In 1996, when Rupert Murdoch hired Roger Ailes, a Republican political consultant, to launch Fox News, his mission was simple: to provide a counterpoint to the "left-wing bias" of the national media. But Murdoch and Ailes weren't simply on a right-wing propaganda crusade; they also aimed to capitalize on what they viewed as a largely underserved sector of America: the "silent majority" that had been dismissed by the cultural elites who ran the media business.
Though this "silent majority" seemed reasonably happy with the mainstream media, Murdoch and Ailes seized on the rising popularity of right-wing talk radio and imported its message -- and strident tone -- into cable television. They not only made sure that Americans got the right-wing message; they paid up to $11 per cable subscriber to make sure that Fox News had a prominent place in the cable universe. The result was not only a financial bonanza for Fox but a generation of right-wing propaganda in the guise of journalism.
The fact is that Fox caught the news-as-entertainment wave and shrewdly played on the entertainment value of political conflict to garner huge ratings. However, the main casualty in the rise of Fox was truth, as more and more Americans viewed politics through Fox's bare-knuckled, conspiracy-theorizing, partisan perspective. And despite the network's "fair and balanced" claim, Fox increasingly converted viewers to their one-sided ideological take on the world.
Although Fox News has become the chief messenger and opinionator for the Republican Party, it may ultimately bear much of the responsibility for tarnishing the GOP brand with most American voters. When political parties embrace demagoguery and half-truth (and let's be honest, that's what Fox is doing), they do so at their own peril. Once you've sacrificed truth in the name of ideology, you've opened Pandora's box. The GOP opened that box, and what flew out was the tea party.
Although one might argue that the tea party was at least in part a grassroots expression of cultural discontent, it is hard to deny that the flames of that discontent were fanned not only by right-wing talk radio but by the constant ideological drumbeat of Fox. With only the thinnest journalistic veneer, Fox championed an extremely partisan ideology that blossomed into -- what else? -- political extremism.
The irony is that the biggest long-term beneficiary of the Fox propaganda machine has been the Democratic Party and, most especially, President Obama. After almost 20 years of Fox's pseudojournalism, the country has shifted distinctly to the center-left, and Republicans are viewed as a party of reactionary, old, white guys, hostile to everyone from Latinos to women. Fox worked hard to gin up their viewers -- conservatives, Reagan Democrats, Southerners and rural Americans -- and it worked, sometimes too well. A sizable group of those voters have now moved further to the right and into the ranks of the tea party.
Having lost the popular vote in the last several presidential elections, the GOP is trying valiantly to rebrand itself with the American public. But it faces a civil war within its ranks from tea partiers, libertarians and other conservatives who seem to care less about winning elections than about ideological purity. As the GOP leadership knows, that is a recipe for disaster. This is not quite what Murdoch and Ailes had in mind when they launched Fox News. They may have made a bundle of money in the meantime, which may have been their primary goal all along, but the end result has been a disaster for the Republican Party and the conservative movement.