The fire started at Fox when Ailes sensed, as demagogues (and their producers) throughout history have always done, that anyone with enough money, cleverness, and showmanship to unleash passions that good politics should channel constructively can ride them to power and profit. That’s what Cleon did in Thucydides’s account of the Athenians’ Mytilenian debate; it’s what Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, and recent Fox contributors Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have done by carrying legitimate grievances into brilliant performances that eventually curdle and collapse, tragicomically or catastrophically, on their own ignorance and lies.
“In television, technology changes,” Ailes insists. “The one constant is content. There has to be a show. . . . Getting ratings is how you get paid”—and a producer tells Chafets that Ailes will “do anything to get ratings.” As Neil Cavuto, a Fox anchor and Ailes acolyte, tells Chafets, before Ailes, “Our thought was, Is the story important? not who will watch it.” Ailes “forced people to get out of the ivory tower,” as Chafets puts it. Cavuto observes that, “You can make a story out of anything,” and that Ailes “has imbued an entire generation of producers with his vision.”
But the press is the only industry the Constitution exempts from regulation, because its real purpose is to strengthen citizens’ public life by helping them uphold public virtues—such as the inclination and ability to deliberate rationally to make sound decisions—that, as you may have noticed, neither the liberal state nor the markets have done much lately to nourish or defend.
That leaves journalism (and other institutions of civil society, like liberal arts colleges) with a big responsibility. Chafets demonstrates that Ailes twists the news reporting and accountability a republic needs by turning its means of survival into its end, using “flashy graphics, bumper music, constant controversies, and nonstop promotion.”
But Fox surrenders, or re-targets, journalism not only to entertain but also to stoke and channel rivulets of public anger and fear into torrents of political power. While Chafets touts Ailes, incessantly, as a P. T. Barnum and apostle of profits, those are only two legs of his tripod. The third is his political agenda: more austerity, more pugilism in foreign policy, more rollbacks of public regulation and of labor unions.
Ailes drives it all home with lots of blame-shifting. Fox pundits and Rush Limbaugh—who doesn’t work there, but has been mentored by Ailes since 1991 and was profiled by Chafets in Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One—accuse liberals of fomenting the class war that Ailes and Limbaugh themselves promote by hyping viewers’ working-class resentments and diverting attention from their real causes toward professors, elite journalists, and public regulators.
Casting them as the enemy works for a while, but by election night Fox had become the victim of its own success at blaming liberals for public disasters—the failures in Iraq, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in the wild financialization and deregulation that caused the economic meltdown—which most voters realized liberal Democrats hadn’t caused, even when liberals had gone along with them.
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Chafets tells us enough about Ailes’s small-town, Ohio boyhood—as a hemophiliac who was sometimes close to death, with a father who nevertheless beat him—and about his continuing ill health and unhappy personal life (three marriages, the third producing Ailes’s only child when he was 59) to suggest the roots of his vision that Chafets doesn’t try to untangle and that I won’t here.
He tells us that Ailes spent many years as a political consultant, advising Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, among others, before leaving the business in the early 1990s. “I hated politics,” Ailes recalls realizing. But his move back to television—to CNBC before selling Murdoch on the idea of Fox—heralded not his liberation from politics but his audacious politicization of TV news.