The Conservative War on Liberal Media Has a Long History

Roger Ailes's success at Fox News is unique, but the project of creating a right-leaning alternative to established media stretches back to the 1940s.
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Fred Prouser/Reuters

In his new book The Loudest Voice in the Room, Gabriel Sherman portrays Roger Ailes as “the quintessential man behind the curtain,” a great-and-powerful Oz who has remade American politics and journalism. Sherman shows how Ailes transformed the Nixon Administration’s calls for balanced news into the platform of his cable channel, Fox News. Fox News, Sherman argues, used “entertainment techniques to shape a political narrative that was presented as unbiased news,” something that makes Ailes “a unique American auteur.”

Ailes is unique, but not for the reasons Sherman suggests. Ailes made conservative news popular and profitable, but he was not the first to mingle partisanship with news. The twinned concepts of balance and bias were not his legacy but his inheritance. Long before Fox News, before Ailes and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, there was a conservative media complex in the United States refining a theory of liberal media bias. This idea trickled up to the Nixon Administration, and well before Ailes tried his hand at “fair and balanced” broadcasting, the major networks were already reorienting their news analysis toward ideological balance.

The idea of “fair and balanced” partisan media has its roots in the 1940s and 1950s. Human Events, the right-wing newsweekly founded in 1944, was dedicated to publishing the “facts” other outlets overlooked. Yet while touting this fact-based approach, the editors were also dedicated to promoting a distinct point of view. By the early 1960s, Human Events arrived at this formulation of its mission:

In reporting the news, Human Events is objective; it aims for accurate representation of the facts. But it is not impartial. It looks at events through eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise, and individual freedom.

In distinguishing between objectivity and impartiality, Human Events’ editors created a space where “bias” was an appropriate journalistic value, one that could work in tandem with objectivity.

Likewise, in 1953 William F. Buckley Jr. advised publisher Henry Regnery that he shouldn’t shy away from describing Regnery Publishing as objective: “I would recommend that you state that in your opinion an objective reading of the facts tends to make one conservative and Christian; that therefore your firm is both objective and partisan in behalf of these values.” The tension between those two ideas—between objectivity and partisanship—would become a defining feature of conservative media.

Conservatives spent most of the 1950s establishing their own media outlets: publications like National Review and Human Events, publishing houses like Regnery and Devin-Adair, and broadcasts like the Manion Forum and the Dan Smoot Report.

But two events in the early 1960s convinced the right that creating conservative media wasn’t enough to achieve balance. Conservatives would also have to discredit existing media.

The first, centering on the Federal Communications Commission, persuaded them that liberal bias was a product not just of journalists but of the government itself. Conservative discontent with the FCC focused on the Fairness Doctrine, a broadcast standard meant to regulate controversial issues on radio and television. Conservatives felt the Fairness Doctrine unfairly tilted the playing field against them. Though devised to encourage controversial broadcasting, in practice the doctrine often led broadcasters to avoid controversy so they wouldn’t have to give away free airtime. To conservatives, avoiding controversy inevitably meant silencing right-wing voices.

Conservatives’ suspicion of the FCC and the Fairness Doctrine deepened when the commission issued a public notice on July 26, 1963. The notice stated that in determining whether stations were in compliance with the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC “looks to substance rather than to label or form. It is immaterial whether a particular program is presented under the label of ‘Americanism,’ ‘anti-communism’ or ‘states’ rights.’”

Both the FCC and the right were aware that each of these labels represented a conservative idea. But why did the FCC single out conservatives? Because the right repeatedly challenged the central assumptions the FCC—and Americans more broadly—made about journalism. For much of the 20th century, journalists cleaved to the idea of objectivity. Opinion and analysis had their place, but that place was distinct and separate from the news. Conservative broadcasts, on the other hand, were by their very nature opinion. Fairness dictated these partisan broadcasters provide airtime for a response.

Conservatives saw the media landscape differently. They viewed objectivity as a mask concealing entrenched liberal bias, hiding the slanted reporting that dominated American media. Because of this, the right believed fairness did not require a response to conservative broadcasts; conservative broadcasts were the response. Unable to bring the FCC around to their position, conservatives increasingly saw the commission as a powerful government agency dedicated to maintaining media’s liberal tilt.

If the Fairness Doctrine convinced conservatives that unbalanced journalism was an institutional problem, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign made clear that it was a political problem as well. During his presidential run, the media bedeviled Goldwater. His press secretary even handed out gold pins to reporters that read “Eastern Liberal Press.”

His supporters reacted even more strongly. During the campaign, Morrie Ryskind, a conservative columnist, declared the coverage so pro-Lyndon Johnson that “I’m surprised when ‘TILT’ doesn’t flash across the screen to the accompaniment of a warning red light.” And after Goldwater’s landslide loss, conservative media outlets made bias the centerpiece of their explanation of the election’s outcome. A few weeks after the election, a Manion Forum newsletter bitterly concluded, “There was no ‘chance for a choice.’ The great issues were blacked out in a dense fog of vituperation and misrepresentation by columnists, radio and TV commentators, a left-wing press, and Liberal candidates who played upon popular fears, unfounded in fact, unjustified and unwarranted even in fancy.”

In calling coverage of Goldwater “unfounded in fact,” Manion was making another argument to which conservatives anchored their charges of liberal bias: Established media did not just slant the news—they fabricated it. And if established media couldn’t be counted on for truth, the argument went, then surely they should be required to offer both sides of the argument. In the years that followed, conservatives began an active campaign against liberal bias, organized by groups like the Committee to Combat Bias in Broadcasting and Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media.

The charges of media bias were picked up by the Nixon Administration in 1969, when Spiro Agnew skewered the “closed fraternity of privileged men” who ran television news. In choosing the stories and writing the commentary, he argued, these anchors, producers, and pundits served up not objective analysis but the liberal pap of the New York-Washington echo chamber. And every night, 40 million Americans tuned in, imbibing bias and mistaking it for neutrality.

While Agnew made the charge, it was up to conservative media activists to make the case. The heavy lifting fell to Edith Efron, a writer for TV Guide. In 1968 Efron analyzed network coverage of the last several weeks of the 1968 election. Armed with thousands of hours of videotape and a grant from the Historical Research Fund (of which Buckley was the projects chair), she plucked out 100,000 words on Nixon and Humphrey from each of the Big Three’s nightly newscasts.

Then Efron started counting.

For and against: tick, tick, tick, until she had tallied every favorable and unfavorable word spoken about the candidates. Crunching the numbers, she found about half of all words spoken about Humphrey were positive. For Nixon? A paltry 8.7 percent. Her book The News Twisters concluded network news followed “the elitist-liberal-left line in all controversies.”

However slipshod Efron’s methodology (she was the sole arbiter of whether coverage was positive or negative), her findings had the veneer of science. It was a crucial addition to the bias argument. Hard numbers, rigorous tallying, percentages and tables and charts: How better to prove liberal bias was not a figment of the paranoid conservative mind but an irrefutable fact?

The White House instantly understood the importance of a book that broke down, to the tenth of a percentage point, the extent to which the media were biased against the administration. So Nixon ordered Special Counsel Charles Colson to get the book on the New York Times bestsellers list. Colson ferreted out which stores’ sales were used to determine the list, and bought up every copy they had. And it worked: Efron’s book became an official New York Times bestseller. (For years, Nixon staffers stumbled upon boxes crammed full of The News Twisters.)

The combined forces of the administration and its conservative media-research wing had an effect. By 1971 CBS Radio had launched Spectrum, a debate show featuring conservatives like Stan Evans, James Kilpatrick, and Phyllis Schlafly. That same year 60 Minutes pitted conservative Kilpatrick against liberal Nicholas von Hoffman in a regular segment called “Point/Counterpoint.” By then, even the publisher of Human Events, in the midst of selling his paper as an alternative to liberal media, had to admit that conservatives were popping up all over established media—even the editorial pages of “that holy house organ of Liberalism—the New York Times.”

So balance and bias became part of the American news diet long before Ailes entered the conservative media game. Why does that matter? It makes Ailes’s successes at Fox News far more understandable—and far less Ailes-centric. By the time Ailes entered the game, the American right had spent a generation seeking out conservative alternatives to the “liberal media,” and America’s news media was already in the midst of a revolution that made Fox News possible.

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Nicole Hemmer teaches history at the University of Miami and is a visiting scholar at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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