Roger That

It was the best of times, in the worst of times. College in the late sixties was quite a trip – hippies and Vietnam and the riots in the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, after the assassination of Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy, and then Woodstock and the Beatles breaking up and the election of Richard Nixon. No one was studying anything, really – there was too much going on – and those were the days when college wasn’t utilitarian anyway. Everyone kept changing majors, as this suddenly seemed far more interesting than that. College wasn’t trade school after all. Back then, college was for discovering all sorts of cool stuff – new and interesting stuff. Of course there were those who started off in Pre-Med Chemistry and graduated in Pre-Med Chemistry and were off to med school, and then became doctors and who are doctors still. Others became lawyers, just as they intended, and there were young women who went to college to find the right husband, and did, and who are happy grandmothers now – but they were out of step with the times. The rest of us happily bounced around from one enthusiasm to the next. Some even became philosophy majors.

Philosophy majors were cool. They got to study the cool stuff like epistemology – the various theories of how we know what we know, if we know anything at all, which we may not, unless we do. That may seem like useless noodling, but that gets to the core of things. The world is endlessly surprising, unless you live in Pittsburgh, and it’s often hard to know what to believe, or who to believe, about anything. Add a few courses in formal logic, with a special emphasis on logical fallacies, and you’re all set – you’ll know what the hell is really going on in the world, or know what you can’t ever know. Yes, there are times when your best guess will have to do, but at least it will be an informed guess. You’ll know when you’re just guessing. Philosophy majors knew how to cut through the bullshit, or should have. That didn’t always work out for the best, as they were an odd lot. Philosophy majors never got the girl. They thought too much.

There should have been more thinking back in the sixties, however. Back then, in the days of massive turmoil, how we knew what we knew of what was going on the world, if we knew anything at all, which we may not have known, unless we did, was what we learned from one of the three evening network news shows – supplemented, perhaps, by what was in the newspapers and weekly news magazines. Not everyone read those, so there wasn’t much there, and what was there was filled with fallacies. Is something true if it is asserted by an authority? Philosophy majors know there’s not necessarily any truth there, but for most Americans back then, if Walter Cronkite said it was so, on the CBS Evening News, it was so. Others might turn to Abbie Hoffman or Eldridge Cleaver, or Billy Graham – but Walter Cronkite was who everyone really trusted. Then he did something odd. On February 27, 1968, Cronkite, returning from covering the Tet Offensive, told America there was no way we’d ever win in Vietnam – the best we could hope for was a stalemate. That’s why Lyndon Johnson is said to have said – “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

If something is true if it is asserted by an authority, we had lost Vietnam – but we fought on for five more years. That’s when America got acquainted with the sunk-costs fallacy – we had to keep fighting on, with more of our troops dying for no good reason, because if we left that would mean those who had died already would have died in vain. No, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Any philosophy major could tell you that. Any philosophy major could also tell you that’s how we knew what we knew about what was going on in the world was epistemologically screwy. We don’t know much, and what we think we know probably just ain’t so. There’s not enough to go on.

Walter Cronkite retired in 1981, the year after Ted Turner had started CNN, which flooded America with news twenty-four hours a day, which is a lot to go on. That was on cable too, not on the broadcast networks, whose nightly news shows are now pretty much irrelevant. Things changed, but for the better – if you wanted to know what was really going on in the world there was plenty of pre-fallacy raw material right there, all day. It was still filtered on CNN – some things were covered as Very Important while other things were mentioned only in passing, or not covered at all, but there was more of it. The odd thing is that one member of the team that Ted Turner recruited to start up CNN was a philosophy major many of us knew back in college in the late sixties, Rick Brown, who who in charge of booking and coordinating all the satellite-feed stuff and much more at CNN for many years. Who says a degree in philosophy is useless?

Actually, it is. Epistemology was never an issue at CNN – just covering everything. On the other hand, that’s an epistemology too. They were into that we-report you-decide stuff long before Fox News made that their slogan – and Fox News was never serious about that.

Fox News launched on October 7, 1996 – late to the game, but playing another game. After the announcement of Microsoft and NBC’s partnership to create an online and cable news outlet, MSNBC – America’s Talking wasn’t working out for NBC – Roger Ailes left NBC and was hired by Rupert Murdoch to create Fox News Channel for his News Corporation, and Ailes was an odd duck. He’d been the media advisor for the Nixon campaign in 1968 and a consultant to Ronald Reagan the 1984 campaign – he helped to coach Reagan in the second presidential debate with Walter Mondale, as if it mattered that year. In 1987 and 1988, Ailes also worked closely with the quite nasty Lee Atwater to help George Bush, the first one, in the Republican primaries and then in defeating Michael Dukakis in the general election, which wasn’t that hard. Ailes denies producing that famous Willie Horton ad – the face of the convicted rapist furloughed by Michael Dukakis scaring the hell out of everyone in America. Some believe his denial, some don’t, but he’s still running Fox News, which has buried CNN and MSNBC. Rick, the former philosophy major, has some cool stories about working for and with Roger Ailes here and there in the days before Fox News, and if memory serves, they’re all stories of a somewhat nasty by quick-witted man with an agenda. Roger Ailes will use any logical fallacy available to advance the conservative cause that he’s always advanced. “Fair and Balanced!” That was the slogan he chose. It was a statement of defiant anger. The liberals have had their way too long, bamboozling America with their nonsense – maybe Walter Cronkite started that back in 1968 with his anti-American defeatist crap – and he’d offer all of us how he saw things, which is how everyone should see things, damn it. It’s enough to make a former philosophy major weep, or giggle, although the philosophy major in this case just shrugged and went on with his job.

Ailes really had become The Loudest Voice in the Room – which is, in fact, the title of the new Roger Ailes biography by Gabriel Sherman. There had been a rather intense campaign to discredit Gabriel Sherman’s unauthorized biography of Ailes, perhaps for good reason – Sherman reports that Ailes agreed with Glenn Beck’s claim that President Obama has “a deep-seated hatred for white people” and thinks that Navy SEAL guys should “have to personally kill an illegal immigrant” as part of their certification, and he may have offered an employee a salary increase if she would have sex with him on demand, and Ailes once called a rival executive “a little fucking Jew prick” – which offers a sense of the man.

That’s personal stuff, or it isn’t:

Beck’s show built on Ailes’ playbook, making the culture wars personal. He seemed, to many, to be Fox News’s id made visible, saying things – Obama is a racist, Nazi tactics are progressive tactics – dredged from the right-wing subconscious. Beck crossed lines that weren’t supposed to be crossed, even at Fox, and the presentation – childlike, angry, often tearful – was as remarkable as the content. Some at Fox were alarmed by Beck’s rhetoric but Ailes was fully on-board. Privately, Ailes said Beck was telling the truth. The day after Beck said on air that the president has a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” Ailes told his executives, “I think he’s right.” The only question was how to manage the fallout. It was decided Bill Shine would release a statement. “Glenn Beck expressed a personal opinion which represented his own views, not those of the Fox News Channel,” it read. “And as with all his commentators in the cable news arena, he is given the freedom to express his opinions.” [The Loudest Voice in the Room, p 334]

How do we know about the world? That would be through the cable news shows now, and things are odd at Fox, or not that odd, according to Jill Lepore in The New Yorker:

In the nineteen-thirties, one in four Americans got their news from William Randolph Hearst, who lived in a castle and owned twenty-eight newspapers in nineteen cities. Hearst’s papers were all alike: hot-blooded, with leggy headlines. Page 1 was supposed to make a reader blurt out, “Gee whiz!” Page 2: “Holy Moses!” Page 3: “God Almighty!” Still, you can yank people around for only so long. Wonder ebbs. Surprise is fleeting. Even rage abates. In 1933, Hearst turned seventy. He started to worry. How would the world remember him when he could no longer dictate the headlines? Ferdinand Lundberg, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, was beginning work on a book about him; no one expected it to be friendly. Hearst therefore did what many a rich, aging megalomaniac has done before and since: he hired a lackey to write an authorized biography, preemptively. …

William Randolph Hearst needed a mouthpiece; he couldn’t trust an actual biographer – he was convinced that most people who wrote serious books for a living were Communists. In the fall of 1934, he ordered his editors to send reporters posing as students to college campuses, to find out which members of the faculty were Reds. Many of the people Hearst thought were Communists thought Hearst was a Fascist. This charge derived, in part, from the fact that Hearst had professed his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. It was easy to despise Hearst. It was also lazy.

Lepore is arguing that Ailes isn’t a monster, only complicated:

“You don’t get me,” Ailes told Sherman, when they met at a party. “You don’t get me” is what Fox News viewers across the country have been saying to the Washington press corps since the channel started, and fair enough. Still, in the end, the overturning of American journalism hasn’t served their interests, or anyone’s. Well-reported news is a public good; bad news is bad for everyone.

Sherman sees Ailes as a kingmaker, which isn’t entirely convincing. Ailes is an entertainer. He’s also a bogeyman. Raymond Gram Swing noticed that Hearst was largely a projection of his readers: “If he ever indulges in introspection his tragedy must be in seeing that for all his power, for all his being the biggest publisher in the world, he is not a leader, never has been a leader and never could be a leader.” Hearst died in 1951. Between 1952 and 1988, an era marked by the Fairness Doctrine (and, according to conservatives, a liberal media), Republicans won seven out of ten Presidential elections. Between 1988 and 2012, during the ascendancy of conservative media, Republicans won only three out of seven Presidential elections. When Mitt Romney lost, Ailes blamed the Party. “The GOP couldn’t organize a one-car funeral,” he said. Another explanation is that the conservative media drove the Party into a graveyard.

William Randolph Hearst needed a mouthpiece because he couldn’t trust an actual biographer, and found one, as did Roger Ailes – see Roger Ailes: Off Camera – published last year. Sherman’s book arrived to blow that fluff away, but there’s Isaac Chotiner in the New Republic:

Sherman is so awed by Ailes’ skills that he ends up overstating his influence, and taking Ailes’ own narrative too much for granted. “Roger Ailes has the power, more than any single person in American public life, to define the president,” he writes in his prologue…. Ailes has certainly revolutionized television news, but winning audience share is a far cry from winning the White House…

Sherman quotes Ailes saying in 2010, “I want to elect the next president.” And: “If there was anyone who could deliver on such a boast, it was Ailes.”

Sherman sticks to this belief, even though the picture his reporting draws doesn’t really support it. Ailes couldn’t stand Romney, who didn’t have an easy ride on Fox News, but the former Massachusetts governor nevertheless won the Republican nomination in 2012; Ailes tried to convince Chris Christie and David Petraeus to run, to no avail; and the portrait Ailes sketched of Obama for over four years was not nearly entrenched enough to keep the president from handily winning re-election.

Despite liberal paranoia over the effect that Fox News has, the rise of Fox has changed the Republican Party: it’s more close-minded, more anti-intellectual.

So there’s no point in getting too upset here:

The idea that we live in a country where Roger Ailes – or any television executive – can decide who is president is horrifying. Fortunately, we don’t. Roger Ailes will go down in history as a disturbed genius who is indeed the loudest voice in the room. But even the loudest voices can be tuned out.

Sure, but David Carr in the New York Times just likes the juicy details:

Mr. Sherman’s book is a thoroughly reported look behind that curtain, describing Mr. Ailes’ operational aggression, but there is nothing in it that is off brand or inconsistent with what we’ve learned about Mr. Ailes over the years. He is who we think he is.

Part of the reason he and his allies have campaigned against the book is not because it is false, but because it tells a true story. Mr. Ailes has run Fox News as a political operation from the start, enthusiastically serving as a kingmaker in Republican politics. After all, the man in charge of the Fox News decision desk for the highly contested 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore was John Ellis, a cousin of Mr. Bush’s. According to Mr. Sherman’s book, as vote totals in Florida crept in on that fateful night, Mr. Ellis got off the phone at 2 a.m. and exclaimed, “Jebbie says we got it!” The walls between the respective estates have never been thinner than that.

The book portrays life at Fox News as occasionally brutal, run by a leader Mr. Sherman describes over and over as paranoid.

My favorite line comes in an account of the very fraught morning meetings Mr. Ailes runs. The goal was not to become the focus: “If you move, will the T-Rex see you?” said one attendee.

But none of this worries him:

As Mr. Sherman writes near the end of his book, Mr. Ailes discovered that “television and politics were different disciplines.” Fox News doesn’t need a working majority, it does not have to govern or compromise, it does not need to do anything other than win enough ratings to stay on top. But in the last election, Mr. Ailes conflated his two passions to damaging effect. He gave jobs to many Republican candidates, offered oodles of advice to them, and provided hundreds of hours of airtime for the cooking and serving of conservative red meat. With an economy in shambles and a foreign policy that was all over the road, the incumbent seemed vulnerable. But that was before the conservative fringe, with a big assist from Fox News, all but kidnapped the Republican side of the argument.

In Mr. Sherman’s book, Mr. Ailes is quoted by fellow Fox News executives as saying, “I want to elect the next U.S. president.” It could be argued that he succeeded, although it wasn’t the candidate he wanted.

Oops – but Jacob Weisberg, curiously, sees more than politics at play here:

Working for “The Mike Douglas Show,” a daytime variety program, in the 1960s, Ailes climbed quickly up the greasy pole from $68-a-week prop boy to executive producer. He played a jagged-edged game of office politics, to be sure, but also benefited from the unexpected candor he directed at the talent. At one point, he brought Douglas to the brink of tears when he told him he’d been too sycophantic toward Sammy Davis Jr. The 27-year-old Ailes used Richard Nixon’s appearance as a guest in early 1968 as an opportunity to let the presidential candidate-in-waiting know that he badly needed a media adviser, and to offer his services.

Ailes applied his talk-show expertise to humanize the “New Nixon.” He presented the candidate in flattering, phony town-hall settings, fed him jokes and warned cameramen never to shoot him from above. …

In Sherman’s telling, Ailes was driven more by money than by any fixed set of political beliefs. As late as 1972, he was willing to work for Democrats. Putting out his shingle as a theatrical producer, he brought an eco-musical called “Mother Earth” to Broadway for the briefest of runs. He took Robert Kennedy Jr. to Africa to make a wildlife documentary and staged “The Hot l Baltimore,” a Lanford Wilson play about down-and-outs. His identification with the right was mostly a matter of opportunities. One was a job working for TVN, a Joseph Coors-backed attempt to create a conservative news alternative that served as a dry run for what Ailes did two decades later at Fox. Another was producing attention-getting, often dishonest attack ads for Republican Senate candidates like Dan Quayle, Phil Gramm and Mitch McConnell. Ailes continued to deploy frankness as a comparative advantage in finding work. “Jesus, nobody likes you,” he told Alfonse D’Amato on their first meeting. “Your own mother wouldn’t vote for you. Do you even have a mother?”

All that is to say that Ailes is a driven man more into process, not into any particular outcome, not that he and Fox news aren’t angrily conservative:

The respective weight of Fox’s ideological and commercial motives remains a topic for debate. Manufactured indignation (the “War on Christmas,” “Obama’s Czars,” “the Ground Zero Mosque”) drives viewership, especially when performed for a mostly male audience by leggy blond anchors. At one level, Fox’s victimhood pose is obviously disingenuous; Murdoch has always played the outrage game to drive circulation and ratings. His most valuable player, on the other hand, seems to be genuinely seething with resentment, often at his friends as much as his enemies. Another pattern of his is to build up Frankenstein monsters, like Beck, Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, and then decry their ingratitude. Fox’s populism is so clearly an expression of his authentic feelings that it’s hard to see it as purely cynical.

How valuable is Ailes’ wrath to Murdoch? With Fox News generating $1 billion a year in profits, valuable enough for Ailes to win a power struggle with Rupert’s son Lachlan, who fled to Australia in defeat. What he is not is a strategic conservative thinker. Intent on helping Republicans take back the White House in 2012, Ailes effectively sabotaged them by giving unlimited airtime to fringe figures like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Herman Cain during primary season. Having weathered this freak show through the primaries, Mitt Romney couldn’t shake the Fox News taint.

Thanks goodness the man is incompetent – but still, he does have an agenda. This is not like the Walter Cronkite sixties. Everyone trusted Walter Cronkite because he didn’t seem to have an agenda, as Lyndon Johnson knew all too well. We got our bare-bones news from him and from a few other sources, and we asked no epistemological questions about how we knew if any of it was even true. Now we get ten thousand times more news each day, and given the sources, we have to ask that question of everything. Where are those philosophy majors when you need them? That wasn’t a useless degree after all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Roger That

  1. Rick says:

    Okay, given the fact that so much of this column today was about me, what I say below seems to hopelessly miss the point. Still:

    “Epistemology was never an issue at CNN – just covering everything.”

    Actually, although they don’t call it that, epistemology is an important part of almost every decision made by journalist.

    When it comes to reporting something important, are you willing to go on record, on your own authority, that what somebody tells you is true? Have they been what you’d call a “reliable source” in the past? And even if they are, could they be wrong this time, in which case you end up with egg on your face? Maybe you need to hear it from a second source, but if so, you need to make sure one of your sources didn’t just hear it if from the other one. When it comes to trusting sources, you can never be too careful.

    One of my favorite stories of very early CNN (and I saw this happen, as it unfolded) was our going live with a phone call from someone in some city where this big explosion had just taken place, and so the anchor was asking what they were seeing right now, and they said something like, “I see lots of smoke and people running back and forth!”

    So the anchor then asked the caller how far from the action he was, and the guy said roughly six miles. Then anchor asked, you can see it from your house? And the person answered, “From my house? No, no, I’m too far away for that! I’m seeing it on television! I’m watching it happening on CNN!”

    But no, journalists don’t need a course in epistemology to know who and what to trust; they just need to get burned a few times, which comes only from real-world, on-the-job experience.

    But in fact, although I suppose I’ve found my college philosophy sort of useful, I rarely tell anybody I got my degree in philosophy, any more than I tell anybody I took four years of Spanish, for fear they’d think I could speak the language.

    (And no, at this time, I have nothing to add about my days working for Roger Ailes. Maybe some other time.)

    Rick

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