Jon Klein, the former head of CNN's U.S. division, argues in The Washington Post that the Internet didn't divide the American media into warring tribal fiefdoms -- it was Roger Ailes:
When the network launched in 1996, few realized that Ailes had hatched the prototype news organization of the 21st century: information with attitude; facts yoked to a point of view, the more provocative the better; a tribal vibe, outsiders unwelcome and openly scorned. The Internet did not, as is so often alleged, usher in the siloed media environment in which we find ourselves today and likely forever. Ailes did that — by proving that there is money, influence and power to be found in serving well-defined interest groups instead of trying to please the widest possible audience.
I don't agree with Klein that the "siloing" is across the board -- Pew found in 2014 that liberals were getting their news from a number of sources, while conservatives loved Fox. What he's describing is happening to some extent on the left, but it's pervasive on the right.
What’s more, by unreservedly infusing news with a right-of-center agenda, Ailes popularized the notion that all journalists are biased. “At least we’re honest about who is offering opinion, unlike CNN,” Ailes would often say.
I don't think that's correct. The message of Fox is: All journalists except ours are biased. Bret Stephens, in a New York Times op-ed, writes, "In moments of candor, Ailes would admit that his network’s real motto, as he saw it, was to be 'fair and balancing.'" But it's clear that his audience didn't believe that. Other news sources aren't skewed or biased -- they're lying, according to loyal Fox fans. Fox tells the whole truth (except when traitors like Megyn Kelly do the bidding of the Establishment).
Of course, keeping an audience of millions on a footing of constant alert for many years has the effect of stoking anxiety on a national scale. Solutions are rarely forthcoming; problems are never solved; few officials or institutions can be trusted.
The Fox message is that victories generally aren't even victories, because what really matters is the war against conservatives' enemies, which is never-ending. Recall Fox in George W. Bush's first term -- even when he could be portrayed as a triumphant war president, Fox was still watching the horizon for signs of domestic dissent, and if it wasn't coming from Democrats, then it was time to turn Dan Rather or Barbra Streisand or some college professor into the enemy of the day.
And as Klein notes, that was Roger Ailes expressing his own sense of unrelieved -- and unrelievable -- grievance:
... [We were] at Michael’s, the restaurant of choice for Manhattan’s media elite....
We were at Roger’s table, No. 4 — the best one in the house, a corner with a commanding view of the entire room.... he was trotting out his standard case about the lack of respect he received in New York, despite his immense professional accomplishments. “They think I’m this rube from Ohio,” he said. “They all look down their noses at me.” Roger was having trouble making his point, though, because of the parade of well-wishers who kept interrupting to shake his hand, kibitz and flatter. Eventually, I couldn’t resist stating the obvious: “Kind of undermines your point, doesn’t it? Half this restaurant is kissing your ring.” “Yeah,” he replied without irony. “But they hate doing it.”
Ailes's audience eventually voted for a president who can never be satisfied with the amount of adulation he receives, and who's in a state of permanent war with his enemies. In that way, Trump is just like Ailes.
Bret Stephens, in his column on Ailes, blames Fox for harming conservatism:
What Fox is mainly in the business of doing is hating the left. In the manner of Ailes himself, its convictions stem from its resentments — and shift accordingly. It is sympathetic to military intervention when the left is against it (Iraq) and hostile when the left is for it (Libya); anti-Russia when President Obama was reaching out to Russia, pro-Russia when Obama started getting tough on the Kremlin.
More recently it has discovered the virtues of economic nationalism and the evils of “globalism” in the service of the Trump electorate.
All this makes for a terrific business model — a matter of being attuned to the changing tastes and inclinations of your core audience. But it also means that the network Ailes built was never a vehicle for conservative views.
I'm not going to get into an argument with Stephens about what is and isn't conservative. But I'd say that the attitude at Fox -- and now throughout the right -- is that the primary criterion for judging any political deed is: How much does this piss off liberals? That's true even when the goal seems to be the advancement of conservatism as Stephens would define it. Conservatism doesn't matter as much as winning the battle. (The war, alas, can never be won.)
For all their flag-waving and talk about making America great again, conservatives don't really care about America. They care about fighting with us. Fox helped teach them to think that way. And now they have a president with the same attitude.
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog