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Fox News turns 15

Neil Cavu1996.

Neil Cavuto in 1996.

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:46AM

The Fox News Channel has reached the age of adolescence: 15 years.

Does that mean the precocious conservative voice, ridiculed by some segments of the “mainstream media,” is maturing into a more “fair and balanced” version of itself?

Republican media consultant-turned-Fox News President Roger Ailes suggested that last week in a Newsweek story by Howard Kurtz describing a move to the center to build the audience.

And viewers across the country have watched in recent weeks as Fox reporters asked Republican presidential candidates debate questions so tough that in Iowa, frequent Fox guest Newt Gingrich indignantly lectured them, saying a “Fox News commentator” should know better than to ask a “gotcha” question.

Even President Barack Obama reportedly told Fox host Bret Baier after that debate, “By the way, you guys did a great job in Iowa.”

On Monday, Fox’s respected business news chief, Neil Cavuto, brings the 15th birthday party to Chicago, interviewing the CEOs of United Airlines, McDonald’s and Boeing, along with other Chicago business leaders and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. The 3 p.m. show will air live from the Trump International Hotel & Tower.

From the beginning, Fox News has spliced the more evenhanded reporting of Cavuto, Shepard Smith and (more recently) Chris Wallace, among others, with the unabashed Democrat-bashing of talk-show hosts Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and — for a time — Glenn Beck.

Seconds after Cavuto finished his show last week asking Donald Trump whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie should jump into the presidential race — a movement Fox covered more than the other networks — “Five” host Greg Gutfeld opened with, “This show is tighter than Nancy Pelosi’s face!”

Keith Olbermann, who proved too liberal a voice for rival network MSNBC and now appears on Al Gore’s Current channel, joined Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas last week in ridiculing the notion that Fox is becoming more mainstream:

“Do we see Roger Ailes, sitting in his basement laboratory like Frankenstein after the monster gets out saying, ‘How am I gonna get this thing back in here?’ ” Olbermann asked.

Moulitsas scoffed, “The notion that they’re moderating is ridiculous.”

Documentaries have investigated Fox News’ alleged role in pushing a Republican agenda, stoking fears of terrorism, dismissing global climate change or advancing the interests of big business.

About the only broadcast journalist granted interviews with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a paid Fox News commentator, is Fox’s Greta Van Susteren.

No one can deny Ailes had a great business idea 15 years ago, creating a news network to serve the millions of Americans who considered the mainstream media too liberal.

“What Roger Ailes did was he saw a niche — he fed the thirst for audiences to have a different perspective, more conservative,” said Bruce DuMont, CEO of Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications. “What Rush Limbaugh was able to do in radio, [Fox News creator] Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes were able to do in television. They do it better, with more pizzazz. They have come up with a product that, although critics may not hold it in high esteem, viewers do.”

The numbers don’t lie: Among cable news channels, Fox commands the largest share of viewers and advertising dollars in most time slots. Movers and shakers who want to reach viewers grant interviews to Fox.

“They like the fact that we’re an important audience to reach,” Cavuto told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Fox’s success has forced competitors to change the way they cover the news. “They’ve made CNN have to improve their presentation skills,” DuMont said. “It woke them up. They realized they could not sit on their lead.”

Everybody now does graphics better — the election night maps, the charts and graphs to explain business news, even an actual pizza pie, Cavuto said.

Not everyone sees a change for the better.

“They certainly altered the landscape of cable news,” said Larry Stuelp­nagel, a professor of broadcast journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “Before Fox came along you could watch CNN and see a lot of news from around the world. Fox came up with a formula for talking about the news, instead of reporting it. They started talking and they made a lot of money. That model has been picked up by both CNN and MSNBC.”

That forced CNN to turn inward and scale back its ambition of focusing more American attention on the outside world, Stuelpnagel said.

“I’m in the business of training journalists,” Stuelpnagel said. “Here we train them to be ‘fair and balanced’ in every sense of the words. You can only get that sort of perspective when you’re physically there. When all you’re doing is pontificating on events you haven’t witnessed, and throwing your own spin on it, I think the American people get shortchanged. When I travel and see CNN International, you get much different news than you get here. You get the worldview. I miss that.”

Cavuto said after his 15 years and 1,000 shows on Fox News and the Fox Business Channel, “No one tells me or anyone else what to cover.”

Ailes hired him from CNBC 15 years ago because “Roger Ailes bought my line that we could ‘democratize business news,’ ” Cavuto said. “I said it might make more sense to quit talking to brokers and talk to regular folks, if only to influence my wife to watch me on TV. I said I wouldn’t use jargon. There has always been a sort of an eliteness to business news.”

A former intern in President Jimmy Carter’s White House, Cavuto says he lobs hard questions at Democratic and Republican members of Congress and presidents alike. He thinks Obama is mismanaging the country’s economy.

“I’m not red or blue, I’m green,” Cavuto said. “I’m just focused on people’s money: Who’s spending it, who’s wasting it.”

After beating cancer and contracting multiple sclerosis, the last thing Cavuto says he worries about as he does his job every day is criticism that the network is too conservative.

“I recognize that from the nature of what we are and what we’ve become that a lot of people love Fox and a lot of people hate Fox,” Cavuto said. “Life is fickle. People will think what they will based on nothing factual but something emotional.”

Abdon M. Pallasch is an
occasional guest on Greta
Van Susteren’s show on
Fox News Channel.

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