The American news channel has rebranded political communication, says Reece Peck, author of an explosive new book.
The ‘fighting for the little guy’ rhetoric of Fox News hosts has often been dismissed as a simple gimmick. But, after years of studying Fox’s programming, I’ve come to realise that this isn’t the case. Not only does Fox’s populist style make for clever marketing and dramatic entertainment, but it’s also one of the most sophisticated forms of political communication in recent US history.
Indeed, Fox News has become the most profitable asset in Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, attaining iconic status in American culture. The network has spearheaded the conservative media revolution of the past two decades and, at a deeper level, transformed how news is presented and marketed in the US.
Non-stop party culture
The conventional take on Fox’s appeal is that it’s all about the network’s conservative ideological slant, designed to confirm the political views of its audience. However, to define Fox News merely in terms of the left-right divide is to miss how it fashions Republican partisanship as an identity and uses it as a brand value.
Murdoch and Fox’s founding CEO, Roger Ailes, realised that creating a market for conservative television entailed more than simply giving target audiences talking points. Effective political branding, they understood, must capture how party preferences are expressed as communities and cultures.
Fox hosts have presented the Republican Party as the natural home of the white working class, and zoned in on populist phrases that have been used for centuries. US populist class critiques have historically been more moral than economic and this gives well-worn expressions great malleability. Terms like “the people” and “forgotten Americans” can be assigned to very different economic groups and serve divergent political agendas, from Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s to the Tea Party movement of the late 2000s.
One of the long-standing narratives of the conservative movement has focused on how ‘overeducated elites’ use government power to both confiscate the wealth of ‘producing’ Americans and impose non-traditional cultural values on them. Fox News has seized these narratives and skilfully adapted them to the television news format. Fox’s potent mix of tabloid presentation and populist moral reasoning sees it hail its audience as the authentic, working-class majority, thus allowing it to effectively represent narrow conservative political demands (tax cuts for the wealthy, say) as popular and universally beneficial.
What a bunch of anchors
When launching Fox in 1996, Ailes recruited talent from outside the ‘reputable’ sectors of journalism, such as talk radio (Sean Hannity) and tabloid television (Shepard Smith). In contrast, CNN and MSNBC drew most of their on-air anchors from network news departments and prestige papers. In taking this approach, Ailes introduced a decidedly non-professional authority type to the US news scene, a blue-collar anchor persona that he especially cultivated in former Fox News star Bill O’Reilly.
Fox the facts
In the Trump era, media critics have raised concerns about the rise of a ‘post-truth’ press. The populist news style that Fox has crafted is, in many ways, the perfect tool for America’s news environment, in which ‘facts’ are losing their power and are judged not by their soundness but by the partisan affiliation (perceived or actual) of the institution producing them.
Appeals to identity and ‘tradition’ are exceedingly useful in today’s hyper-politicised media. This is because, unlike expert knowledge, they do not require formal verification. What populism does require is a deep knowledge of political moral ideals, an astute awareness of the key social trends active in a given historical moment and presentation skills that allow TV pundits to convincingly play the part of an ‘ordinary American’.
Emulating Fox’s populist style carries many risks for the Democratic Party and its media allies but so too does continuing to rely on the same confrontation-averse centrism that has repeatedly led to voter and viewer apathy, and ideological defeat.
Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class by Reece Peck is Published by Cambridge University Press.
A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q2 2019.