18 May 2017

Roger Ailes (1940-2017)

The founder of Fox News barely outlived his good name. Ailes was forced out of power last summer after facing apparently creditable charges of sexual harassment, but those won't really taint his place in American history as probably the most consequential media figure since Henry Luce or William Randolph Hearst. Ailes wasn't a ground-up entrepreneur like those past media titans, being an employee of Rupert Murdoch, but few media figures have done more to influence the form and content of public discussion than Ailes did. His revolutionary act was to identify the absence of conservative bias on television news, in contrast to the heavy conservative bias of print media in the days of Hearst and Luce, as bias unto itself. In the way it presents news and opinion, Fox News isn't much different from a Republican-leaning newspaper of the 1930s, or Time magazine (or Life, which, unlike Time, had an editorial page) when Luce had direct control of it. But Americans had grown so unaccustomed to seeing right-wing bias in the media after the founding titans had passed from the scene that its appearance on television under Ailes' supervision seemed to many liberals like an alarming invasion of a sanctified sphere.

Ailes' justification was that there was a "conservative" side to nearly every issue, and that the established TV networks and CNN had failed in their implicit civil responsibility to present all sides -- or all the important sides -- of the issues. Presenting the conservative side, both in news reporting and interviewing and on Fox's popular prime-time talk shows, thus became sufficient proof that Ailes' channel was more "fair and balanced" than its rivals. Earlier conservative media moguls would not have recognized any duty to keep their publications fair and balanced, but Ailes exploited the modern news media's pretensions of objectivity, which those older moguls did not share, in order to expose his rivals' apparent hypocrisy. For Fox News, the only acceptable proof of objectivity was that all (i.e. both) sides were represented, however feebly the left might be represented (or however grossly it might be exaggerated) on Fox. While Ailes' side might be entitled to representation solely on the strength of numbers, both at the polls and in legislatures, its representation doesn't itself make any discussion of any issue more objective. The reductio ad absurdam of Ailes' logic is the "Teach the Controversy" assertion that traditional accounts of divine creation should be mentioned in discussions of the origins of life.

Nevertheless, the rationale for Fox News appealed to those who saw an increasing divergence between the way they saw the world and the way the established media reported it. The Fox News audience never was the only group to perceive such a divergence, or to perceive bias in what is fairly called the corporate media, but enough people shared Ailes' own perspective to sustain Fox when there was no chance for a Marxist or Anarchist news network. While some critics of Fox appealed to the old ideal of objectivity, it eventually became easier and more appealing to answer bias with bias, to the point today where Ailes' propaganda against the news establishment looks more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than a correct diagnosis of his own time. Meanwhile, there were signs before his death, if not before his departure, that the Fox News model was already becoming obsolete. Ratings reportedly show that Fox recently fell behind its cable-news rivals, the liberal-biased MSNBC and the quasi-objective CNN, for the first time in something like forever. Apologists for Ailes might blame this on the recent absence of his guiding hand, but it's more likely that Fox has fallen between two stools, being perceived from the left as too soft on President Trump while it has more likely been too ambivalent toward Trump for the tastes of its base. That base may be showing by its preference for Twitter and other social-media bubbles that it was always  more interested in bias than "fair and balanced," while Fox, despite its liberal critics, was always too much of an actual news network to give the most hardcore viewers the propaganda rush they really craved. Ironically, MSNBC may now deliver that sort of rush more consistently to its own base audience than Fox does to its loyalists. It would be more ironic still if, once past its apparent peak of influence, and at the moment of Ailes's death, that ambivalence towards Trump which may alienate many viewers, as opposed to the unanimous hysteria seen elsewhere, made Fox News the most objective of the cable news channels today. I doubt that's actually true, but it still would be ironic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would say that Ailes is comparable to Vince McMahon, in that McMahon took a sport that was not very popular in the US - wrestling - and turned it into "sports entertainment", i.e. professional wrasslin'. Ailes looked at the news media and turned it into news entertainment. This would not be possible, if not for the fact that the majority of Americans spend the majority of their free time on mindless entertainment, rather than discussing fixes for the many problems they are trying to forget about.

In other news, I see that the regressive left is managing to re-institute segregation on ivy-league colleges. With "Rasa Graduation" for hispanics, "Black Graduation" for blacks and "Lavender Graduation" for gays. While at the University of Michigan, such students are protesting that the "masculine wood paneling" on the walls of certain buildings makes them feel threatened. Maybe it's time to re-institute Jim Crow laws so that these over-privileged, spoiled little shits can get a taste of what real segregation is like.

This is why I no longer consider myself on the left. Above all, I despise stupidity and the left has become so very, very stupid.