The news business was never all that dignified. Before he did all those famous old west drawings and paintings and bronze cowboys, Frederic Remington did sketches for magazines and newspapers, back when photography was still cumbersome and slow and expensive. He was the “cameraman” on the scene. Joseph Pulitzer had purchased the New York World in 1883 and he had his illustrators, and made a ton of money. News is better with pictures. And there was money to be made. William Randolph Hearst began looking for a New York newspaper to purchase and bought the New York Journal in 1895, and he hired Remington. Hire the best – and from 1895 to about 1898, Hearst and Pulitzer tried to outdo each other with sensational news stories, much of which was nonsense. That was the golden age of yellow journalism – long before Drudge and Breitbart and the National Inquirer – but the Spanish-American War presented a problem. It didn’t look like there was going to be one. At one point Remington telegrammed Hearst to tell him all was quiet in Cuba and “There will be no war.” Hearst responded “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Hearst denied it all. There’s no evidence of any such telegrams – but it’s a good story. Hearst was going to publish tomorrow’s headlines today! Joseph Pulitzer would be left in the dust. That epic battle is at the core of Citizen Kane – Orson Welles was the perfect hyper-aggressive Hearst, the man who would create the truth, damn it! And he would get damned rich doing it!
That’s the dream. Pierce Brosnan as James Bond stops a modern William Randolph Hearst – or maybe it’s Rupert Murdoch – in Tomorrow Never Dies – and it was to be thermonuclear war this time, to increase circulation, to create the truth and rule the world. The bad guy, a clearly psychopathic media mogul, even quotes William Randolph Hearst. It’s a hoot, even if all the echoes of Fox News are a bit disquieting. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes probably didn’t like that movie. But that’s the dream.
That was Roger Ailes’ dream. In 1967, Ailes, who was producing the Mike Douglas Show, had a long discussion about television in politics with one of the guests, Richard Nixon, who thought television was a gimmick. Nixon, however, listened carefully and then asked Ailes to serve as his Executive Producer for Television. Maybe there was something to this television thing. Nixon’s 1968 election victory might have been Ailes’ doing – he worked hard to make the very odd Nixon more likable and “accessible” and maybe even cool in his own way. That story is told in The Selling of the President 1968 – Joe McGinniss tells how Ailes made Nixon one of the good guys again. That wasn’t easy, but that could be done, and then he did that for George H. W. Bush, and years later, in February 1996, Roger Ailes left America’s Talking (now MSNBC) to start the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch.
The job was the same – make the angry conservative stiffs the good guys again. Ailes could do that and Fox News launched on October 7, 1996, and they’ve been working on that ever since. They would create the truth, damn it! And they would get damned rich doing it! And they might even take over the world.
And that is going well. That’s what Jane Mayer reports in The Making of the Fox News White House:
In January, during the longest government shutdown in America’s history, President Donald Trump rode in a motorcade through Hidalgo County, Texas, eventually stopping on a grassy bluff overlooking the Rio Grande. The White House wanted to dramatize what Trump was portraying as a national emergency: the need to build a wall along the Mexican border. The presence of armored vehicles, bales of confiscated marijuana, and federal agents in flak jackets underscored the message.
But the photo op dramatized something else about the Administration. After members of the press pool got out of vans and headed over to where the President was about to speak, they noticed that Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, was already on location. Unlike them, he hadn’t been confined by the Secret Service, and was mingling with Administration officials, at one point hugging Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security. The pool report noted that Hannity was seen “huddling” with the White House communications director, Bill Shine. After the photo op, Hannity had an exclusive on-air interview with Trump. Politico later reported that it was Hannity’s seventh interview with the President, and Fox’s forty-second. Since then, Trump has given Fox two more. He has granted only ten to the three other main television networks combined, and none to CNN, which he denounces as “fake news.”
That’s the tease that sets the scene for this main point here:
Hannity was treated in Texas like a member of the Administration because he virtually is one. The same can be said of Fox’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch. Fox has long been a bane of liberals, but in the past two years many people who watch the network closely, including some Fox alumni, say that it has evolved into something that hasn’t existed before in the United States. Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor of Presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the author of “Messengers of the Right,” a history of the conservative media’s impact on American politics, says of Fox, “It’s the closest we’ve come to having state TV.”
Hemmer argues that Fox – which, as the most watched cable news network, generates about $2.7 billion a year for its parent company, 21st Century Fox – acts as a force multiplier for Trump, solidifying his hold over the Republican Party and intensifying his support. “Fox is not just taking the temperature of the base – it’s raising the temperature,” she says. “It’s a radicalization model.” For both Trump and Fox, “fear is a business strategy – it keeps people watching.”
But it’s more than that:
As the President has been beset by scandals, congressional hearings, and even talk of impeachment, Fox has been both his shield and his sword. The White House and Fox interact so seamlessly that it can be hard to determine, during a particular news cycle, which one is following the other’s lead. All day long, Trump retweets claims made on the network; his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, has largely stopped holding press conferences, but she has made some thirty appearances on such shows as “Fox & Friends” and “Hannity.” Trump, Hemmer says, has “almost become a programmer.”
That’s what her twelve thousand word item is about – showing how this happened, after Trump was elected and Roger Ailes was fired and then died. Things change:
“I know Roger Ailes was reviled,” Charlie Black, the lobbyist, said. “But he did produce debates of both sides. Now Fox is just Trump, Trump, Trump.”
And there’s this:
Greta Van Susteren believes that Ailes’s departure posed a huge challenge for his successors: “It’s like what happens when a dictator falls. If you look historically, when you get rid of a Saddam in Iraq, or a Qaddafi in Libya, the place falls apart.”
The celebrity opinion-show hosts who drive the ratings became unbridled and unopposed. Hannity, as the network’s highest-rated and highest-paid star, was especially empowered – and, with him, so was Trump.
And there’s this:
At the height of the Tea Party rebellion, Ailes reprimanded Hannity for violating the line between journalism and politics. Hannity had arranged to tape his evening Fox show at a Tea Party fund-raiser in Ohio. When Ailes learned of the plan, only hours before the event, he demanded that Hannity cancel his appearance. According to a former Fox executive, Ailes then blew up at Bill Shine, who had authorized Hannity’s trip. “Roger was livid, and ripped the shit out of Shine,” the former executive says, recalling that Ailes yelled, “No one at Fox is shilling for the Tea Party!”
Afterward, Shine released a statement criticizing Hannity’s actions. And Murdoch, at a panel about the news, expressed a similar view, saying, “I don’t think we should be supporting the Tea Party or any other party.”
That’s not what others saw:
Fox News has in dozens of instances provided attendance and organizing information for future protests, such as protest dates, locations and website URLs. Fox News websites have also posted information and publicity material for protests. Fox News hosts have repeatedly encouraged viewers to join them at several April 15 protests that they are attending and covering; during the April 6 edition of Glenn Beck, on-screen text characterized these events as “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties.” Tea-party organizers have used the planned attendance of the Fox News hosts to promote their protests. Fox News has also aired numerous interviews with protest organizers. Moreover, Fox News contributors are listed as “Tea Party Sponsor[s]” on TaxDayTeaParty.com.
That’s a political operation, but Mayer reports more than that:
Trump has told confidants that he has ranked the loyalty of many reporters, on a scale of 1 to 10. Bret Baier, Fox News’ chief political anchor, is a 6; Hannity a solid 10. Steve Doocy, the co-host of “Fox & Friends,” is so adoring that Trump gives him a 12.
That’s odd, but so is this – Murdoch asked Trump to have US intelligence investigate whether his ex-wife was a Chinese spy and so is Fox News reportedly killed Stormy Daniels story to help Trump win – and so forth.
And then there’s Matthew Yglesias with other detail:
A Fox reporter named Diana Falzone had pieced together the entire Stormy Daniels story before the election, but network executives killed the story, demoted her, and then, after she sued them, reached a settlement with her that included a nondisclosure agreement.
“Trump ordered Gary Cohn, then the director of the National Economic Council, to pressure the Justice Department to intervene” and sue to block AT&T’s proposed takeover of Time Warner. (The DOJ did sue, though they denied this was due to improper interference from the White House, and ended up losing in court.)
“During the Bush Administration’s disastrous handling of Hurricane Katrina, Fox’s ratings slumped so badly, a former Fox producer told me, that he was told to stop covering it.”
That’s not much of a news organization, and Yglesias adds this:
A study by Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimates that watching Fox News translates into a significantly greater willingness to vote for Republican candidates.
Specifically, by exploiting semi-random variation in Fox viewership driven by changes in the assignment of channel numbers, they find that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008. Without Fox, in other words, the GOP’s only popular vote win since the 1980s would have been reversed and the 2008 election would have been an extinction-level landslide.
And there’s this:
Fox is not the only thing out there. The Sinclair Broadcast Group is not a television network in a traditional sense. Instead, it’s a company that owns a disparate bunch of local television stations affiliated with all four major networks. But Sinclair does exert centralized control over the “local” television news broadcasts. And research from Martin and his colleague Josh McCrain found that when Sinclair buys a local station, its local news program begin to cover more national and less local politics, the coverage becomes more conservative, and viewership actually falls – suggesting that the rightward tilt isn’t enacted as a strategy to win more viewers but as part of a persuasion effort.
It would be ridiculous, of course, to argue that absent conservative propaganda broadcasting, Republicans would never win an election. What would happen, instead, is that in order to avoid constantly losing, Republicans would need to do more to bring key aspects of their policy agenda in line with public opinion and display less indifference to the prevalence of scandal-plagued individuals in party leadership.
Of course that’s never going to happen, so there’s this:
On one level, everybody knows that television news is a big deal, everyone knows that Fox News is the most widely viewed cable network, and everyone knows that there is a complicated interrelationship between Fox and the GOP that is qualitatively different from the relationship between the Democratic Party and any media outlet.
But this relationship is rarely taken seriously enough in the analysis of American – or even global – politics.
It’s commonplace, for example, to treat the contemporaneous and narrow electoral victories of Donald Trump and Brexit in the United States and United Kingdom as revealing some important, deep-seated truth about the nature of global capitalism. An alternative explanation, however, is that Rupert Murdoch is a very powerful person in both US and UK media and he intervened decisively to put the Trump and Brexit phenomena over the top.
So here’s the plan:
If true, lancing the boil of this particular destructive form of nationalism requires less a broad rethinking of the foundations of politics and more specific focus and the ability of a handful of propagandists to decisively alter the course of events.
The past two or three years have seen a very intense social and political focus on the phenomenon of “fake news” spreading digitally on social media platforms. But while fake news is obviously not desirable, the evidence for its practical impact has been relatively slight compared to the evidence that mass opinion has been manipulated by traditional television broadcasting.
In short, fix the media – neuter it – because there’s no fixing Trump or anyone else out there. The news business was never all that dignified, but it can be – and maybe it has to be. Someone has to stay calm and rational these days. No one in the government is going to do that anymore, so another Edward R. Murrow would be nice. You know, don’t worry about creating the truth, just report it and carefully explain it, until it sinks in. But that may be asking too much.