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Nice piece here by Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson, about Fox News chief Roger Ailes, Grade-A propagandist and ratfucker. It’s illuminating, describing the history of the man before explaining his methods, and the way that he has used his media reach to change America’s mental, political, and journalistic landscape.
First off, it seems that maybe some of us owe Rupert Murdoch a small apology. Lefty media wonks nearly always curse Murdoch’s name for the blight that is his Fox media empire, and Fox News specifically. But apparently Roger Ailes contract with Fox News prohibits Murdoch from interfereing in Ailes’ operations or political messaging at the network. So while Murdoch gets the finger for starting this muckball rolling, Ailes is the one who deserves all the demonic credit for its current state.
Secondly, I’ve probably been too soft on Fox News all these years. I’d thought it was a mediocre news network with a blatant and evil political agenda. After reading this article, I think that Fox News is really an evil political operation that also runs a TV network (that happens to have “news” in the title). It is the culmination of a technique that Ailes first concocted in 1968 as a campaign manager for Richard Nixon:
The real problem, as Ailes saw it, was a media establishment that he viewed as hostile to Republicans. The “only hope,” he recalled, “was to go around the press and go directly to the people” – letting the campaign itself shape the candidate’s image for the average voter, “without it being interpreted for him by a middleman.”
To bypass journalists, Ailes made Nixon the star of his own traveling roadshow – a series of contrived, newslike events that the campaign paid to broadcast in local markets across the country. Nixon would appear on camera in theaters packed with GOP partisans – “an applause machine,” Ailes said, “that’s all that they are.” Then he would field questions from six voters, hand-selected by the campaign, who could be counted on to lob softball queries that played to Nixon’s talking points…
Ailes had essentially replaced professional journalists with everyday voters he could manipulate at will. “The events were not staged, they were fixed,” says Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. “People were supposed to ask tough questions. But asking a tough question – let alone knowing how to follow up – is a skill. Taking that task out of the hands of reporters and putting it into the hands of inexperienced amateurs was brilliant in itself.
Fox News is exactly this, inflated from one-time programs in local media markets, into numerous programs, 24/7, and coast to coast. It’s a series of “newslike” shows rigged to push a worldview favorable to a particular conservative ideology (Dickinson’s article also has a sidebar that breaks down a single day of Fox News down into its component talking points and repetition by anchors and guests, also worth a read). By pretending to be unbiased news, they convince millions that this self-serving worldview is reality, and the political beliefs and actions of these audience members follows naturally. That’s its purpose. That’s why Fox News exists. It’s not a biased news network, it’s a televised stage show, created to get propaganda directly to audiences, without any pesky, skeptical journalists getting in the way.
Dickinson and I (well, mostly Dickinson) aren’t saying anything new here, just laying bare the skeleton of this monster, in the bright lights, with its different bones neatly labelled for view. But this point, for me, made the entire piece:
“Ailes isn’t interested in providing people with information, or even a balanced range of perspectives. Like his political mentor, Richard Nixon, Ailes traffics in the emotions of victimization.
“What Nixon did – and what Ailes does today in the age of Obama – is unravel and rewire one of the most powerful of human emotions: shame,” says [Rick] Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. “He takes the shame of people who feel that they are being looked down on, and he mobilizes it for political purposes. Roger Ailes is a direct link between the Nixonian politics of resentment and Sarah Palin’s politics of resentment. He’s the golden thread.’”
This is a core component of today’s conservative movement*. All kinds of Americans, feeling like they’re being judged and looked down upon for their views and tastes, feel humiliated. Maybe they’re poor, or uneducated, or prejudiced, or get mocked for their traditional religious views. Right-wing media like Fox News and faux-populist politicians like Sarah Palin start telling these shamed folks that no, they are the real Americans, they are what’s right with this nation, that in fact, anyone who is not like them is actually destroying America. Literally destroying it. Shame is a powerful emotion, and anyone who can turn that shame into pride and a feeling of belonging has done that agonized person a great favor. And the newly proud person is not likely to look too closely at the lies and destruction that come with this new, exciting outlook.
In the end, this leads us to an old and depressing debate. Clearly, political persuasion based on emotion is easier and much more powerful than appeals to reason and pragmatism, even when the emotion is based on absolute bullshit. The right wing media, and some of their politicians, are very good at this. And well-intentioned liberal/progressive types (mostly individuals and some media, there are barely any politicians that count as left-wing) seem to think that simply stating the facts will win people over. Not only do facts lack the power of emotion, but trying to “educate” someone who already feels like liberals think that conservatives are stupid might actually activate their existing outrage and resentment at you dirty liberal elites.
So what now? Lie and spin for people’s “own good”, to try to beat back right-wing policies that will hurt all but the billionaires? Enjoy fiddling on the moral high ground while Rome burns? Concede defeat while preparing for neo-feudalism or Civil War 2.0? Find another way?
It took decades of ruthless, explicit dictatorship before long-suffering citizens of the Middle East finally demanded an end. I hope Americans can catch on a little sooner than that.
* I wanted to say that it was the core component, but it is one giant among many. Thomas Frank would tell us the core of new conservatism is the liberal abandonment of economic policies that help working class Americans that leave many voters with nothing to choose from except “moral” issues. The late Joe Bageant would say that it’s the middle class’ choice to leave working and poor Americans with minimal educational opportunities and then looking down on those same people for being uneducated. Bob Altemeyer would argue that it’s due to a persistent authoritarian personality type in American society, that either craves powers or craves to bask in the glow of a powerful leader.