15 Years On, the Secret of Fox News's Success

Fox News's formula: news and opinion

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The media world might have been shocked when a recent Pew Research poll named Fox News Channel the public's top news source: In the July poll, 19 percent of Americans said they turned to Fox as their main source of national and international news, followed by CNN with 15 percent. But Fox exec Brit Hume wasn't surprised by the results. Thinking back 15 years to the Oct. 7, 1996, debut of the cable news channel, he recalls how nobody outside Fox thought it would even survive. "It wasn't that reports of our demise were exaggerated," he says, "nobody even thought we'd get far enough to have a demise." Now, he wonders, why aren't the other news programs following Fox's lead?

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"Our competitive advantage in the cable news field has persisted because of the fact that they didn't change their ways," says Hume, Fox's former managing editor and former host of the evening Special Report, now run by Bret Baier. "So here we are in first place, and polls are showing that more people trust us for news than trust the networks," says Hume. "That's amazing, when you think of where we started."

It all started as an idea hatched by Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch, who hired GOP campaign strategist Roger Ailes to run the new channel. Ailes set out to build from scratch a network that resembled a newspaper: news and opinion. And, says Hume, the formula hasn't changed.

[See our slide show in opinion: 5 Ways New Media Are Changing Politics.]

But it was slow going. Baier says when he arrived in 1998, he'd have to explain to sources that, no, he didn't work for the "Simpsons Fox," a reference to the entertainment channel. He and Hume agree the transformation occurred around the 2000 election, when Fox parked correspondents in Florida to cover the recount while many in the media were suggesting that George W. Bush was stealing the election. "We were not slow to understand that there were two ways to look at that," says Hume.

Though Fox is slapped for being conservative, Hume says its goal is covering a side that's often ignored in the more liberal mainstream media. "I had long believed that, as somebody who worked in the mainstream media [ABC], that there were two sides of the street and the mainstream were basically working one side," he says. "And that there was a journalistically legitimate set of opportunities on the other side of the street that if anybody ever worked would have a distinctive product, and that a lot of people would like it." Baier adds that being the public's top choice hasn't gone to Fox's head. "We still have that early scrappiness Roger wanted at the beginning," he says.

Cartoon by Ed Wexler

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