My grimly ironic conversation with Trump, the fourth horseman of our media apocalypse
The Four Horsemen of our media apocalypse — Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump — have ridden roughshod over us this past half-century leaving their hoofprints on our politics, our culture, and our lives. Two of them are gone now, but their legacies, including the News Corporation, the Fox News empire, and a gang of broadcast barbarians will ensure that a lasting plague of misinformation, propaganda masquerading as journalism, and plain old fake news will be our inheritance.
The original Four Horsemen were biblical characters seen as punishments from God. By the time they became common literary and then film currency, they generally went by the names of Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Matching each with Limbaugh, Ailes, Murdoch, and Trump should prove a grisly but all-too-relevant parlor game. The originals were supposed to signal end times and sometimes, when I think about their modern American descendants, I wonder if we're heading in just that direction.
Reflecting on the lives of those modern embodiments of (self-) punishment makes me wonder how we ever let them happen. Isn't there any protection against evil of their sort in a democracy, even when you know about it early? Maybe when evil plays so cleverly into fears and resentments or is just so damn entertaining, not enough people can resist it. Hey, I even worked for one of the horsemen. It was my favorite job… until it wasn't.
But first, let me start with Rush Limbaugh. The nation's leading right-wing bullhorn died last month at 70. His vicious wit ("feminazis") and ability to squeeze complex subjects into catchy sound bites ("In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering") stirred and nourished a devoted mass who would become a crucial part of Trump's base. Limbaugh, earning by the end more than $80 million a year, left his heirs a reported $600 million.
Those numbers, I believe, defined him far more than any political stance he took and, at the same time, made him indefensible. He was Pestilence, spreading poison without either genuine ideology or principle of any sort. He was doing shtick, whatever worked for him (and work it certainly did). He was, by nature, a great entertainer. One more thing: don't kid yourself, he was smart.
I realized this in 1995 when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., was approaching Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive baseball games. The Yankee star set that record in 1939 when, after 17 big league seasons, he finally took himself out of the lineup because he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, later known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Tongue-in-cheek, in my then-weekly New York Times sports column, I called on Cal to take a day off to avoid breaking the record. I wrote that, if he did, he would "be remembered forever as an athlete who stepped proudly over the statistical rubble of his sport to lead us all into a higher level of consciousness. He will end up a bigger Calvin than Klein."
The response from pundits, sportswriters, and fans was overwhelmingly negative. I was called clueless and stupid or, at least, a running dog of a new, much-mocked and demeaned "participation culture," unaware of the competitive nature of sports. Worse yet, I was trying to deny a hero his due.
It seemed that, of all people, only Limbaugh picked up on the mindless paradox of the situation — after all, Ripken would merely have to show up at work that day to claim his trophy — or even how obviously I had been offering my advice tongue in cheek. And he said so on a national radio network carrying his shows.
As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. That he saw what I was actually doing convinced me that he, too, often had his tongue tucked firmly in that cheek of his and away from anything that might pass for his rational brain. And this would, in the end, make it all that much worse. My guess: he wasn't ever truly a believer in the right-wing trash he talked. From the beginning, he was a mercenary, a commercial provocateur who found fame and fortune by spreading ever more toxic takes.
Down Under with Murdoch
Of the Four Horsemen, I came upon Rupert Murdoch first — in early 1977, soon after he bought that once-liberal newspaper, the New York Post. Among his earliest hires as columnists (strange indeed, given what we now know of him) were progressive icon Murray Kempton and me.
I already knew something about Murdoch's Australian and British reputation as a venal press lord, but the lure of a no-holds-barred cityside column and the possibility of sharing an office with Kempton proved irresistible. Murdoch and I first met in the crowded, raffish Post newsroom in lower Manhattan. He was brisk but pleasant that day, asking me at one point how I would improve the paper. I answered breezily: "For starters, I'd hire more women, Blacks, Latinos, gays, so the city can be properly covered."
He regarded me coolly. "Hmm, yes," he said, "but instead I'm hiring a liberal like you."
At that moment, I sensed that he was a monster and that this would end badly. I lasted all of seven months, mostly thanks to another monster, the serial killer Son of Sam, who terrorized the city that year. Like so many other tabloid writers of that moment, I spent the summer writing about the hunt for him, which mostly kept me out of trouble, since Murdoch loved sex, violence, and crime. But then there were those off-his-message columns I wrote about Israel, the South Bronx, and his favored candidate for mayor, Ed Koch.
And there were my shoes. They were soft Italian suede. Beige. I felt cool in them. One day, a new Australian editor took me aside and said, "Lose the poufter boots, mate. The boss hates them."
Of course, now I had to wear them every day despite that boss's homophobia. It was about then that whole paragraphs simply began to disappear from my column (without anyone consulting me), while the column itself was often shoved ever deeper into the paper, especially if I wrote about, say, marching in a women's movement or gay pride parade with one of my kids. Sometimes the column would be cut entirely.
I resigned from the Post live on Dave Marash's 11 p.m. local CBS TV news show. The next morning, in answer to a question during a press conference in Los Angeles, Murdoch claimed that he had fired me. When that didn't fly, he said that I had never been much good anyway. By then, thanks to TV, more people had heard about me than had ever read anything I wrote at the Times or the Post — a lesson about the new world we were all being plunged into.
As it happened, there would be no escape from Rupert Murdoch. After quitting the Post, I went back to writing books for HarperCollins, the publishing house that he had bought. Thank goodness he never seemed to make the connection. Not so far anyway.
Soulmates Without a Soul in Sight
Among the Four Horsemen, Murdoch is surely Famine. Given the sports and gossip-driven sensibility of his newspapers and the role of Fox News as a tool of right-wing and Trumpian political propaganda, he's helped starve people on at least three continents of the kinds of information they would need to truly grasp our world and make educated decisions about it.
His most reliable collaborator in those years was Roger Ailes, who became the chairman and CEO of Fox News. He would prove so skilled when it came to purveying misinformation that he deserves a horse of his own. And no question about it, Ailes represented War, both against the truth and (within journalism) for circulation, eyeballs, and the clicks that always favor profit over facts.
Of all four horsemen, I had the least personal interaction with him. One evening in 1990 (I think), I went to see him at his poorly lit midtown office. It was evening and I had the feeling he might have been drinking, though he didn't offer me anything. I was then the host of a nightly local public television show and we wanted to put him on a political panel we were forming. By then, after all, he had successfully advised presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush (though he wouldn't join Murdoch for another six years). He had blown off all the producers who tried to book him on their shows but had agreed to let me come in for a pitch.
I didn't know it, but around then he first met his future co-horseman Rush Limbaugh who, at the time, was still trying to invent himself as a radio star. Limbaugh had walked into New York's posh 21 Club looking for famous people to buttonhole. He soon spotted Ailes but was too intimidated to introduce himself.
As Rush would later tell it, Roger was the one who first swaggered up to him and boomed, "My wife loves you!" Soon after, they began talking and, so Rush reported, he felt that he had met his "soulmate." Ailes would soon be producing a short-lived Limbaugh TV show. Alas, it would prove long-lived indeed by becoming a model for the bogus news/talk format of Fox News a few years later when Murdoch hired Ailes as the devil's consigliere. Later, Ailes would use that very position to advise George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Still, when I met Ailes that was the unknowable future. It comes back to me now as if in a dream, brief and weird. He listened to my description of my show, "The Eleventh Hour," and why we wanted him as a guest. I may not have been as fawning as I remember myself being. (I hope not anyway.) He nodded along as I made my pitch, offered me the most perfunctory thanks for coming, and dismissed me with body language suggesting that he had checked me out and found nothing he wanted. He simply turned away and began murmuring to a woman I could barely see in the darkened office.
In 2016, after years of commercial and political success together, Murdoch dumped Ailes in the midst of an ever-spreading sex scandal. He had not only personally harassed Fox employees but had created a company-wide climate of abuse and intimidation. He left with a reported $65 million. A year later, he died in Palm Beach (as would Limbaugh four years after that). He was 77.
A "Great Show" for a Great Showman
Of all the horsemen in those years, I spent the most time with Donald Trump. (By now, haven't we all?) He's our greatest shame because while we in the media may have thought that we were using him — listening sneeringly to his lies and braggadocio since it pushed our media products so effectively — he was using us bigly. Making the "fake news media" his very own accomplices may have been his greatest skill.
I was no exception to the media patsies who flocked to him for easy stories. Maybe I didn't take him seriously enough then because we both came from Queens, a scorned outer borough of New York City, or because he was already a well-known publicity hound and boldfaced tabloid name.
Honestly, who could have taken an obvious buffoon like him seriously? And back then, we didn't have to, as long as we took him. And here's what I do remember from those days: he would always respond to a question, no matter how negative, as long as he was its subject. That's all he truly cared about. Him, him, him, and him again.
The first time we met, in the early 1980s — he was then an ambitious real-estate mogul and B-list celebrity — he insisted that he didn't much like attention, but felt obligated to do the interview because I represented "a great show" ("CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt"). He would then go on to lie about his scheme to pressure the National Football League into admitting to its ranks the New Jersey Generals, the United States Football League team he then owned.
In a later meeting, I remember him offering me his supposed credo as a public figure, one that in retrospect seems grimly ironic, if not satiric: "I tend to think that you should be decent, you should be fair, you should be straight, and you should do the best you can. And beyond that, you can't do very much really. So yeah, you do have a responsibility." Then, as if adding a note in the margins of his bland comment, he added, tellingly enough, "I'm not sure to what extent that responsibility holds."
Once, for reasons I can't recall, I returned to that supposed sense of "responsibility" of his, asking him if he'd like to "run the country as you have run your organization." That was in 1984 (no symbolism intended) and he responded, "I would much prefer that somebody else do it. I just don't know if the somebody else is there." So, 32 years before his election, he was, it seems, already imagining the unimaginable that would become our very own surreal world in 2016. "This country," he added ominously, "needs major surgery."
"Are you the surgeon?" I asked, innocently enough.
"I think I'd do a fantastic job, but I really would prefer not doing it."
I would have preferred that, too, but it's much too late now and, sadly enough, there's no reason to think that the ride of the modern Four Horsemen is over. Limbaugh and Ailes have left their vast poisonous pools behind and they won't dry up soon. Murdoch, turning 90 just days from now, is still running his empire. And Donald Trump, of course, continues to gallop toward the future astride his pale horse, as the rider called Death.
Copyright 2021 Robert Lipsyte
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