I didn’t fully understand what Roger Ailes had wrought until the 2004 Republican National Convention. I was at the CNN anchor site high above Madison Square Garden, a position located smack in the middle of delegates and alternates, with no glass separating us—the better to capture the energy of the event.
As we were wrapping up our coverage, we found ourselves surrounded by departing participants, who began to chant: “Watch FOX News! Watch FOX News! Watch FOX News!”
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At the time, I’d been a part of the TV network news business for a quarter of a century. Never had I heard any group of partisans cheer for a specific news source; never, for instance, had I heard of delegates at a Democratic convention surrounding a FOX floor reporter chanting; “Read the New York Times!” For these delegates, however, FOX was much more than another news organization: It was the one reliable island of honest news in sea of biased, distorted misinformation.
I ran across that same conviction often over the next several years. When I covered the massive Tea Party rally in Washington a few years later for CBS, many of the people I tried to interview turned me down for the same reason: “I’ll only talk to FOX.”
How did Roger Ailes achieve such devotion? At root, it flowed from one key fact: He approached his task not as a journalist, but as a political warrior. The years he spent helping Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush made him fundamentally different from those who had built every other broadcast news giant.
CBS News, for example, grew to prominence in the 1930’s, as Hitler was conquering Europe; ABC News became a major player when Roone Arledge used the network’s prime-time profits in the late 1970s to hire star talent and create new vehicles, most notably “Nightline.” CNN’s Ted Turner used the new technology of communications satellites to smash the broadcast network monopoly over long-range video transmissions.
Whatever the accuracy of the “liberal” bias criticism that began to be aimed at broadcast news, the mission of these networks—at last as understood by those of us who worked there—was very different. An example: I joined CNN the day the Monica Lewinsky story broke. Over the next year-plus, up through Clinton’s impeachment, I never had any sense that our coverage was being pulled, pushed, or even tilted in any one direction. I’d worked Democratic political campaigns a couple of decades earlier, but I can remember more than once offering a plausible case for President Clinton’s impeachment.
It was the singular success of FOX News that it convinced its viewers that those other networks, forged in the consensus of American postwar politics, were rigged for the Democrats, and FOX was the place for “fair and balanced” news. Ailes built a kind of feedback loop that strengthened the bonds between FOX and its viewers —enough of them to bring the network a billion dollars a year in profits. And the fact that its owner’s news empire was a fountainhead of conservative advocacy; the fact that its creator and boss had spent much of his life in the service of Republican candidates? That wasn’t a bug. It was a feature.
The network’s whole philosophy was forged in the crucible of conservative identity politics as they took shape in the 60s and 70s. It was Richard Nixon who embodied the resentment that ordinary “forgotten” Americans felt toward the cultural and political elites. It was Ronald Reagan who made an uncritical love of country a keystone of his appeal. It was George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign that made “liberal” a slur, effectively portraying Michael Dukakis as a card-carrying member of the soft-on-crime, furloughs-for-criminals American Civil Liberties Union. Ailes had helped these campaigns navigate the new tides of media, changing politics in the process. When he brought the sensibility of each of these political campaigns into the media, he changed the media.
He offered, in FOX, a constant reaffirmation of some core cultural assumptions. Did many of its viewers believe there was a secular culture eroding traditional values? Then cover the annual “War on Christmas,” decrying the “seasons’ greetings” trend. (And if the Bush White House used a similar phrase in its holiday cards—well, no matter.) Did permissive parenting lead to the decline of civil behavior? Then crank up another panel telling us to spank our children.
There was one more significant way that Ailes positioned Fox News in a manner unlike any other news organization. In just about every other place, journalistic mistakes and malpractice were dealt with openly. Jayson Blair’s fictitious stories in the New York Times, Janet Cooke’s non-existent young heroin addict in the Washington Post, CBS’s suspect documents about George W. Bush’s military service, CNN’s “Tailwind” story about the of nerve gas, Brian Williams’ war stories on NBC—all resulted in exhaustive investigations, mea culpas and the loss of jobs by anchors and top executives. FOX, by contrast, lived under the mantra: “never apologize, never explain.” Whether it was Bill O’Reillys “war coverage” (he saw pictures of atrocities, as opposed to on the scene witnessing) or Geraldo Rivera’s wartime whereabouts, charges of bad journalism were met by a battle-ready P.R. department’s scornful dismissal of biased liberal critics. (Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine was the subject of particularly intense pushback.) It may be no coincidence that this combative response to critics is a hallmark of the 45th president, whose campaign Roger Ailes advised both before and after his forced pasture as Fox News chief.
Ailes’s political instincts aren’t the only story behind FOX News’s success. There were and are real journalists who did and do yeoman’s work. Chris Wallace is the equal of any Sunday host; Bret Baier does an hour’s worth of news which, even if it does tilt right when it comes to panels, delivers a solid broadcast. Shep Smith, Carl Cameron, and many others would be at home at any network news operation.
But taken as a whole, from “FOX and Friends” in the morning to “Hannity” at night, the network Roger Ailes built provides a comforting bubble to viewers who cannot find their view of the world validated so thoroughly anywhere else on the airwaves. It turned out to be an exceptional business insight as well as politically astute. And if its creator, and then its most prominent anchor, were dispatched from the network for egregious personal misbehavior? Well, let’s just file that away.
Perhaps the best way to think about what Roger Ailes built is to recall a comment by a liberal US Senator some years back who found great comfort in watching the liberal rants of Keith Olberman, then on MSNBC. Why, I asked, after hours on Capitol Hill, would you watch an hour of political rhetoric?
Because, came the answer, “it’s like sinking into a nice warm bath.”
That’s just what Roger Ailes gave millions on the other side of the political spectrum.