Recommended reading: How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory. This profile, in the upcoming edition of Rolling Stone, paints a devastating picture of Fox News and the man who runs it. According to the magazine, Ailes is a man who boasts a deep-seated sense of paranoia, credit for Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, “dainty hands” and a mean Haagen-Dazs habit.
Ailes may be a cartoon like figure, but his CV, and patented tactics, don’t sound so unusual. In fact they read like a handbook on how to manipulate the media, sell a political message, and rate your socks off all at the same time:
- “It was while working for [Richard] Nixon that Ailes first experimented with blurring the distinction between journalism and politics, developing a knack for manipulating political imagery that would find its ultimate expression in Fox News.”
- “Ailes — known on the Reagan team as ‘Dr. Feelgood’ — told the Gipper [suffering from early stages of Alzheimers] to ditch the facts and figures. ‘You didn’t get elected on details,’ he told the president. ‘You got elected on themes.'”
- Ailes agreed to work for Bush — an effete New Englander who even Richard Nixon said “comes through as a weak individual on television”. Worse still, Bush had baggage: he was neck-deep in the Iran-Contra scandal that had secretly sent arms to Tehran and used the profits to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua. Ailes saw an opportunity to address both shortcomings in a single, familiar strategy — attack the media.
- Ailes quietly prepped the president for his State of the Union address in 1992, and he served as an attack dog for the campaign, once more blasting what he saw as the media’s liberal bias.
- Ailes inked a secret deal with tobacco giants Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds to go full-force after the Clinton administration on its central policy objective: health care reform. Hillarycare was to have been funded, in part, by a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes. To block the proposal, Big Tobacco paid Ailes to produce ads highlighting “real people affected by taxes”.
- In a precursor to the modern Tea Party, Ailes conspired with the tobacco companies to unleash angry phone calls on Congress — cold-calling smokers and patching them through to the switchboards on Capitol Hill — and to gin up the appearance of a grassroots uprising, busing 17,000 tobacco employees to the White House for a mass demonstration.
And all this before we get to Ailes transforming Fox News into “the most profitable — and therefore least accountable — head of the News Corp. hydra”. But here’s one line that Ailes would presumably keep off his CV:
“According to recent polls, Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers.”
Ailes and his baby Fox News are “entertainment as news” on crack — and they also serve as a cautionary tale. They’ve served up the simultaneous result of a dumber public combined with a political outfit that takes its cues from the media.
As former Bush speechwriter David Frum puts it: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us… Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.”