“We report, you decide.”
Fox News adopted that slogan way back in 2008. Compared to the epistemological Thunderdome of today’s media landscape, it was a much more innocent era. Barack Obama was terrorist fist-jabbing all over Iowa, and Sarah Palin was still a little-known Alaskan governor. The iPhone was in its infancy, Twitter had recently made its debut, and Microsoft had just invested in Facebook, valuing the young company at $15 billion. (That seemed like a lot back then.) And Roger Ailes, the now-disgraced and soon-to-be-fired head of Fox News, was the undisputed king of political media.
Fox’s new catchphrase was yet another of the network’s nose-thumbings at the “mainstream media.” Since he took over the channel in 1996, Ailes had dedicated himself to battling what he saw as leftist bias, which he saw everywhere. His initial slogan, “Fair and Balanced,” implied that every other news source was unfair, that whether you realized it or not your information was being hand-spun by pointy-headed coastal elites out to push a liberal-humanist agenda. “We report, you decide” went even further. Don’t trust any media property—not even us!—to tell you what the news means. You decide!
Of course, Ailes never really meant it. Fox News was as aggressive a purveyor of a particular worldview as any other media outlet, one that happened to align quite nicely with the conservative wing of the Republican Party. As the indispensable Gabriel Sherman wrote in New York magazine, Ailes told a reporter back in 1968 that TV would replace political parties, and most of his career at Fox seemed dedicated to pursuing that goal. GOP candidates competed in the “Rupert Murdoch primary”—whoever won the News Corp. owner’s favor was sure to enjoy friendly coverage on the influential station.
But Ailes’ genius was portraying his top-down agitprop as bottom-up culture-jamming. Watching Fox didn’t make you a conservative; it made you a free-thinking, savvy news consumer. It was the right-wing equivalent of an arena full of Rage Against the Machine fans chanting “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” in unison, a choreographed facsimile of rebellion.