For years I boasted about graduating from the same university as Fox News chief Roger Ailes. My boast became somewhat muted after Ailes was forced out last year in a sexual harassment scandal.
Yet my fellow Ohio University graduate, who died Thursday at age 77, left such a deep and indelible impression on the worlds of politics and media over the past half-century that we ignore his ideas and influences only at our peril.
As a product of a working class Ohio factory town not unlike Warren, where he grew up, it’s not hard for me to tell what sort of target audience he had in mind for “resentment TV,” my description of the conservative-oriented format Ailes created for Fox News.
For example, the parallels between President Donald Trump’s campaign themes and those of Richard Nixon (“forgotten Americans” and “silent majority,” for example) illustrate how much the influence of Ailes, who worked for Nixon and later advised Trump, helped reshape American politics.
Ailes’ influence began shortly after his graduation when he went to work as a backstage assistant at “The Mike Douglas Show,” a syndicated daytime TV talk show based in Cleveland, and became its executive producer at age 25.
A couple years later, while waiting backstage with future presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon, his small talk, as recounted in “The Selling of the President,” reporter Joe McGinniss’ 1969 best-seller about Nixon’s campaign, now sounds prophetic:
“It’s a shame,” Nixon grumbled, still chafing from his 1960 loss to the more telegenic John F. Kennedy, “that a man has to use gimmicks like television to get elected.”
“Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes replied. “And if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”
Ailes’ candor led to his joining Nixon’s campaign as a consultant, launching what would become a career that alternated between TV and politics, including the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
News doesn’t have to be dull, insisted Ailes’ “Orchestra Pit Theory.” “If you have two guys on a stage,” he would say, “and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”
Ailes conceived Fox News, which launched in 1996, to compete with CNN and the three broadcast networks by targeting a large underserved audience of conservative middle Americans who didn’t like the way the world was rapidly moving away from the one they knew in the 1950s.
I don’t mind that Fox News is a conservative channel any more than I mind that the newer MSNBC tilts left, as long as they clearly separate straight news from opinion. Unfortunately, that separation gets blurred.
Some Fox News anchors gave more credibility than was deserved to Trump’s unfounded claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Same with Sarah Palin’s false talking point that Obama’s health care plan would include “death panels.”
Fox has largely avoided much reporting on Trump’s Russia scandal, choosing instead to spend airtime on an alleged link between email leaks to WikiLeaks and the 2016 slaying of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, a suspicion that authorities say is unfounded.
No, I don’t mind a conservative channel. I do mind misleading the public.
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Yet pressing Fox News to stick to facts misses a significant side of the network’s interaction with politics in the age of Trump. “Viewers don’t want to be informed,” Chet Collier, one of its founders, is quoted as saying in Gabriel Sherman’s new biography of Roger Ailes, the network’s chief. “Viewers want to feel informed.”
Indeed, Fox is the most-watched cable news network, yet some surveys suggest that people who rely on Fox as their primary information source know less about current events than people who watch no news at all. Fox disputes those findings in much the same way that Trump denounces inconvenient stories as “fake news.”
In both Fox’s viewership and Trump core supporters, belief in what Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts” is just one more social bonding agent that defines the political right’s information tribe.
Thanks largely to Ailes, TV news has become more than news. It’s a lifestyle choice.
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