“Talent is hitting a target that no one else can hit. Genius is hitting a target that no one else can see.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
Perhaps no other persons have had a bigger impact on American society and politics in our lifetime than Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. Murdoch is the swashbuckling, Australian turned American, billionaire who is the owner of News Corp and Roger Ailes is the president of its crown jewel, The Fox News Channel. Presidents have come and gone. Economic and foreign policies have risen and fallen but the names of those presidents and the shape of those policies have been forever colored by the Fox News Channel paint brush.
What Murdoch and Ailes did is prove to the arrogant elites, inside the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, that true socio-cultural-intellectual diversity works. And I’m not talking about the synthetic facsimile of diversity peddled by the stuffy, politically correct.
Roger Ailes, the creative mind behind FNC, proved that there is money to be made by listening, as well as talking. He showed that the public is not nearly as ignorant as some media executives imagine. He proved that the sense of outrage and insult at being “rolled” runs very deep. He touched a nerve. People long for “fair and balanced” and they know they aren’t getting it. And if it hasn’t always been manifest at FNC, well, at least the network recognizes the problem and “fair and balanced” is the goal. In the process, Roger Ailes made billions of dollars for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation and he changed America forever.
The Ailes formula is much more esoteric and complicated than at first appears. While the other networks relied on their monopoly, “you have to watch us, we are your only choice,” Ailes understood that the paradigm was changing with a vengeance, more and more, people had choices. It was now going to be a contest. It would be like electing a president, which meant coalitions pieced together, one by one. It was familiar ground for Ailes. His competitors didn’t stand a chance.
When most people think of Fox News, they think of its famous tilt to the right in the American battle between liberals and conservatives. In hindsight, the economics of such a strategy were obvious. Pew Research Surveys showed liberals out numbering conservatives in the main stream media by a ratio of 4 to 1. While most national polls of the American people consistently showed the ratios as 41% conservative to 21% liberal. Give Fox News a monopoly on the 41% and force her competitors to divide the remaining 21% among themselves and there would be a financial windfall in the making. But it was easier said than done.
The idea of bringing some political balance to the media and monetizing the process had been around for a long time. In 1977, conservative Republican billionaire, Rich DeVos, then on the Forbes list as one of the wealthiest men in the world, bought the Mutual Broadcasting System from Mrs. Benjamin Gilbert, the granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller. It represented a major shift of a prominent media property to someone new, someone outside the circle of the Eastern Elite. But DeVos was unable to use the network to influence events in any meaningful way. In 1985, Senator Jesse Helms led an attempt to buy control of CBS “and end the leftist bias.” He called the network the most “anti-Reagan” of all. The attempt failed and the networks only sought bigger owners and became even more entrenched.
The problem was in execution. And it was here that Roger Ailes succeeded where others had failed. He was a television Branch Rickey, touring the country, watching local television stations and monitoring radio talk shows to find his talent. Month by month, year by year, Ailes kept them coming through his farm club pipeline. When a personality had the looks or the brains but not the on-air experience he would use them sparingly, letting them develop, like sending Roy Campanella back to Montreal for a season to get some confidence.
Perhaps his greatest impact was not overtly political but socio-cultural. While seeking to be exclusively secular, the main stream media had long been perceived by many in the country as blatantly anti-Christian.
At one point the atmosphere at ABC, then commonly referred to as “Anybody But Catholics,” became so tense that their talented network news anchor, Peter Jennings, decided to personally step in and solve it. Jennings hired a Christian reporter, Peggy Wehmeyer to help report for the network and in 2000, Jennings embarked on an intellectual journey “In Search of the Historic Jesus.” But the network was so ignorant of the political-cultural traps of a sub culture it had so long ignored that it easily fell prey to manipulation, stirring up a hornets’ nest among its viewers.
“Poor Peter,” George Smiley’s ex-wife, Ann, would have said, “Life is such a puzzle to you.”
The problem is that the network’s anti Christian bias had been hidden in plain sight for years. 400,000 people in the flesh would watch the Indianapolis 500 Mile race, see Jim Nabors sing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” hear the Catholic Bishop pray over the courageous drivers and Mrs. Hullman announce, “Ladies and Gentlemen start your engines.” But when they got back home to watch it all replayed on ABC television the prayer was always censored out. Even today, if one Goggles the key words, “ABC TV and Christians,” one will read all about the pilot for their new series “Good Christian Bitches.”
After 9-11, CNN ran a much heralded documentary “God’s Warriors” which implied that there was little difference between Islamic terrorists in the Middle East and Christian and Jewish fundamentalists in the United States. Even today, the various networks persist in this version of “religiously-correct.” The idea is to treat the issue of faith, if it must be addressed at all, fairly and equally and to do this right in the middle of the war on terror. This sometimes results in ridiculous news footage from wars in Africa where the viewers are forced to Goggle for information since the journalists won’t reveal the sides, lest it be forced to mention that one is Islamic or Christian. The famous Who, What, When, Where and Why of news is replaced with mysterious scenes and vague reports that show nothing beyond the flashing faces of starving, dying people. The producers will not let their own journalists sputter out what is really going on. News is no longer news, if it ever had been.
Once again, the numbers were a no brainer for Roger Ailes. 76% of the nation considered themselves to be Christian. One half of one percent were Islamic. Give a media outlet an uncontested monopoly on the 76% and force its competitors to divide the remaining .5% among themselves is a winning formula every time.
Meanwhile, if the other networks treaded gently with Islam, never offending or making assumptions about the whole because of the actions of the few, they had no trouble stereotyping the whole Catholic Church when the pedophile scandals erupted. All of the networks piled on. FNC too, reported the story for what it was, but without editorializing against the whole religion. It gave the embattled, dazed, faithful a home. Kaching, another 25% of the nation for Fox. Only two modern presidents have been elected without the Catholic vote. “You don’t want the Catholics?” Ailes will take them, thank you.
Then there were the born again Christians, representing 48% of the American population. Yet many of their writers and public figures virtually banned by the television networks. Twenty-two years ago my agent was told by one of the networks that I couldn’t be used as a historian because of my born again, Christian background. Of course, the network in question couldn’t have actually known what I believe about God and life. I haven’t decided all of that myself. How could they know? Just the accident of my birth, was enough to disqualify me.
The complicated effort of the various network sports departments to scrub Christian activists from unfurling their “John 3:16” banners at football games amounted to a ten year, gargantuan, multimillion dollar – legal effort, involving teams of lawyers, mountains of paperwork, contracts with the stadiums and teams of personnel to pull it off.
Roger Ailes would laugh at such angst. “You want to stake me with a 48% advantage? Okay. You don’t want half of America? I’ll take the born againers too.” Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch bought the hot evangelical Christian publishing house Zondervan.
Nowhere did this battleground become more lopsided than with the battle over Christmas.
My own college roommate became a popular playwright for one of the television networks. He wisely kept his faith a secret. One year he was given the assignment to write a script for a Christmas movie with the strict admonition that he could not mention the name Jesus. It was a corporate taboo.
While other networks banned the words “Merry Christmas” out of respect for the 2.2% of the country who are Jewish, and simply said instead, “Happy Holidays,” Ailes fearlessly honored them both, making a special point for his network to declare a “Merry Christmas” to the 76% and afterward, for good measure, a respectful “Happy Hanukah” to the 2.2. He should probably have thrown in a hearty “Ho, ho, ho” to the executives of the other networks who seemed clueless, bound in their strait jackets, unable to budge from their lethargy, unable to believe the numbers they were reading, still pretending that they were operating a monopoly. It was their job to decide what to telecast. It was our job to watch and listen.
Finally, I suppose, this tour de force would not be complete without a comment on the wars. Roger Ailes owned the wars. Any war. All of the wars. While some of the other networks, for example, pretended to be transcendent in the war on terror, noncombatants, loyal to the higher god of journalism, Roger Ailes was shamelessly patriotic and American. Viewers who wanted to feel good about themselves found a home at FNC.
And what about those who want the wars to end? What about the Ron Paul people and the Libertarians? At first, all of the national media, Fox included, spurned them. It would have been a colossal contradiction for Fox to have it both ways, for and against the war. In the recent South Carolina GOP debate, CBS, relegated Ron Paul to 89 seconds of time in the first hour of debate. The network later justified its decision by polling, which actually showed Ron Paul as third among the GOP contenders and beating Barack Obama among independents. Even non Libertarians winced at the treatment.
Ailes has been watching all of this for months. Like a good defensive player who sees a loose ball on the field, Fox News smartly picked it up and ran with it. Don’t want the Libertarians? 14% of the country? Really? Well, okay, if I must. Kaching. Ailes took them. He put them in the Fox Business News Ghetto, where they will have to do a lot of heavy lifting. But at least it’s a home. And with Ron Paul now soaring in Iowa and New Hampshire FNC is finally giving him air time in the major leagues as well.
From the beginning Ailes artfully used sex, humor and provocative headlines to win viewers. You don’t need a remote control when you watch Fox News. Roger Ailes does that for you. It’s addictive. It’s fun. One can just sit and relax and watch him play out the long stream of promos, staying in your seat, watching the shifting Kaleidoscope of four minute segments, on the economy, on a political race in Ohio, on that Hollywood scandal, on the alligator that got lose in a Georgia neighborhood, on the earthquake in Alaska, waiting for the promised story about the mother who got fired from her job in California for changing her baby’s diaper in public.
According to Neilson the top 13 programs in cable news all air on Fox. It has 48% of the prime-time cable-news market, compared to 17% for CNN or MSNBC. If there was a race, a contest, it is over. If there was a war it has been won. Fox News is close to $1 billion in profit for the last fiscal year. It has crushed its rivals.
I take some humble pride in the fact that I saw all of this back in 1988, when I worked for Roger Ailes as one of his shill’s in the presidential practice debates for George H. W. Bush. I saw his genius. When the election was over I strongly advocated that Ailes be brought into the White House and serve in the inner circle. I argued that the presidents five minutes on the evening news should be carefully plotted and choreographed by a master and it was more important for governing and moving legislation than all the other hundreds of paper shufflers in the White House combined. I was convinced that Ailes could change how the country was governed. My argument did not succeed. But in the end Roger Ailes did indeed change how the country was governed and more profoundly than he ever could have done in a West Wing office.
Abraham Lincoln once said that the Union, the North, had the men, it had the industry, it had the supply. If he could just find a general who could understand those numbers, if he had a general who could get the math, then that general could win the Civil War. Rupert Murdoch, the colorful, inventive owner of News Corporation found his general in Roger Ailes. And yes, he gets the math. And yes, he won the war.