Are Roger Ailes' Fox News Freaks Inadvertently Helping Democrats?
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An article just published by New York Magazine is getting attention for its revelations about what Fox CEO Roger Ailes really thinks about his on-air personalities. The article titled “The Elephant in the Green Room,” began with this colorful introduction:
“The circus Roger Ailes created at Fox News made his network $900 million last year. But it may have lost him something more important: the next election.”
Amongst the insider disclosures in the NYMag article are that Ailes thinks Sarah Palin is an idiot who hasn’t helped the conservative movement. Ailes also reportedly worried that Glenn Beck had become bigger than Fox News and was uncontrollable. Both of those assessments are obviously true, but what is unsaid is even more interesting.
Roger Ailes is directly responsible for elevating Palin and Beck to their current celebrity status. He cannot absolve himself of having inflicted those pests on America without admitting how dreadfully wrong he was in the first place by promoting them. Furthermore, he cannot pretend that they are aberrations. The Fox schedule is rife with the very same pestilence (see Why Fox News After Glenn Beck Will Still Suck). It is their trademark and extends far beyond any individual personalities.
The case was made long ago that Fox News is a blight on the media map. It is bad for journalism. It is bad for Democracy. It is bad for America. A so-called “news” network that repeatedly misinforms, even deliberately disinforms, its audience is failing any test of public service embodied by an ethical press.
However, there is a case to be made that Fox News is demonstrably harmful to the Republican Party. In fact, it may be the worst thing to happen to Republicans in decades. That may seem counter-intuitive when discussing Fox News, the acknowledged public relations division of the GOP. Fox has populated its air with right-wing mouthpieces and brazenly partisan advocates for a conservative Republican agenda. They read GOP press releases on the air verbatim as if they were the product of original research. They provide a forum where Republican politicians and pundits can peddle their views unchallenged. So how is this harmful to Republicans?
If all we were witnessing was the emergence of a mainstream conservative network that aspired to advance Republican themes and policies, there would not be much of note here. Most of the conventional media was already center-right before there was a Fox News. But Fox has corralled a stable of the most disreputable, unqualified, extremist, lunatics ever assembled, and is presenting them as experts, analysts, and leaders. These third-rate icons of idiocy are marketed by Fox like any other gag gift (i.e. pet rocks, plastic vomit, Sarah Palin, etc.). So while most Americans have never heard of actual Republican party bosses like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, posers like Joe the Plumber and Andrew Breitbart have become household names.
Fox News has descended into depths heretofore reserved for fringe characters. They are openly promoting the wackos who believe that President Obama is ineligible to hold office because he isn’t a U.S. citizen. They feature commentaries by secessionists and even those calling for an overthrow of the government and the Constitution. This development was inadvertently addressed by one of Fox’s own:
“If crazy ideologues have infiltrated the news business, we need to know about it.” ~ Bill O’Reilly, 7/16/09
Well said. The Fox News audience is being dumbed down by a parade of paranoid know-nothings. This strategy appears to be successful for Fox in that it has attracted a loyal viewership that is eager to have their twisted preconceptions affirmed. The conflict-infused fare in which Fox specializes has been a ratings juggernaut – just like any good fiction. However, this perceived popularity is having an inordinate impact on the GOP platform. By doubling down on crazy, Fox is driving the center of the Republican Party further down the rabid hole. They are reshaping the party into a more radicalized community of conspiracy nuts. So even as this helps Rupert Murdoch’s bottom line, it is making celebrities of political bottom-feeders.
That can’t be good for the long-term prospects of the Republican Party. Most Americans do not believe that we are on a march toward socialism, led by a Muslim alien, and bankrolled by a Jewish Nazi sympathizer. The truth is that most Americans think that the loopy yarns spun by Fox News are fables told by madmen – and believed by even madder men and women who wallow in their doomsday utopia.
Consequently, the Party of Fox News has materially damaged their political allies in the GOP. Many of the recent candidates endorsed by Fox were embarrassing losers. There was Christine O’Donnell (DE), Joe Miller (AK), Ken Buck (CO), Linda McMahon (CT), Carly Fiorina (CA), Sharron Angle (NV), and Carl Paladino (NY). In every one of those cases the Tea Party candidate ousted the more establishment Republican, and then went on to defeat. And that was during a Republican wave election cycle.
This is a textbook example of how the extreme rises to the top. It is also fundamentally contrary to the interests of the Republican Party. The more the population at large associates Republican ideology with the agenda of Fox News, and the fringe operators residing there, the more the party will be perceived as out of touch, or even out of their minds. It seems like such a waste after all of the effort and expense that Fox put into building a pseudo-journalistic enterprise with the goal of confounding viewers with false news-like theatrics.
The recent GOP presidential primary debate in South Carolina illustrated this divide between the interests of Fox News and those of the Republican Party. The only candidates they could muster were second and third tier players with little chance of getting the nomination: Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. These candidates generally pull in single digits in most polling. And of these, Cain, the pizza maven, was widely regarded as the winner by pundits and Fox focus groups.
The rest of the field has been dominated by sideshows like Palin, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Donald Trump, or abstainers like Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, and Mitch Daniels. This deficiency of serious contenders was lamented by Ailes in the NYMag article:
“Ailes’s candidates-in-waiting were coming up small. And, for all his programming genius, he was more interested in a real narrative than a television narrative – he wanted to elect a president. All he had to do was watch Fox’s May 5 debate in South Carolina to see what a mess the field was – a mess partly created by the loudmouths he’d given airtime to and a tea party he’d nurtured.”
Ailes has no one to blame but himself. His mission for Fox News has always been to be the voice of the opposition. Yet, despite the torrid embrace between Republicans and Fox News, it is apparent that Fox is the source of a sort of friendly fire that is decimating the GOP by exalting its most outlandish and unpopular players. The Psycho-Chicken Littles are coming home to roost.
Even if we give Ailes the benefit of a doubt, and accept that he may have had an awakening and repentance, the disparaging characterizations of Beck and Palin are going to have to be addressed. Will Palin post an angry Tweet refudiating Ailes and defending her smartness? Will Beck place Ailes’ picture on his blackboard in between Karl Marx and Frances Fox Piven? Will Ailes issue a press release disclaiming the NYMag article? If so, he will, in effect, be re-embracing the unsavory characters from whom he seems so anxious to distance himself. So far, the only response has come in the form of a statement to the New York Times from Fox News executive vice president of programming, Bill Shine:
“I know for a fact that Roger Ailes admires and respects Sarah Palin and thinks she is smart. He also believes many members of the left-wing media are extremely terrified and threatened by her. Despite a massive effort to destroy Sarah Palin, she is still on her feet and making a difference in the political world. As for the ‘Republican close to Ailes’ for which the incorrect Palin quote is attributed, when Roger figures out who that is, I guarantee you he or she will no longer be ‘close to Ailes.’”
Is there any significance to the fact that Ailes did not respond himself? He is not exactly a shrinking violet. He has made it clear in the past that he would not tolerate anyone “shooting in the tent.” Yet now he is conspicuously silent and the statement from Fox defended only Sarah Palin. Fox didn’t refute the article’s characterization of Ailes’ view of the presidential field. There was also no denial that Ailes actively recruited Christie (and perhaps others) to run for president, not exactly the role of the head of a “fair and balanced” news network. Plus, it left out Beck entirely. There is more than a hint of plausibility that Ailes has deliberately withdrawn from criticizing the article.
So where does this leave Fox viewers? If Palin is an idiot and Beck is a lunatic, what shall we call the folks who have idolized them for so long? By finally telling the truth about his star pundits, Ailes has insulted his gullible audience. They obediently followed Caribou Barbie and the Weeping Profit for two years only to find out that they are frauds who don’t even have the respect of their co-workers or their boss. Who will lead them now? Charlie Sheen? Victoria Jackson? I believe Harold Camping may be available. Perhaps they could just let the people decide with new episodes of Tea Party Idol or So You Think You Can Rant.