Fox News celebrated 25 years on Thursday, as my colleague Brad Slager beautifully reported. While Slager talked about its inception, growth, and other media's meltdown response to this milestone, I'll focus on why Fox News' formula has been different, why they missed an opportunity to discuss the scandals that have shaped them, as much as their unique entry into the world of news.
What makes Fox News unique is its opinion arm, because most of their bench leans to the right-of-center or libertarian. This is what the late Roger Ailes, former chairman and CEO, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch gambled on: that conservatives, and salt-of-the-earth, every day Americans needed to feel as though they were being heard.
Their gamble paid off. In launching the network, they changed the trajectory of the type of news covered, and the way that news is delivered, for good or for ill. Everyone has an opinion on whether it's one or the other, especially the Fox News competitors.
You still have people who cannot distinguish between the Fox News affiliate stations that do actual reporting, and Fox News corporate and its personalities. Fox News and its affiliates stations have some premiere journalists. Bill Melugin, who is one of the few bringing us hard news about what is really happening at the border, being one of them. Before he was pulled into the national network, he was a Los Angeles affiliate who did some pivotal investigative work, particularly on the hypocrisy of California's Governor Newsom ala The French Laundry.
But, the Fox News that the entire world sees and that gets people's attention is the opinion arm: the national personalities like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Greg Gutfeld, Judge Jeanine Piro. It is these personalities that drive the ratings.
Whether it's a channel, a blog, a podcast network, or a retail store, if you can get people to step foot inside, linger for a time, and find something that they really like but only you supply, you have created a loyal customer. This is something that Fox News has done quite well, starting with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, as well as focusing on a younger audience with Red Eye, The Five, and now Gutfeld! These are the personalities that draw people in, that are essentially the potatoes. The news and reporting are the gravy. It's a sad reflection of the culture we live in, but true nonetheless.
I am not a religious Fox News watcher, and in terms of hard news, I prefer to either read it, or digest it via podcast or radio. But I chose to watch much of the very glossy, and helium-laden coverage, and some it I enjoyed. I did not know Fox News had a chief religion correspondent named Lauren Green, who is also a Black woman. Green has been with Fox News for the entirety of the 25 years, and manages to keep it on the downlow. Not sure why, as outside of her role at Fox News, she appears to be a fascinating individual that I would not mind seeing onscreen more often.
Not so hidden, but in my opinion an underrated asset for Fox News, is Harris Faulkner of Outnumbered, and more recently, The Faulkner Focus. Her presence, delivery, and gravitas are up there with a Walter Cronkite, a Tom Brokaw, or a Brit Hume, but she only recently has headlined her own show, and is still relegated to the morning and afternoon. Maybe she wishes it this way, but as far as real journalists and personalities go, compared to her, Chris Wallace is a piker, and Faulkner should be the one getting more face time.
In their reflections on Fox News' 25 years, many of the “FaceTime” Fox News personalities kept making the case that Fox News, “dared to be different”. That's very true. In that daring, Fox News opened the door for others to dare as well. Any right-leaning or conservative outlet post-1996 can thank Fox News for not only shining a spotlight on their audience, but laying the groundwork for them to increase their voice and reach. Currently we have The First, Newsmax TV, and One America News Network (OANN) vying to be the next upstart. But, had Fox News not blazed the trail, these outlets would have a harder, if not impossible, road.
Fox News has also given many people and organizations a platform that would not otherwise have been given. Glenn Beck and Jesse Watters come to mind. Watters World was just a goofy segment on The O'Reilly Factor. Once The Five co-host Eric Bolling departed, Jesse Watters was elevated and now helms Watters World as a weekend show offering on the network.
As just a provocative radio personality, Glenn Beck owes a debt to Bill O'Reilly and Fox News for giving him a national platform not only with segments on The Factor, but No Spin Tours with O'Reilly, and then Beck's own show in the afternoon. Now Beck has his own media empire in The Blaze. These are two individuals that, for good or ill, owe Fox News a huge debt of gratitude for launching their careers.
Then there are the faces who shaped Fox News over its 25 years, and helped it maintain its ratings dominance. It is a reflection that the Fox News of today is no longer daring to be different, because it chooses to gloss over its scandals, mistakes, and missteps, rather than point them out and offer analysis on how the network moved past it. Certain high profile personalities were given barely a mention, or no mention at all.
Take The Five. The success of the show was not only due to Greg Gutfeld and Dana Perino, but Eric Bolling and Kimberly Guilfoyle, who were part of the original lineup. Even though Juan Williams is still a Fox News contributor, he was also given short-shrift.
Both Bolling and Guilfoyle were part of the #MeToo fallout following the ouster of Roger Ailes. Ailes was forced to resign after a wave of sexual abuse allegations, spearheaded by former Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson. The centerpiece of Fox News' ratings dominance, Bill O'Reilly was also caught up in that wave. According to The New York Times, Fox News settled five sexual harassment lawsuits against O'Reilly. The station's flagship program, The O'Reilly Factor lost more than half its advertisers within a week, with close to 60 companies dropping their advertisement from the network. O'Reilly was fired in April of 2017.
Bolling has since carved out a niche on the Conservative Review TV streaming platform, and now helms his own show on streaming upstart Newsmax TV. Guilfoyle is now most famously known as the girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr., and is using the MAGA platform and power base to promote and support America First candidates.
O'Reilly is still a known quantity in right-leaning politics, and with decades in the business across a changing media landscape, he knew how to stay relevant. O'Reilly created his own platform with the “No Spin News” program, and maintains a radio program on WABC and other stations. Last year, O'Reilly, and another new conservative streaming platform, The First, inked a deal for “No Spin News” to air on its service. O'Reilly has recently been seen giving commentary on other newer outlets, like Newsmax and OANN.
What could have given this anniversary fest a different spin and perspective is to hear how the departure of those three opened the door for other personalities to show their quality, or gave entry for Fox News to continue to dominate in the marketplace. No one denies that Tucker Carlson is a powerhouse, but would Tucker Carlson Tonight be as preeminent now had The O'Reilly Factor not taken a face plant? The removal of O'Reilly also made Sean Hannity the de facto Fox News standard bearer, something that also may not have happened while O'Reilly's big presence still dominated the network.
Megyn Kelly was also not mentioned. After joining Fox News in 2004, Kelly's star rose quickly, helming her own segment called “Kelly's Court,” and appearing for segments on the top-rated The O'Reilly Factor. Kelly reached her zenith on the network when she was tapped to helm her own show, The Kelly File, with 8:00 p.m.'s The O'Reilly Factor as a plum lead. Kelly was instrumental in the infamous 2015 GOP primary debate where she cornered then-candidate Donald Trump about rhetoric towards women. Kelly also did that rare crossover from conservative to legacy media, appearing on The Tonight Show with both Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon, the Charlie Rose Show, and The View. Ailes sexual misconduct against Kelly was first revealed in Kelly's 2016 memoir, Settle for More. Kelly went on to back Gretchen Carlson's sexual abuse allegations against Ailes, which ultimately led to Ailes resignation. Both Carlson and Kelly's story was famously ripped off for the movie, Bombshell, which documented Carlson's and other women's sexual abuse allegations.
In 2017, Kelly left Fox News for her own show on NBC called Megyn Kelly Today, then was unceremoniously fired after seemingly defending “Blackface” on a Halloween segment. Kelly has since launched her own media network.
As the least fractious of the departures–that is, there was no sexual misconduct on her part–I think Fox News viewers would have benefited from her perspective not only of being at the network, but what she learned from her time at Fox News that has allowed her to increase her voice and launch her own media empire. Beck could have done the same.
In October 2019, Kelly did make an appearance on the ratings-King, Tucker Carlson Tonight, in what The Hill reported delivered 4 million viewers, which allowed the program to gain the coveted “most-watched on cable” title from Nielsen Media Research.
And then there is Gretchen Carlson, who almost tore down the house that Ailes and Murdoch built.
In 2017, Carlson's book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back was released, where she detailed her experience of coming forward with the allegations, as well as the stories of other women who have done the same in their industries. Carlson has a three-documentary deal with the A&E/Lifetime network. Her first docuseries, Gretchen Carlson: Breaking the Silence, involves her traveling the country to discuss the stories of women who are fighting against sexual abuse and harassment in working-class industries.
In 2019, Carlson penned a New York Times essay, “Fox News: I Want My Voice Back,” saying she still can't talk about what happened to her because of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that was part of the 2017 settlement with Fox News.
“I want my voice back. I want it back for me, and for all those silenced by forced arbitration and NDAs.”
Her Fox News story would have made the biggest impact, and would have reflected a new direction for the network not only in terms of reporting, but cultural change.
Maybe in another 25 years.