The World: Fox News taps the power of the American flag

The channel's averred patriotism is part of a brand increasingly associated with the Republican right. Lucy Aitken reports.

Fox News was the first network to hoist the US flag after 9/11. Five years later, it's still there, flapping gently away in the digital breeze in the screen's top left-hand corner.

Fox News celebrates its tenth birthday on 7 October and, during its first decade, has expanded its reach from 17 million households to 85 million. Today, the News Corporation-owned network leads the US cable news market with 2.5 million viewers and earns higher points ratings by average viewership than CNN and MSNBC combined.

However, Fox News - which refused to contribute to this profile - still seems like small fry compared with CNN, the 26-year-old pioneer of breaking news, which is in more than 260 million households across the globe. In the US, too, CNN frequently attracts more unique viewers (cumulative ratings) than Fox. Yet the influence Fox News wields is becoming harder to ignore. When it called the 2000 US election in Bush's favour - despite the official figures being unable to determine a victory - other US networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN quickly followed suit. Five weeks of recounting ballot papers in Florida followed.

Describing itself as "America's newsroom", Fox News contributes significant amounts to the News Corp coffers: when the sprawling empire announced its last set of interim results in August, quarterly net profit had risen by 19 per cent. Ad sales at Fox News were singled out for their strong performance.

Larry Novenstern, the executive vice-president and director of national electronic media at Optimedia in New York, remarks: "The Fox News formula needs to be applauded from a business point of view because it's clearly doing something right. If you're a FMCG advertiser, Fox News is a good vehicle to reach a huge volume of people."

Tim Spengler, the executive vice-president, director, national broadcast at Initiative in the US, adds that, at his agency, SC Johnson and pharmaceutical clients use Fox News, while the DIY superstore the Home Depot sponsors an ear-ly Sunday morning show, Fox & Friends, in a deal that also extends online. According to Spengler, the Home Depot is "very happy" with the arrangement, although he admits he occasionally comes across clients who aren't as keen on Fox News: "Although they're the exception, I have come across advertisers who boycott Fox News. I don't know anyone who's boycotted MSNBC or CNN, but some Fox News shows have a stronger bias, and certain clients think the network sometimes goes too far."

Fox News doggedly insists that it presents "fair and balanced" reporting - particularly in its news coverage - but there is evidence to the contrary. A 2004 survey from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting that analysed Fox News' signature news show, Special Report with Brit Hume, found that Republican guests outnumbered Democrats five to one. When the former Reagan and Nixon political aide Roger Ailes - who has been Fox News' chairman and chief executive since its launch in 1996 - responds to surveys that suggest the channel is right wing, he says the rest of the media leans too far to the left.

Conservative voices are certainly louder on Fox News' two flagship shows, The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes, which attract the highest ratings of all cable news programmes. The larger-than-life Bill O'Reilly is a pugnacious foe of liberalism, while Sean Hannity, a square-jawed Republican, comfortably overshadows Alan Colmes, his less telegenic liberal sidekick.

A plethora of personality-driven current-affairs shows has sprung up on other networks. Anderson Cooper 360, a nightly CNN show on weekdays, is one such example; MSNBC's Scarborough County, presented by Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman, is another.

The personality-led style has even spawned a satirical version, The Colbert Report, in which Stephen Colbert spoofs Fox News' most bellicose personalities. As Todd Gordon, the senior vice- president and managing director of MediaCom in New York, comments: "Personality-driven news is what people want to watch; that's what drives ratings." Strong characters - whatever their politics - up the entertainment ante and offer what Spengler describes as "a window on the world".

Yet Robert Greenwald's critical documentary from 2004, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, argues that Fox presenters are too blatant in their support of Bush. The film highlights one particular tactic where presenters introduce a partisan - and unattributed - opinion with the words "some might say". Some might say that this is symptomatic of a wider news trend where fact and comment are increasingly blurred, particularly on the newer digital platforms.

Fox News will no doubt be looking to extend its reach via new platforms, particularly now that News Corp owns MySpace.com. Rupert Murdoch has also announced plans to launch a Fox-branded business news channel to rival CNBC; in July, Roger Ailes suggested the channel could launch in 2007. Fox News has also established a growing presence across the globe: it is broadcast in Asia on its sister News Corp network Star and accessible in other countries thanks to cable providers and hotel groups.

It is in its home market, however, that Fox News continues to flourish most noticeably as a profitable media business. As Alexander Kippen, a former Fox News reporter, remarks in Outfoxed: "There is a sense now that there is money in the flag. Fox knows that and its competitors know that Fox is on to something."

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