I've said for quite a few years now that Fox News was making the douchebags and assholes among us into a mainstream demographic. And while a brilliant essay on so many levels, I will always cherish it for this brief synopsis of the social psychotic named Roger Ailes, who is single-handedly taking down America for his own amusement and enrichment.. Not for nothing does this scumbag travel in a 9-person security cocoon.
It is not just Fox News commentators but Fox News itself that has the appropriate, in-your-face, I’m-entitled-to-do-this,especially-because-you-dislike-it vibe. Which should not be surprising from a tightly controlled outfit in which everything flows from a single source, chairman Roger Ailes. Ailes has personal flaws that do not necessarily make one an asshole but that clearly shape the coverage, including his paranoia and his extreme politics. We find more telling evidence by considering the man in a happy moment, a victory lap. In an event celebrating Fox News’s success, Ailes said of the competing networks’ talent, as though sharing in the agony of their defeat: “Shows, stars, I mean it’s sad, you know? . . . I called and asked them all to move to the second floor wherever they were working. Because when they jump, I don’t want it to hurt.” By which he meant that he wouldn’t mind at all if his competitors not only lost the contest but felt humiliated enough to kill themselves. He meant of course to gloat but also to show his contempt. He meant to broadcast his contempt and to have a laugh about his being in a position to advertise it.
The comment was at least poor sportsmanship. A longtime practitioner of blood sport media politics, Ailes has emerged as its undisputed heavyweight champion. Politics is indeed a rough sport, but there are still boundaries that while crossed are nevertheless there, or sort of there. It is possible to have a minimal sense of respect among fellow sportsmen, seen as equals off the playing field, and even to display grace in both victory and defeat. Ailes’s comment suggests that he makes little effort at this, even as he does make an effort to draw attention to the fact that he cares not. He keeps it personal, on and off the court.
Ailes is a poor sport but not in a set contest fairly won. His main victory was to redefine the whole sport itself — that is to say, to redefine news. While American TV journalism has always walked a fine line between informing the public and satisfying media capitalism’s demands for viewers, ratings, and ad dollars, the line was more or less there, and it represented respect for what some regard as the fourth branch of government and a democratic society that depends on real news. Ailes obliterates that line with his “orchestra pit theory,” which he puts as follows: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?” The implication of course being that TV can and should cover the sensation rather than the substance, that it should move still further away from professional journalism and toward infotainment in a pure ratings contest. Fox News has changed the game and won, with an ever-thinner pretext of service. (It has very little actual news gathering and reporting staff; it freely crosses its own purported division between reporting and editorializing; and it now boosts for and even instigates protest movements and financially backs specific political candidates.) For its loyalty and attunement to its fans, it has been richly rewarded with outsized profits and unprecedented political influence.
If we ask why Ailes fought so long and so hard for all this, however, the answer is not simply the ample rewards. His victory lap comment also suggests fundamental contempt. It suggests contempt not just for his competitors but for a society of people who have always counted on news with a lot of information shaped by a good-faith attempt at impartial presentation. Our fundamental need in a democratic society, for each of us to make up our own mind, now goes unmet by the whole media environment. It reflects not the minds of equals deliberating together about what together to do but the tenor and voice of a single asshole’s mind.