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.
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.”

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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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