Ever since October of 1996, Fox News has been regarded by serious media analysts as a somewhat less than objective mouthpiece for conservative propaganda. From the start they adopted a posture that appeared to be bent on shilling for Republicans by drenching their reports with partisan disinformation.
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The intent couldn’t have been more transparent. This was a network birthed by the planet’s most notorious practitioner of tabloid piffle, Rupert Murdoch, who adorned it with a spritz of soft-core porn, and masqueraded it across America’s TV screens as if it were actually news. Murdoch plucked Richard Nixon’s former media advisor, and Rush Limbaugh producer, Roger Ailes, to run the network. He then set out to populate the incipient Fox News schedule with devout rightists like Cal Thomas, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Rita Cosby, and Matt Drudge.
As outwardly obvious as it appeared that Murdoch was building a megaphone with which to shout directions at what he perceived as a malleable population, there may have been another purpose entirely. While promulgating a self-serving, corporatist doctrine, steeped in imperialistic adventurism, is undoubtedly an attractive bonus for Murdoch and company, the prospect of reshaping the media is a much juicier plum. However, the new shape that Murdoch had in mind was more focused on creating negative perceptions of media than on advancing its quality.
The real mission of Fox News is [cue trumpets] to so thoroughly tarnish the practice of journalism that majorities of the public would recoil in disgust at all of it. Murdoch and Ailes knew that the introduction of a single cable network would have a difficult time enshrouding the whole of the mediasphere in their veil of lies. So rather than try to change people’s minds, they would endeavor to poison the relationship that people have with the press.
Consider this: If it were really the primary goal of Fox News to have an influence on political discourse, they could have launched the channel with a proudly partisan theme that celebrated their conservative outlook. They could have honestly put their views on the table and fought it out in the public square. That is how a sincere enterprise with faith in their convictions would behave. Instead, they chose to dress themselves up as “fair and balanced,” an objective they never intended to pursue. Then, while swimming in a swamp of their own bias, they aggressively attack their competitors as biased. At some point the community of news consumers will throw up their hands and surrender, convinced that the baby is just as contaminated as the bathwater. And that is precisely what Fox intends.
Ailes brought two operating philosophies to his post at Fox. First was the conviction that he could reproduce the structured chaos of talk radio populism on television. He had previously attempted to do this with America’s Talking, an NBC cable network that later became MSNBC. Secondly, he sought to make extensive use of the tricks he learned in the political realm – a craft that appreciated the value of packaging.
One of the lessons Ailes learned in politics was the potency of negative campaigning. He produced the infamous Revolving Door ad that attacked Michael Dukakis. And while he did not make the Willie Horton ad, he did take up the issue in the campaign and exhibited the ruthlessness of his character by stating that…
“The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”
What most outsiders don’t know is that negative campaigns are not engaged in solely to damage the prospects of an opponent. Its underlying purpose is to discourage voters overall. A good campaign manager knows that his opponent will fire back and the race will eventually be perceived as dirty and unworthy of the voter’s consideration. By shrinking the voter pool, it makes the campaign’s job easier as there are fewer people to persuade and they can direct their efforts to getting their own supporters to the polls.
Sound familiar? That’s what I am proposing Ailes and Fox News are doing by dirtying up journalism and shrinking the audience for news. Since they can’t badger every other network, newspaper and Internet site to bend to their Paleolithic version of reality, they will throw metaphorical feces at everyone, including themselves, to prove that no one can be trusted. The result is that broad swaths of the public opt for ignorance over what they’ve been convinced is garbage. And as an ancillary benefit, Fox is left with a congregation of right-wing zealots who will happily sing from the network’s hymnal.
The initiative to discredit the press, as executed by Fox, goes far beyond the insertion of partisan viewpoints. To be successful they need to to utterly demolish the institution and rip off every last shred of dignity. To that end, they wrapped their programming in a superhero, comic book theme, complete with bright, primary colors, clanging bells, and incessant visual and aural sirens going off for no apparent reason. The omnipresent “Fox News Alert” will trigger at the first sighting of a missing white girl or an alleged violation of presidential body language. All that’s missing is the exploding thought bubble with the word “BLAM” in large block letters zooming the screen.
Delivering this cartoonish caterwaul is a collection of media misfits that hardly instill confidence in their presentation of the news. And I’m not talking about obvious clowns like Hannity, O’Reilly and Beck. I’m not even talking about beauty pageant winners (Gretchen Carlson, Miss America, 1989), O.J. Simpson groupies (Geraldo Rivera, Greta Van Susteren), or organ-grinder monkeys (Steve Doocy), although these characters do play significant roles in this commedia. I’m referring to the managers of Fox’s news production.
Bill Sammon, the Washington managing editor, is an overt partisan who came to Fox from the Washington (Moonie) Times. Besides his daily spew of slanted stories, he has written books like, “Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats, and Confounding the Mainstream Media.” That book was published in February of 2006, just nine months before Republicans were witted straight out of both houses of Congress.
Major Garrett, the senior White House correspondent for Fox News, is another Moonie Times alum and an author as well. His February 2006 book (that must have been a desperate time for the right-wing hype machine), “The Enduring Revolution: The Inside Story of the Republican Ascendancy and Why It Will Continue,” also presaged a Republican revolution that was something less than enduring, hardly ascending, and most definitely not continuing.
Neil Cavuto, the VP of business news for Fox News and the Senior VP and managing editor of the Fox Business Network, is a master of spin. When the market goes down, it’s because Obama flashed covert gang signals to ACORN volunteers who relayed the distress call to George Soros who exercised his omnipotent power to force everyone on Wall Street to sell. When the market goes up, it’s a bear market rally, unless Obama had a hangnail and stayed in his room all day, in which case the advance is due to traders relieved that the President was AWOL. Cavuto’s most distinctive skill as a TV anchor is his ability to interrupt any guest with whom he disagrees before they can express a complete thought. He is also credited with inventing the punctuation named for him, the Cavuto Mark. It is something like a question mark, but it permits you to make ludicrous assertions without assuming any responsibility. For instance: Do Democrats cause cancer? Or: President Obama…the Anti-Christ? You see, he’s not really asserting anything – he’s just asking.
To complete the picture, Fox has to employ a supporting cast that is as destructive to the news medium as their standard bearers. That’s why folks like Dick Morris, Bernie Goldberg, Ann Coulter, and Karl Rove, are booked repeatedly. It’s why ambush interviews by Stuttering Jesse Watters are regular features. And it’s why they turn to experts like Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzlebacher, Ted Nugent, and Hooters waitresses, for analysis on everything from tax policy to Constitutional law.
The notion that Fox News would deliberately sully the noble calling of the fourth estate, of which they are allegedly a member, may seem speculative, paranoid, even Beckish. After all, where would they have gotten such an outlandish idea? Perhaps it came from observation of the government theory practiced in Republican bureaucracies. For instance, the dreadful performance of FEMA’s hurricane response that let thousands suffer and die in New Orleans; or the failure of the SEC to oversee and forestall fiscal calamities like AIG or Bernie Madoff; or billion dollar overruns in Defense Department procurements; or intelligence mishaps that lead to jets crashing into skyscrapers and unjustifiable invasions of foreign countries. The list goes on and on.
It is these sort of examples of government negligence and/or incompetence that lead to the inescapable conclusion that they are also intentional. That’s not to say that anyone in public service had a specific desire to cause harm. It is simply the recognition that certain schools of political thought embrace a philosophy that maintains that “government is the problem”, as Ronald Reagan famously declared, and that the best way to illustrate that is to allow bureaucracies to devolve to the point where they can only fail in their missions. Thereafter, advocates of this philosophy can argue that government’s inherent flaws require that it be curtailed, and even “reduce[d] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” as colorfully articulated by Grover Norquist.
Roger Ailes is not only a practitioner of this school of thought, he is one of its architects. He served as a consultant to Reagan in the eighties and worked closely with Norquist as well, in the Reagan administration and as a lobbyist on behalf of the tobacco industry. Consequently, it should surprise no one that Ailes would seek to apply these methods, honed in politics, to his current profession.
So, if Ailes, Murdoch, et al, do indeed have an interest in besmirching the reputation of the press, they clearly have the background for it. Murdoch has already contributed to disillusionment with media via his sensationalistic tabloids. And Ailes has put theory into practice by demonstrating that the public can be persuaded to oppose institutions they see as deficient, even if they were purposefully fashioned as such. Although, it needs to be said that they didn’t have a particularly tough job, as the media has long been held in ill repute. But they can, and did, move it along quite nicely. Despite the media’s shortcomings, the responsible position would be to strive to reform and improve it, not to kick it while it’s down.
In the end, it can only be detrimental to the health of our society if we cannot shape the media into an honest, independent observer of our institutions and the people managing them. That’s hard enough to do under any circumstances, and it doesn’t make it any easier when self-serving, politically-vested corporations conspire to inflame distrust and disaffection for the media in order suppress the emergence of an informed citizenry.
At this point, Fox is having a fair measure of success. By this I am not referring to their Nielsen victories. Topping the list of cable news channels is still a rather inconsequential achievement relative to the TV universe (not to mention the national electorate that has roundly rejected the Fox “Nation”). Their success comes in their prime directive: Driving Americans away from even reputable sources of news. The hard-core partisans are lining up along traditional battle lines, and everyone else is tuning out.
In order to counteract the Fox offensive, the conscientious caucus of the press needs to step up. They need to defend their own integrity. They need to initiate reforms that make them worthy of such defense. Then they need to hold a giant mirror up to Fox to reflect back the noxious rays of ignorance. There needs to be a concerted effort to report honestly on the state of the media itself and Fox’s role in it. And they need to be specific. There is simply no reason why ABC News or the Washington Post cannot come right out and say that Fox News is a fraud. There’s plenty of documentary evidence to support it and, besides, Fox says it about them every day.
If we don’t want people to opt out, they need to be shown the value in remaining engaged. They need to have their faith in the press restored. The alternative for most people would be to disconnect, focus on their narrow, parochial concerns, and wallow in ignorance of the world around them. And given the choice of that or the fantastical perversion of reality peddled on Fox, they would be making the right decision.
Addendum: In the past few days, I have been questioned as to why Fox would engage in a plot that might harm its own business – particularly when Murdoch is such a well-known greedy opportunist.
First of all, I don’t buy the portrayal of Murdoch as someone who is only interested in money. If that were true, he would not be taking $50 million dollar annual losses on the New York Post for the past ten years. And he would not have started a business news network from scratch, and purchased the Wall Street Journal when newspapers are suffering an historic decline. Yes, he loves his wealth, but no, that’s not all he loves. He is a confirmed conservative ideologue, and his business decisions reflect that.
Secondly, I don’t think he sees this plan as being detrimental to his affairs. How would harming the news industry hurt him if that isn’t the business he’s in? He is in the entertainment business, and as long as Fox News continues to schedule programming that is more fiction than fact, more drama than data, he believes that he’ll do just fine.