Unfair and Unbalanced
He had a pretty good job for a young guy. Roger Ailes was the producer of the popular "The Mike Douglas Show," at the time based in Philadelphia and a pioneer in the field of daytime TV talk shows. But the 28-year-old Ailes had not had a national reputation until he suddenly became the star of a best-selling book. Joe McGinniss, also in Philly at the time, had quit his job as the young featured columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer to follow the campaign of Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race.
McGinniss was a liberal, but somehow he conned his way into Nixon's campaign, to which Ailes was the media adviser. Ailes had met Nixon through the Douglas show and bluntly told the future president that he did not understand the power of TV. Impressed, Nixon hired him. Joe McGinniss and Ailes hit it off, and the writer got a remarkable behind-the-scenes look at a very contrived made-for-TV campaign. A big part of the story was Ailes, who concealed nothing from the writer, including his often irreverent and highly amusing comments about his own candidate, and his cynical contempt for the intelligence of the American voter. Ailes designed a campaign in which Nixon avoided the legitimate press; instead, he appeared at mock town hall meetings filled with hand-picked supporters who asked questions which, while ostensibly sincere, were crafted for Nixon's prepared answers.
It all came out in the blockbuster book, "The Selling of a President – 1968," which made both McGinniss and Ailes familiar names, at least in political circles. The praise it earned Ailes as a political operator also hardened his conviction that news could be manipulated to present political propaganda as legitimate reporting. It was not a novel concept. The Nazis were pretty good at it decades earlier, but that was before TV. We know that McGinniss/Ailes story well. We wrote about both men during our days at Philadelphia magazine.
Ailes always seemed to have had a right wing bias; he thought liberals dominated the media, but for years, he was a hired gun. He worked a time for NBC and gave the ardently liberal Chris Matthews his first shot. But mostly, he consulted for Republicans, with notable success. He earned professional respect for helping Ronald Reagan conceal his growing senility and provided the grossly unfair racist ads, which propelled the first President Bush to the White House. But it was not until 1996, when he launched Fox News with Rupert Murdock's money, that his idea of a news organization devoted to conservative, mostly Republican values, became reality.
Twenty years later his success is obvious. Fox News is a leader in the news field. Until he recently got ousted for sexual harassment, Ailes made money Donald Trump would admire.
Roger Ailes’ concept has fulfilled his ambition of countering the liberal media bias with a "fair and balanced" network. He launched a corrupt propaganda machine with that patently dishonest slogan. To the surprise of almost all serious journalists, it worked. We wonder today how much 20 years of daily news distortion has molded U.S. public opinion to the extent that a Donald Trump, with all his crudeness, prejudice and ignorance of foreign affairs, can seduce such a large portion of the electorate.
Polls show he is most popular with white men without a college education. We feel certain most of that group are those who have given up newspapers, if they ever read them, and probably have little use for conventional NBC, CBS and ABC newscasts. But what surprises us is how many of our intelligent, college-educated friends also seem to prefer Fox's fair and balanced distortions of any story with political implications to the traditional news format established by such TV news icons as Edward R. Murrow, Huntley-Brinkley, Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid.
Die-hard Fox fans will point to MSNBC as the left-wing equivalent of Fox's right-wing filter. But there are differences. MSNBC does not deny its bias toward progressive opinion; it actually promotes it. But it also draws on NBC mainstream stars, such as Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams, to achieve a degree of balance. This week’s repeated harsh criticism by "Morning Joe" Scarborough about Hillary Clinton's (rare) Sunday interview on Fox regarding her email controversy is the kind of reverse form candor you rarely see on Fox.
Fox does present alternate views. It discovered that people fighting on camera pull better than undiluted propaganda. It also may be tired of being the butt of jokes by the real people in our business.
This rant appears after two weeks vacation in the North Carolina mountains, watching Fox every day, switching back and forth to other news channels for comparison. Some political stories are covered much alike, but the most important ones take on the Roger Ailes slant. One that stands out is the repeated economic refrain—the country is going to hell, and we need change. Growth is slow, wages stagnant. When people hear that day after day, they tend to start feeling sorry for themselves.
Fox does not mention that when President Obama took office, things were really scary. The stock market had collapsed. Sales signs dominated neighborhood lawns. The auto industry was in peril. Our magazine company sales dropped a full third in a matter of months. Executive salaries went down about as much. Now, friends, that was real trouble in River City.
Today, unemployment is low. The stock market is at record levels. Warren Buffett, who is entitled to an opinion, says things are pretty good. You may even hear some of that on Fox, but you have to listen fast. It won't last long.