Josh Rottenberg
September 24, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

New York, August 30–At 10 a.m. on Day 1 of the Republican National Convention, all the major players — delegates, politicians, reporters, lobbyists, pundits, protesters, cops, and right-leaning celebrities like Bo Derek, Ron Silver, Angie Harmon, and Don King — are in place and ready for the big show. In Madison Square Garden, the convention organizers are putting the finishing touches on the stage, testing the sound system, honing the talking points — doing everything possible to try to ensure that this convention convinces whoever’s watching that John Kerry is a flip-flopping, weak-on-defense Massachusetts liberal and that, for the sake of the republic, President George W. Bush must be reelected this fall. Fifteen blocks uptown, at the headquarters of the Fox News Channel, a computer animator named Gary Telfer is doing everything possible to ensure that viewers will tune in and stay tuned, finishing a 3-D rendering of the Garden that will be set to thundering music as part of the network’s effort to amp up the razzle-dazzle factor of its convention coverage. ”Right now, I’m working on the interior,” Telfer says, rotating a detailed digital image of the arena on his screen, as absorbed in his virtual world as any 9-year-old Xbox jockey. Telfer spent three years as a technical director at Disney, where he could work for days on end on some small motion of, say, Tarzan’s hand. At Fox, he gets to reconstruct the Garden inside and out and then have the entire thing spin around like a flying saucer and shoot off light rays and stars. Not to mention all the animations he’s worked on for the war in Iraq: tanks blowing up, insurgents taking down helicopters with RPG’s. Pretty cool stuff.

Some 15,000 members of the media are training their gazes on this four-day convention, roughly three for every delegate, all trying to squeeze some news out of an event that has all the suspense of a Ronco infomercial. But none of the hundreds of media outlets gathered here casts as long a shadow as the Fox News Channel. As this year’s bitterly contested presidential race goes into overdrive, the network finds itself at the roiling center of American political life — right where it has wanted to be ever since Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch launched his 24-hour cable news channel on Oct. 7, 1996. Few back then took the fledgling network very seriously. Even before it hit the air, senior reporter Eric Shawn remembers other journalists scoffing at the very idea of Fox doing news: ”They just laughed: ‘Fox? Hey, Bart Simpson’s here!”’

No one’s laughing now. Fox News has shot to the top of the cable-news ratings heap with brash packaging that combines the adrenaline-pumping theatrics of Monday Night Football — the flashy graphics, the whooshing and booming sound effects — with the knock-down-drag-out combativeness of talk radio. Starting out with a budget one-third that of CNN, chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, a former Republican media consultant, recognized that instead of pouring money into expensive foreign bureaus (CNN has 26, Fox 5), he could just put provocative personalities like Bill O’Reilly in front of a camera and let them hold forth on the day’s hot-button issues. With each shock to the national nervous system — the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Columbine, the 2000 election, 9/11 — the network picked up more and more viewers, and in January 2002 Fox finally overtook CNN in ratings.

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