Rupert Murdoch has brokered a backroom deal that will see Barack Obama appear tomorrow on the Fox News show The O’Reilly Factor with its abrasive right-wing host Bill O’Reilly. The interview will end a long boycott of Obama appearances on the Murdoch-owned network. While many will question the wisdom of his appearance on a station that often appears to be a paid-advertorial for the Republican Party, the timing is crucial as it is designed to deflect attention from John McCain’s acceptance speech at the GOP Convention in St Paul. Fox news chief Roger Ailes confirmed the interview after a face-to-face meeting with Obama where he quoted the senator as saying "I just want to know if I'm going to get a fair shake from Fox News channel.”
Obama’s request for a "fair shake" was eminently reasonable as the station has been consistently hostile against the Democratic Presidential candidate. Fox has long been accused of conducting a campaign against him with frequent references to his middle name Hussein and their oft-repeated but incorrect allegation he was educated in an Indonesian madrassa. But with Obama still favourite to take the presidency, Murdoch was keen to broker a “tentative truce” between Obama and Ailes.
The three men met a couple of months ago at the New York Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. According to Vanity Fair’s media commentator Michael Wolff, who subsequently interviewed Murdoch, Obama was deferential to Murdoch but was highly critical of Ailes. "He said that he didn't want to waste his time talking to Ailes if Fox was just going to continue to abuse him and his wife,” said Wolff. “Fox had relentlessly portrayed him as suspicious, foreign, fearsome - just short of a terrorist.”
The question is now whether the interview means Murdoch is preparing to switch sides and support an Obama presidency. Such a move would not sit well with Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly or the many others that have given Fox such a Republican ideological slant over the last ten years. Fox News has been closely allied with the Bush Presidency and played a crucial role in his both his presidential victories in 2000 and 2004.
Such influence did not seem likely when Murdoch launched Fox on 7 October, 1996. At the time CNN was king of the news networks. Ted Turner set the template for 24 hours news coverage and CNN came into its own with viewers glued to its Baghdad-based reporters when the US bombed Iraq in 1991. But by 1996 Turner had sold out to Time Warner and the Republicans were complaining CNN stood for “Clinton News Network”. Even non-conservative viewers were finding its format predictable and no longer innovative. Fox News’s bright and sassy programming, modelled on the entertainment values of the Fox Network, began to slowly attract attention.
By 2000, it was regularly beating CNN in the ratings and Bill O’Reilly had overtaken CNN’s Larry King as the most popular presenter. Fox had charged ahead by changing the rules of news journalism. They were openly partisan, arrogant and pompous, sensationalistic, relied on style over substance, and openly supported the reigning government of the day and its wars. The station appealed to what the 2004 documentary Outfoxed called “the disgruntled, disillusioned and neutered male” by blaming everyone for his faults and failures except himself.
Fox also increased their popularity by vigorously attacking its critics. Bill O’Reilly became notorious for his on-air tactics. He yelled at guests whom he didn’t agree with, hectored and abused them, called them “idiots” and “boobs” and often cut off their mikes if they were becoming too “uppity”. But management never chastised O’Reilly for his heavy-handed tactics. On the contrary, Roger Ailes and his management team encouraged it. Ailes has deep roots in Republican politics (he was media advisor to three Republican presidents, Nixon, Reagan and Bush 41) and Murdoch drafted him in to run Fox News after he was sacked by rival station CNBC (now merged with MSNBC).
It was Ailes who recruited Bill O’Reilly to anchor Fox’s flagship show when the station started up. It didn’t take long for him to become the network’s biggest star. O’Reilly had been round the news traps, and was a multi-Emmy winning nomadic TV reporter and anchor of the syndicated show Inside Edition. When Inside Edition sacked him in 1995 he went back to university and got his second masters degree (to go with his earlier one in broadcast journalism) in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Ailes gave O’Reilly free rein to do what he liked on his show The O’Reilly Factor. He was successful by not sounding or acting like a journalist.
O’Reilly courted controversy as a self-styled “culture warrior” and became the cornerstone of the network. He was rewarded by huge ratings, a syndicated radio show and several successful books. He quickly became loathed by the left as he cleverly conflated liberals with rapists, child molesters and murderers. Despite taking the high moral ground, O’Reilly has no manners and regularly operates outside traditional journalistic boundaries of decorum. He regularly rides roughshod over progressive voices while giving conservatives an easy ride. His audiences lapped this up.
Ahead of tomorrow’s interview with Obama, O’Reilly is conciliatory but continues to show a distinct preference for McCain. On Tuesday he called Obama “a charismatic man, he'll win among minority voters, and his entitlement message is powerful.” But, said O’Reilly, the US media are overselling him, and the voters “want their family safe and someone who will get control of the economy.” O’Reilly left his viewers in little doubt which candidate he believed would be better on those two issues.
But McCain does not fit the Bush ideological template that Fox has so assiduously nurtured over the last eight years. He is a renegade Republican. More importantly, he may not win and Murdoch does not like backing losers. According to Wolff, when Murdoch met Obama he had just one simple message to share with him. He had met every American president from Harry Truman on and believed none of them got much time to make an impression. Leadership, according to Murdoch, was about what you did in the first six months. The truce the two men subsequently declared, said Wolff, could be of “vast historical significance”. But even if this is true, can Murdoch drag his ideologically-heavy network with him towards the middle? The O’Reilly Factor will be the first test. As the Scotsman says, it could be a short truce.