Victory With a Swagger

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It’s good to be the king. When touring Fox News Channel’s Manhattan headquarters, that famous Mel Brooks punch line seems to resonate.

In the basement of the News Corp. building in midtown Manhattan (known affectionately as “the dungeon” by those who work there), hundreds of Fox News staffers toil in blocks of cubicles. Yet they seem strangely … happy.

People greet each other, back-slapping as they rush past. They eat lunch at their desks, eager to monitor the latest news event as they inhale deli sandwiches. The place just exudes a certain confidence. A certain swagger. A certain knowledge that what started in 1996 as a much-ridiculed alternative to the then-dominant Cable News Network has since become a major force in disseminating news to the American public.

Shepard Smith contemplates this reality as he leans back in his chair in the dungeon conference room. The anchor of Fox News’s signature evening newscast, The Fox Report, can’t help noting how the channel’s early naysayers and current detractors are now faced with a hard truth: It is most definitely the cable news ratings leader.

“Roger told us at the very beginning that this was going to happen, and he was right,” says Smith, referring to Fox News Channel chairman Roger Ailes. “He said, 'Not only is this going to work, but when you get to the top of the mountain, everyone down below you is going to be taking shots at you, and it’s going to be painful.’ ”

Indeed, Fox News has been the target of barbs since its inception. Its popular slate of opinion shows featuring hosts many peg as conservative-leaning has given ammunition to its critics. This year, the liberal group MoveOn.org even helped finance a film, Outfoxed, about what it perceives as the channel’s conservative bias.

Smith says that while some viewers may watch the network for conservative opinion not found elsewhere, Fox News’s detractors just don’t understand the separation between opinion and news on the network.

“The moment these people ever start telling me, 'You need to start skewing the news to an audience,’ is the last day I work here,” Smith says. “It would never happen.”

As its enemies turn up the heat, Fox seems to grow only stronger, as its loyal base digs in and new viewers watch to find out what all the fuss is about. To the chagrin of its critics, many who find Fox News stick with it.

In December, the Nielsen Homevideo Index ranked the network No. 8 among all cable channels in total viewership, putting it far ahead of CNN and MSNBC, according to Nielsen data supplied by Fox News. In fact, CNN hasn’t led Fox News in the overall cable-news ratings since December 2001.

The people who work at Fox News — both on-air and behind-the-scenes — talk about high morale and stability as keys to its ratings success in recent years. As competitors dealt with mergers and corporate meddling, some credit Ailes with largely protecting the channel from similar tinkering from News Corp. The theory is that happy employees make for a stronger newscast.

“Because of the way the place is run, we all focus on our jobs, and I think that pushes out to the viewers,” says Greta Van Susteren, host of Fox News’s On The Record. “Roger has made us feel safe and that our jobs are safe, so we concentrate on our jobs.”

Van Susteren says it’s quite a contrast from her last days at CNN. “I don’t spend any portion of my day wondering who I work for, listening to gossip, what show’s going to get cancelled, who’s getting fired, who’s coming in.”

Van Susteren, who works out of a modest office in Fox News’s Washington, D.C., bureau, says the camaraderie runs deep. She jokes about the time she sent an e-mail message to Shepard Smith when Nick Nolte was arrested for driving under the influence in September 2002, commenting that his mug shot resembled one of her “bad hair days.”

Smith read it on the air. (“She shouldn’t send me e-mails,” Smith quips.)

Such joshing among friends is common at Fox News and often finds its way onto the screen, along with the kind of conflict and debate that keeps people watching.

“It’s a smash-mouth form of journalism that’s very entertaining,” says Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “It’s aggressive, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. Whether it advances the debate at all is up for argument.”

What’s not up for debate is that Fox News has found a formula that works when it comes to beating its cable competition in the ratings.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Smith says. “We don’t make apologies for graphics and whooshes and excitement and all of that stuff because if that will bring you to the news that we’ve spent all day or all week or all month preparing, then more power to it. I’ll put anything up there to get them to watch.”

People will soon be listening as well: In December, Clear Channel Communications Inc., the No. 1 U.S. owner of radio stations, announced it would dump ABC News Radio’s newscasts in favor of Fox News Radio. Meanwhile, Fox News Channel continues to survey the landscape from the top of the mountain.

Ah, yes. It’s good to be the king.

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