Friday, 19 May 2017


My obituary of Roger Ailes went up at the Guardian online last night (link to it here). It is pretty much as written, but trimmed down somewhat; I wrote it on short-order, as it were. Had they given me more time, I would have made it shorter, to paraphrase Pascal (apparently; thanks to my friend Linda Arnold for pointing out he got there first).

One thing that should be noted: Ailes did not create Fix News; he created it as it now is, and he persuaded Rupert Murdoch to make the key business decision that propelled it forward: paying cable networks (which are generally monopolies in their areas in free market America) to carry Fox News. Instead of cable companies paying Fox per viewer, as was the case with most channels, Fox paid them to put the channel on air. Without that manoeuvre,  Fox News might have languished because cable operators figured CNN (and MSNBC) were all their subscribers needed.

This was an obituary, and not political analysis, but I would have liked to show a little more clearly the ways in which his influence is still felt, not only in the USA. In the UK, when we discuss the impact of Lynton Crosby on British politics, the chatterati always trot out his 'dead cat at the dinner table' quote. But years before, Ailes had explained what he called the 'Orchestra Pit' tactic: "If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says I have a solution to the Middle East problem and the other guys falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?" His faith in the shallowness of media was rarely, if ever, proven wrong; in a way the greatest irony of his career is that it began when he challenged Richard Nixon's assertion that television is a gimmick, yet he proved over and over again how right the Trickster was.

And of course when you watch Theresa May campaigning, as per Lynton, to small carefully selected crowds, answering vetted question from carefully selected journalists (Crosby trusts British journalists to be as clueless as Ailes felt the general public were in America), and repeating 'Make Britain Great Again', oh, wait, it's 'Strong And Stable' it's as if Ailes were driving the battle bus.

Which is not to lessen the impact he had on America. You can see it watching the coverage of Trump: television tends toward simplifying issues into a dichotomy: good/evil, black/white, but Ailes turned TV news into a zero/sum game. Viewpoints have their partisan networks (as long as they make money: post-Ailes MSNBC has danced around trying to place themselves at various times as opposition or not, 'liberal' or not) and the once-major network news programmes stand afraid to 'take sides' lest they alienate their shrinking audience, which is even older than Fox's. But Ailes brought them the attitude that fear attracts people to the safety of their screens: crime and natural disaster, once reserved for the local news in areas they affected, are now the stuff of network news, balanced by entertainment info-nuggets to keep you watching. Like most of those who influenced the true baby-boomer generation (born say 1946 through 53-4) Ailes was slightly older, and recognised the resentment at the heart of the majority of that generation who felt abandoned by the cultural changes that came as a result of various liberations.

They were not liberations Ailes fancied: he was very much of that previous era, and his harassment problems were very much an aspect of that. His America was Ronald Reagan's dreamy fantasy of 1950s television shows, stay at home moms in dresses and aprons, the relations between boys and girls being one of power and forbidden fruit. Because that was what he grew up in, and observed from a house-bound perch.

There is an exceptional bio-film to be made here. Would that Sidney Greenstreet were still alive to play the older Ailes. Young Roger is truly a sad story; when he bit through his tongue his father had to drive him in a panic to Akron, as Warren had no doctors able to deal with it. Ailes nearly died, not for the first time. His relation with his parents nevertheless seems distant, perhaps he was too much a burden, a disappointment. That he channeled this into creating a world that you could link to his childhood imagination, one in which those with power, like himself, were protected from all harm, is a powerful image.

None of this was new. We'd known the essence of the game plan ever since Joe McGinnis published The Selling Of The President in 1969, but we've pretended that the game plan doesn't exist, and the Beltway punditocracy has no reason to admit that it does. Political commentary in America now is all about performance art, the way politicians appear to deal with things. It is never about issues, because it doesn't understand those issues, and the last thing people who do understand what issues really mean want is for their audience to share that understanding.

Tina Brown tweeted yesterday that Ailes was a great producer and raconteur, and it was wrong to judge him solely on the sexual harassment charges. I agree. He should be judged on the impact the things he produced: political candidates (Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, and behind the scenes, often with Giuliani, Trump) and political news. Though he was built like Goering, his legacy may well be as an American Goebbels, though luckily not in the service of a dictator.

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