Tabloid Goes TV: the Foxification of America

It has been known that Fox Populism relentlessly enforces the four-legged stool of US conservatism: national defence, an ideological code-word for aggressive attacks on other countries (e.g. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq); anti-communism, another code-word for the uncompromising persecution of anyone suspected of not supporting the prevailing system of capitalism; the engineering of anti-government attitudes that follow Ronald Reagan’s dictum of “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”; and finally the free-market ideology – the much-used euphemism for neoliberal capitalism even though the odious free market has never been seen.

In reality, all markets are regulated from opening days and hours of trading in feudal village markets to the use of money (issued, regulated, and strictly policed by states), to product safety rules to assure that children do not choke to death on plastic pieces and microwaves do not blow up in our faces.

Still, these four ideologies are ceaselessly hammered by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, offering a tantalising mix of real news, crime, celebrities, and tabloid stories spiced up by attractive females (WATCH NOW FOR FREE – Join Abby Hornacek as she experiences…). For many years, Fox News has become US conservatism’s central institution for the broadcasting of its ideology. It is set with the task to attack what Fox calls the cultural elite that supposedly runs the mainstream media. Simultaneously, Fox diverts attention away from the real elite governing and benefiting from US capitalism.

As more and more Americans get their news from online sources such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., Fox has surpassed CNN in 2002 within the television broadcasting medium. Murdoch’s conservative network has not only beaten its more liberal competitors, CNN and MSNBC but has continuously garnered higher ratings than both of these networks combined. From 1998 to 2001, Fox grew its ratings in the 25-54 demographic by 430%. This took place while CNN’s declined by 48%. The strength of Fox’s one-sided propaganda machine even made the former US president comment on Fox by saying,

I’ve got one television station [Fox News] that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration…You’d be hard pressed if you watched the entire day to find a positive story about me.

What Rupert Murdoch has achieved is the tabloidization of TV by successfully transferring tabloid elements from Murdoch’s Sun in the UK (Don’t blame Boris) and Australia’s Daily Telegraph into American TV. Essential to understanding Fox’s success is that Fox’s style is its politics – a merger between a tabloidization of news featuring flashy pictures, shiny graphs, sensational videos, etc. But this also means that Fox’s populist rhetoric defends the business class and the wealthy. The issue of Fox’s marketing campaign, Fair & Balances, is not that Fox is neither fair nor balanced but that Fox has hollowed out both concepts. Authoritarian populism is often about re-defining words as well as re-shaping language.

Fox’s conservatism thrives on the showbizification of the fourth estate, as Dan Rather once said. Meanwhile, the l’idée fixe of a fourth estate – to counter the other three estates of the clergy (religion), the nobility (money and power), and the commoners (democracy) has been turned into the very opposite. Fox supports money and power, and to a smaller extent, religion and its version of a Fox News directed democracy.

Historically, the original blueprint for Fox has always been more tabloid and populist than conservative. Almost singlehandedly, Fox invented gossipy TV tabloid news by strictly following the effective use of newspaper tabloid presentation as a formula for presenting TV news. Fox TV lives on punchy headlines, vivid layout, and sensational content. It gives greater priority to affective forms of communication, such as shocking language, graphic images, colourful presentations, and emotionally embodied performances.

Beneath this, Fox relentlessly enforces its conservatism through its version of class, religion, and whiteness. Fox over-represents conservatism as the defining element of the American working class and pretends that it is the sole element of the working class. Working-class conservatism is mixed with whiteness, i.e. racism. Fox’s audience is actually more white than the already exceptionally white Republican Party.

At the same time, Fox targets undereducated groups as 76% of Fox’s audience lacks a college degree. This mirrors the fact that the higher the education, the more likely the voting for progressive parties – a theorem that works in the opposite direction just as well. To camouflage the lack of intellect and a deliberately engineered dumbing down of news, Fox has invented what it calls popular intellect – a conservative version of common sense.

For Fox, class always means the diversion away from Karl Marx’s concept of class towards blaming the working class while painting capital in a positive light. Fox calls capital and overpaid CEOs job creators. Simultaneously, Fox’s anti-elitism legitimises the business elite (e.g. Trump, Murdoch, etc.) and the educational elite (Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Eaton and Oxford). Luckily, such contradictions hardly ever come to light at Fox.

Unlike traditional media that saw its task in giving people the news that they need to have to function in a democracy, Fox News is very different. It no longer gives you what you need to know but what you want to know – and that can be mindless trash. Fox’s carefully crafted news comes under the formula when it bleeds it leads – when it thinks it stinks. Fox reinforces what Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein calls The Idiot Culture, and it underpins already existing attitudes, stereotypes and prejudice inside its echo chamber eliminating what is known as cognitive dissonance.

Much of this deepens the traditional split found in many countries between two somewhat separated media markets. On the one hand, there are serious media, often called quality media. On the other hand, we find tabloid newspapers and now tabloid news. This division used to be prevalent in print media only. But with Fox, it has entered TV. Tabloid TV promotes one of democracy’s most significant liabilities. It allows charismatic demagogues access to mass media through which they can speak directly to the fears, superstition, and prejudices of the masses.

Fox’s tabloid TV venture succeeded because three elements lined up during the 1990s. Firstly, the mass commercialisation of cable and satellite technologies emerged. Secondly, Fox had three talented people (Murdoch’s money and experience, Ailes’ strategic thinking, and O’Reilly’s personality and charisma). Thirdly, Fox tapped into an already existing pool of conservatism partly mirroring the political right-wing in the USA and partly altering traditional patterns of conservatism. This became known as the Fox News Effect.

Fox mainly speaks to the disenfranchised as well as those it makes believe that they are permanently under siege. These are presented as real Americans who are threatened by Fox’s imaginary enemy of a cultural and liberal elite that is set to destroy American values. As a consequence, Fox fosters a semi-pathological circle the wagon mentality with a typical right-wing them against us undercurrent.

In that, Fox protects and supports “the people” by which Fox does not mean the working class. Instead, it sets whites against anyone who is not white and/or progressive. To divert attention away from the real elite, Fox has invented what it calls the liberal power bloc. This bloc consists of four groups:

1) A political class – not the economic class of capital;

2) The media – the quality media and not right-wing tabloid media and radio shock jocks;

3) The coastal elites, i.e. well educated progressive and environmentally conscious citoyen; and

4) Those who Fox identifies as hip and trendy.

Meanwhile, Fox represents US conservatives as truly oppressed – not the working class and not the working poor. For Fox, the enemy is the liberal media that tells you what to think – something Fox pretends never to do but does consistently. Fox does this through great TV shows, great TV performances and great television programming where the spectacle has replaced facts. Fox has succeeded in expressing the pure, virtuous tabloid soul on TV. Lacking the credentials of the quality media, Fox thrives from expressing rage; it shows poor taste and even bad manners. It pretends to follow one’s gut feeling – the infamous common sense. These virtues are presented as ordinary and as authentic. In short,

The true ideological manoeuvre of Fox News’ populist strategy is not to swap “real” class grievance with “fake” ones, but rather to offer a strategically limited conception of class hierarchy in America that foregrounds real class-cultural inequalities in order to obscure real economic ones.

Classical contradictions, like those between capital and labour, simply vanish into thin air. Overlaying the vertical class cleavage between capital and labour, Fox relentlessly fosters an assumed horizontal ethnic and nationalistic conflict. In short, nationalistic chauvinism wins over class. This marks the hyper-nationalistic nature of Fox News’ politics. Additionally, Fox presents CEOs and business owners as being from the same working-class social world as most Americans – minus the never mentioned private jet of Rupert Murdoch and sons.

To disguise their own class, Murdoch’s Fox News programmes constantly reiterate that the wealth of the worthy rich is the product of individual effort. Unlike the term “rich”, Fox’s term “successful” treats affluence and market dominance as merited. Simultaneously, the wealthy are often framed as the hardest workers. In Fox News’ programming, the term “CEO” stands for effective leadership, and “running a business” stands for good governance. Fox also makes its audience believe that the market is an institution that most accurately reflects the empirical reality – the real world. In sharp contrast, Fox presents the public sector as a sphere of distorted reality that has been created by those who want to selfishly and irresponsibly insulate themselves and others from the moral obligation to work.

Fox propaganda tells its audience that government elites and their supporters are ruining the economy. Fox’s basic story is one of government thefts and taxpayer victimisation. Once, Fox even turned the moral and economic lessons of the Great Depression on their heads by presenting government as an evil force that hindered capitalism from thriving. To enforce its economic conservatism, in Fox News, moral rationales take primary over rational logic and fact-based considerations. Fox tends to be more adept at using moral language than their liberal counterparts.

Still, Fox News is to be understood not as inherently anti-intellectual but rather as a popular interface for conservative intellectual culture. Since Fox can hardly rely on universities (for Fox, they are captured by the left) to support Fox’s ideological worldviews, Fox tends to rely on the counter intelligentsia of conservative think tanks – a code word for neoliberal lobbing. Frequently, Fox directs its viewers to the corporate lobbying apparatus, for more information as Fox calls it. These conservative and neoliberalism think tanks are presented as autonomous and independent.

In conclusion, Fox has managed to build a right-wing populist tabloid ethos underwriting neoliberalism’s free-market populism. To understand Fox, firstly, it is imperative to focus less on its ideological indoctrination and more on its style. Secondly, to understand Fox’s audience, it might not be helpful to view Fox’s audience as hopelessly bigoted anti-intellectuals – we know that already. Understanding Fox means understanding how Fox operates with selective exposure showing real truths – among outright lies and half-truths. Fox only shows the truths it has selected, and it can twist it to fit its right-wing agenda. Fox won the ratings war not so much because of its political ideology but because of its enticing style of presenting TV news as a spectacle.

Finally, Fox draws attention away from the conflict between capital and labour by focusing almost exclusively on tensions between the lower class and what Fox calls educated professionals. It follows an old but very successful divide and rule strategy. Fox represents nothing less than tabloid goes TV leading to a Foxification of America that renders an “I-have-total-authority” president, untouchable.

Reece Pecks’ Fox Populism is published by Cambridge University Press.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of The AfD – Germany’s New Nazis or another Populist Party?

Nadine Campbell is the founder of Abydos Academy