Fox News is arguably the dominant news network in the United States. It is also quite possibly the most hated channel on Earth. Understanding that dichotomy also leads to some interesting business insights.
Although Fox is often accused of reporting biased to the conservative side, it is clearly its political commentary that the anti-Fox crowd finds most objectionable. Studies have shown that Fox News is not as effective at keeping its viewers informed.
Yet despite the channel’s objective failure as an information provider, its viewership stays loyal to the brand and its ideology. A short digression on commentary, or rhetoric, can explain the Fox phenomenon.
There are many ways to define rhetoric, but Aristotle provides the most useful description. He describes rhetoric as having three methods – logos, which is logical reasoning; pathos, which is an appeal to emotions and passion; and ethos, which is the presenter’s character.
Logos is an appeal to the mind, but it is not enough. Pathos is an appeal to the heart, but used alone it only attracts those who already agree with the presenter. Ethos is the presenter’s integrity and expertise.
Logos is the science, data and logic that forms the core of an argument. It is what separates humans as a species. If expenses are growing faster than revenue, the company will start losing money and eventually go out of business. Fox clearly has the ability to deploy logos. Whether it does so is a different issue entirely.
Ethos is how credible the presenter is. If your doctor provides you with medical advice, you listen. If he then dispenses mechanical advice regarding your car, you switch off and smile politely. Since Fox is the dominant news channel in the United States, being a presenter automatically projects credibility. But credibility as to what?
Pathos is Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Margaret Thatcher. If logos is what persuades us to do something, pathos is what drives us to do it. Fox commentators have plenty of pathos.
Applying these ideas to Fox, it is clear that little logos is used. This is not to say that the presenters are not logical or intelligent – far from it – just that they are not applying these traits to their commentary.
In terms of ethos, the presenters’ character was predominantly developed at Fox. These are people who are so intertwined with Fox that separating the two is difficult. The question becomes, is the integrity aimed at the best interests of the viewer, or at Fox and its employees?
The heart of the Fox magic is pathos – the onscreen emotional arousal is phenomenal. It is surprising that the presenters are not permanently attached to blood pressure monitors and EKGs to ensure that tidal waves of cortisol do not kill them.
This insight takes us a step closer to understanding the success of Fox. Rhetoric devoid of logos or ethos and driven primarily by pathos can never change anyone’s mind. Passion only serves to inflame the passions of others who share the same opinions. Fox is not providing commentary. It is cheerleading a specific segment of US society, and that segment in return richly rewards it with loyalty and advertising revenue.
Business lesson No 1 – why convert new customers when you can just cheerlead a large existing demographic?
Business lesson No 2 – just because a company calls itself part of an industry does not mean that it actually is.
The beauty of this model, from a business point of view, is that Fox simply does not have to worry about offending its core – and sole – client base by exposing them to opposing viewpoints. Just feed them what they want to hear and call it news so that they think that they are doing something sophisticated.
This is not the first time that such a model has been deployed. World Wrestling Entertainment uses a similar model, using a predetermined outcome to rile viewers up instead of giving them a fair sporting competition.
There is, however, a difference between Fox and the WWE. The WWE may have mislabelled wrestling, but it could not cause people to act against their own best interest. Using pathos is extremely powerful, and people skilled at it can cause people to behave in ways that are not in their best interest.
The bottom line here is that arguing whether or not Fox is a biased news network is meaningless. Fox is not a news network. Fox is an entertainment network, and has found a successful formula – appeal to emotion and, more importantly, the emotional release of group rage.
This article was originally published in The National.