic hit man turned Clinton acolyte David Brock. Media Matters also policed MSNBC, which had yet to adopt an ideological identity and was still fielding prime-time shows like Scarborough Country, in which the former Gingrich revolutionary Joe Scarborough compared lesbians to “barnyard animals” and cheered on a Dixie Chicks boycott after Natalie Maines opposed the Iraq War. MSNBC’s marketing strategy would start to evolve (as would Scarborough’s) once Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” and “Special Comment” monologues attacking the Bush White House and its Fox shills struck pay dirt in 2006. But it was too late to overtake Fox News in the Nielsens. The tidal wave of mass liberal rage aimed at Bush-Cheney would start to recede with the 2008 election, and once Obama entered the White House, MSNBC no longer could draw on the fierce anger that might have pushed its viewership numbers into Fox territory.
On the eve of Obama’s reelection campaign, in early 2012, Brock co-authored a book cataloguing Media Matters’ long-running brief against Fox News’s transgressions, The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine. But by that point, it was more a valedictory than an exposé. The world knew Fox was a propaganda machine. At the end of 2013, a Media Matters executive, Angelo Carusone, acknowledged as much, declaring that “the war on Fox is over.” His organization devised a three-year strategic plan to devote more resources to monitoring the fast-growing sectors of online, social, and Hispanic media.