Ailes legacy: stoking divisions, damaging truth

Roger Ailes. Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.

Pundits were marveling at the roiling news out of Washington in the past week, even before the latest striking developments on Trump and Russia.

And then this morning came word of another signal event: The unexpected death of Roger Ailes, the disgraced former overlord of Fox News and, not incidentally, a man who played a key role in the most earth-shaking political event of the decade, the election of Donald Trump as president.

Ailes’s legacy will be much discussed in the coming days. One of his signal successes, however, was prominently on display from the moment the news broke. The New York Times’s story on his death had this for its third graf:

“Fair and balanced” was Mr. Ailes’s defining phrase for Fox News, along with another slogan: “We report. You decide.” Though routinely mocked by liberal critics, who regarded the network as decidedly unfair and imbalanced, those words amounted to an article of faith for Mr. Ailes.

Can you see Ailes’s influence? It’s that part about “liberal critics.” Ailes brilliantly set up his network in opposition to a supposed liberal media. The Times said his work was criticized only by those “liberal critics”—which of course was to be expected. But Ailes wasn’t just a problem for liberals. He was a problem for anyone who cares about truth and, by extension, the role of a free press in a democracy.

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The word “conservative” when used in this context gets him off the hook as well. Here’s the next graf in the Times story:

“If we look conservative,” he said, “it’s because the other guys are so far to the left.” 

But Ailes didn’t create Fox to be conservative in the normal sense of the word. He created it to be partisan—to support whoever was wearing the Republican jersey—and that’s a key difference. An organization that adhered to free-market values and, say, personal responsibility would have been a much different animal. On Fox, you could always see the network’s support for one side, and against the other.

This came up every time news good for Democrats but bad for Republicans was delivered outside of prime time, at the end of a show, under the breath of one of the network’s blond-helmeted female talking heads, or in the opening clause of a sentence, only to be dismissed, diminished, or refuted in the second part of that same sentence.

It’s not conservative, for example, to attack John Kerry’s war record or impugn the patriotism of those who disagree with you, or to give extensive airtime to those doing so with little or no opportunity for opposing viewpoints. The partisanship came up everywhere, like in the breathless way Megyn Kelly would describe some innocuous development in the Hillary Clinton email story as “game-changing.”

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Do CNN and MSNBC have their problems? Certainly. CNN is a frivolous basket case of a network. MSNBC goes off the rails, too. You’ll never hear a reasoned criticism of a union on the network, and this reporter noted some of the buffoonery spewed by Rachel Maddow in these pages last year.

But the problem CNN grapples with every day is that it allows partisans from both sides to spew talking points. Fox’s whole network was a talking point, and for only one side.

This is the accomplishment that should be at the heart of discussions of Ailes’s legacy: He normalized the abnormal.

The other thing Ailes did was reduce newsgathering standards across the board. Once in a while Kelly, Shep Smith, or Bret Baier would say something off message, which the network would trumpet as evidence of its evenhandedness.

To be fair, the network sometimes got things right when others didn’t. I remember a few days before the election seeing a Fox field reporter in Michigan tell a news anchor that the Clinton campaign was seeing a free fall in its numbers there. In fact, the reporter was onto something few others noticed. But it’s worth noting that my citing that report represents the sort of intellectual honesty that was almost entirely missing from Fox.

Here’s an example that stays with me. In 2013, amid the government shutdown, the hosts of Fox & Friends were aghast at a story the network had been featuring for days: Veterans who wanted to get in to see the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, which had been shut down, along with most other nonessential governmental operations.

The shutdown was at the very least a bipartisan accomplishment, but largely the work of anti-Obamacare and anti-Planned Parenthood forces in the GOP-controlled House.

Fox focused on the aged former soldiers who—in the network’s version of events—were being blocked by the Obama administration from seeing the memorial. “The government is acting as your enemy,” opined an exercised Tucker Carlson on Fox & Friends that morning. Cohost Anna Kooiman added:

The Republican National Committee is offering to pay for it to keep it open so that the veterans from Honor Flight are going to be able to go and see this. [The memorial] honors them. It really doesn’t seem fair, especially—and we’re going to talk a little bit later in the show too about some things that are continuing to be funded. And President Obama has offered to pay out of his own pocket for the Museum of Muslim Culture—out of his own pocket!—yet it’s the Republican National Committee who’s paying for this.

Note how, the facts aside, the GOP favors keeping the government open, while the Obama administration was more interested in a “Museum of Muslim Culture.” That museum was a fiction, of course.

Note as well how Carlson, now the leading man in the network’s primetime lineup, didn’t chime in with a correction, or to ask, “Why would the president fund a Muslim museum? He’s not a Muslim.”

At just about any other established news site in the US, this would have been a major embarrassment for everyone on the show and the institution. There would have been a formal correction, perhaps noting that the source of the bad information was a satirical news site.

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So outlandish was Fox’s assertion that a correction, of sorts, was issued. Not on the air, but on Twitter, and not on the network’s Twitter account but Kooiman’s less-prominent account, with a tweet that apologized in vague terms: “I made a mistake yday after reading flawed research abt a museum closing.”

Most Fox watchers and many others would shrug at the story, but it’s only because we have become so inured to the network’s sleaziness.

In January 2015, after commentators across the network had spread the untruth that there were “no-go” Muslim areas in European cities, and then-host Jeanine Pirro had devoted an entire segment to the supposed phenomenon, the network did a formal correction. On a Saturday night.

Anchor Julie Banderas forthrightly said the errors were regrettable. But then she added: “There are certainly areas of high crime in Europe, as there are in the United States and other countries, where police and visitors enter with caution.”

Of course, this is irrelevant to the main point, and contextually false. For example, Banderas could have said, “In fact, crime in the US has fallen precipitously over the last 25 years, and yet even now, the homicide rate in the US far exceeds that of western Europe.”

But not at a network run by Roger Ailes.

As you might surmise from both examples, the network is obsessed with race. Or to be more frank, it was obsessed with pushing the buttons of racists, and stirring up racial resentment by focusing on negative stories about racial minorities. And racial minorities were not the only targets. Gays, women, the poor—just about any group the network’s aged and cranky audience could get mad at—was given the same hateful treatment.

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Ailes left Fox last July after an exploding sexual harassment scandal tarnished the network’s image in a way that even his longstanding supporter Rupert Murdoch couldn’t ignore. Ailes walked away with some $40 million.

The Times said he died today from a blow on the head he sustained May 10 in a fall at his Florida mansion. Ailes’s family deserves our condolences, particularly the wife he humiliated. The network as a whole, not so much.

As the Times story displays, the rest of the media remains outmaneuvered by the strange and baleful beast Ailes created. It’s not liberal cant to say that Fox traffics in lies and, sometimes, hate; that it has no shame when caught in those lies or hate; and that it has existed too long without the shunning it deserves.

Ailes’s legacy also includes the fake news epidemic that has confounded political debate in this country. Ailes and Fox gave the “fake news” architects their blueprint.

With Bill O’Reilly also removed after his own flurry of sordid accusations, and even the departure of important Ailes deputy Bill Shine, the network’s ongoing recipe for influence may change.

Some reports say Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan, may move Fox closer to the mainstream. But Ailes’s ethical and moral vinegar will remain, pickling the reputation of the channel and virtually all who work there. Whatever happens, it won’t be easy to remove the smell.

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Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon.com. Follow him @hitsville.