In the beginning, there was Rupert Murdoch. He created the formula.
Then he met Roger Ailes and installed him as head of what would become America’s most successful cable news channel, Fox News Channel, also known as Fox News.
And so the formula of conservatism and sex, pioneered on a newspaper in Britain, came to television and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1969 Murdoch bought an ailing British newspaper called The Sun. He bought it from the Daily Mirror Group, then the publishers of the most successful tabloid in Britain, The Daily Mirror, and its sibling The Sunday Mirror (where I once worked). The Daily Mirror was firmly left-wing and The Sun, if anything, more so. It had started life as The Daily Herald and was owned collectively by the trade union movement.
The new owners, who used an old formula — the working class as exploited, downtrodden and hopelessly dependent on the largesse of their employers — failed to attract or excite readers.
Murdoch, fresh from Australia (although he had worked earlier as an editor in London), looked around and saw something quite different. He saw a new worker, who owned a car, took vacations in Spain (thanks to jet travel), and did not feel oppressed.
The British workers — especially working men — had thrown off the past and were now much more like the workers of Australia and the United States. It was also a period of sexual freedom.
These workers would be Murdoch’s target.
Overnight, without warning, he turned The Sun from far-left whingeing to triumphant far-right throatiness. Murdoch had realized that the working man had become a man of property.
As for sex, Murdoch would go further. British tabloids had always published “cheesecake” — pictures of busty, young women in bikinis. Murdoch took off the tops: Every day, on Page Three, he published a photo of an English rose blooming in a bikini bottom. It was bold and it was brave and it worked.
The Sun, with its new brawny politics of nationalism, anti-European attitude, right-wing enthusiasm and topless beauties, was a triumph. It began a meteoric rise, almost entirely at the expense of the forelock-tugging Daily Mirror.
The formula was born: right-wing nativism and sex.
When Murdoch came to the United States, he found the society was less louche and he could not put nudity into his newspapers. Also, there was a tradition of editorial duality: Although the politics of newspapers was not concealed, readers wanted to think that the news was impartial. Murdoch bought newspapers in San Antonio, New York, Boston and Chicago, and he started a weekly supermarket tabloid.
None succeeded and gradually Murdoch sold off these properties, except for The New York Post. Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth, told me that he was the first to admit that he had misunderstood the U.S. market. That is probably why when he bought The Wall Street Journal in 2007, he was careful to respect that property and to change it incrementally — for the better.
But the formula was not dead. When Ailes applied it to television, it worked all over again. Except this time, the result was even more spectacular in political power and profit.
Fox News is the voice of raucous conservatism, all served up with sex appeal.
Ailes clearly has had a fascination with beautiful, blond women reading the news — and other channels are going that way.
Ailes has done more than apply the formula: He has applied it with brio. He has given the news pace. It moves along and little inventions, like “Around the World in 80 Seconds,” are part of that energizing.
I visited with Ailes when Fox News was just beginning its ascent. He was thrilled with the fact that it had just drawn slightly ahead of CNN Headline News. I do not think he realized then how potent the formula would be and what heights his creation would reach.