During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy wryly expressed amazement that The Wall Street Journal had found fault with Richard Nixon: “That is like the Osservatore Romano criticizing the pope.” If you picture the pontiff responding with a string of crude insults and a boycott of the official Vatican newspaper, you can grasp the oddness of Donald Trump’s high-profile feud with Fox News.
Since the network’s birth in 1996, it has had a reputation for a distinctly cozy relationship with American conservatives and the Republican party generally. Granted, some critics go overboard when they dismiss Fox as a GOP house organ. Megyn Kelly, the most recent focus of Trump’s ire, has always had an independent streak, and famously sparred with Karl Rove over the network’s 2012 election-night decision to call Ohio for Obama. Still, analysis of cable coverage of that election suggests that Fox really does lean strongly to the right.
Why, then, do so many Trump supporters view Fox with such suspicion? The answer has a lot to do with the evolution of the conservative movement in general and conservative media in particular.
During the 1950s and 1960s, a single publication—National Review—largely defined the modern conservative movement, bringing together economic individualists and social traditionalists. As David Frisk explains in his excellent biography of National Review publisher William Rusher, the magazine policed the conservative fringe by denouncing conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites. Its circle of writers also supplied much of the intellectual firepower behind the Goldwater and Reagan presidential campaigns.
At first, conservatives saw themselves as operating outside the GOP establishment. In National Review’s 1955 mission statement, William F. Buckley Jr. said that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
As the years rolled on, however, the conservative movement gained strength, and the influence of old-time GOP elders started to erode. The New York Herald-Tribune, the standard-bearer of liberal Republicanism, ceased publication in 1966. Nelson Rockefeller, who embodied liberal GOP aspirations as governor of New York, became Gerald Ford’s vice president, and then had to forsake a place on the 1976 party ticket because of conservative opposition. With Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the distinction between the Republican Party and the conservative movement began to blur.
This new chapter of American conservatism came to encompass syndicated columnists such as George Will and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it gained a distinctly populist voice in the form of radio personality Rush Limbaugh. He was so prominent as a leading critic of president Bill Clinton that the Sept. 6, 1993 cover story of National Review dubbed him “the leader of the opposition.”
Then came Fox. Roger Ailes, who had been a media adviser to Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, helmed the new network. Liberals roll their eyes at its claim to be “fair and balanced” but conservatives took it seriously, and within a few years it had surpassed CNN as the prime-time ratings leader in cable news. The George W. Bush administration embraced it, going so far as to tap Fox anchor Tony Snow as White House press secretary. Whenever vice president Cheney stayed at a hotel, his staff asked that all room televisions be set to Fox News.
And yet, the network’s links to power may have come at a price. By the time Bush left office, many conservatives were disillusioned with Republican leaders in Washington. Though they had talked a good game about curbing federal power, they were responsible for such big-government initiatives as No Child Left Behind and the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The radical Tea Party movement was as much a reaction to what Bush had left behind as to what Obama was trying to do. From the perspective of the Tea Partiers, the conservative Republican establishment had grown as old and sclerotic as the liberal Republican establishment that it had supplanted decades before. It seems likely that Fox’s reputation among grassroots conservatives has suffered from the Bush connection.
Today, the median age of Fox News primetime viewers is 68 years. Perhaps one reason for the aging demographic is the internet. Younger, tech-savvy conservatives can go online to get information from a variety of sources ranging from popular sites like Breitbart and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze to smaller, angrier blogs like Red State—and even Trump’s Twitter feed. The conservative outsiders of the 20th century have aged into the insiders of the 21st century, and a new generation is standing athwart history, yelling: Stop.