BY JULIAN PHILLIPS
The very notion of creating a news network that gave voice to a conservative viewpoint was a novel idea—and very much needed at a time where liberal opinions dominated the airwaves.
Television maverick Roger Ailes was certainly the right person to catapult such a concept onto the scene, and it quickly found a willing audience and ultimately skyrocketed the network to the top of the cable news ratings.
The rise and dominance of Fox News may have surprised many in the business, perhaps because they underestimated Ailes’ ability to promote and “sell” his product with crafty slogans like “Fair & Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide.”
It all sounded great—and more importantly, looked even better. For its’ targeted audience, Ailes hired young, mostly white blonde women with short skirts and pumps, accentuated by glass desks to ‘see all,’ and dashing white men in sharp suits delivering hard-hitting headlines geared towards presenting news with a conservative agenda that had tremendous appeal to those willing to tune in.
Add in the memorable ‘Fox News Alert’ gong and a Star Spangled Banner sign-off at the beginning and end of the programming day and you have a ratings bonanza.
If you think Ailes was not serious about appearance, I remember a conversation I had with one of the network’s female anchors who said she was summoned to Roger’s office immediately after a newscast for not wearing her “F&*% me” pumps on the air. Apparently flats don’t bring in the ratings.
Like it or not, Fox ruled cable news—and every other network was scrambling to catch up. For a time, Fox did deliver news and a message that gave voice to a conservative think tank that was sorely needed.
However, conservative news started to shift toward a right wing agenda. Hannity & Colmes became just Hannity. With the 2008 presidential election approaching, there was a clear shift to hammer the Republican agenda home without balancing that viewpoint with credible left leaning analysts.
It was a direct departure from 2002, when Ailes hired me as the network’s first African American male anchor and host of “Fox & Friends Weekend.”
Senator Chuck Schumer, a friend who previously shunned the network, agreed to come on our show. The ratings soared, so much so that Access Hollywood did a feature on the weekend crew. In 2006, the deck was shuffled and changes were made across the network.
Eleven years later, outside of Juan Williams hosting “The Five,” there is no African American male presence hosting a prime-time show on that network. I guess that did not matter to executives at Fox, because they still command sizable ratings over their competition.
But what about fairness and balance? Can a network which claims to be just that, achieve those goals with very little minority presence in front of — or behind — the cameras in production or editorial decision making? Equally as important, can Fox maintain any sense of credibility settling sexual harassment suits now in the millions of dollars against its talent and executives?
It boils down to how Fox intends to move forward. It can die a slow death in the ratings with its current base—or it can change how it presents news and treats its employees. I’m not suggesting Fox change its political focus—rather the culture in which it operates. In the end, that has everything to do with its character.
Julian Phillips is a journalist and author.