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.