Ailes, the spin-man from Nixon to Bush: a war machine takes the stage
Giancarlo Bosetti 29 July 2016

Roger Ailes is a character who deserves as much attention as Karl Rove. Less well-known, he is a person about whom people say, “he needs enemies like a tank needs fuel”, whether they are CNN competitors, a journalist who leaves to join another network, or progressive or democratic “wimps”. Ailes is one of the American public discourse’s main providers and therefore also of discourses all over the world. He is a continuous and well-organised provider of militancy “against”, of what I have called “thought-for-the-enemy”. He also brings together the history of spin with that of commercial television.

The powerful Roger Eugene Ailes, born in 1940 in Warren, Ohio, president, CEO and undisputed head of Fox News ever since it was founded, was Richard Nixon’s communications’ consultant in 1968,  Ronald Reagan’s in 1984 and Bush Sr.’s in 1988 (and in Europe he also helped out Chirac in 1995) [1]. Does anyone remember the tale told by McGinnis, the journalist who had ‘infiltrated’ Nixon’s staff of spin-doctors to report on how apparently spontaneous television shows in which candidates answered questions from the public, were in realty prepared in advance and based on a script? Well, Roger Ailes was one of those who wrote those scripts and invented the trick. It was he who was one of the sources of the famous, previously mentioned essay-scoop entitled The Selling of the President, 1968. While others never found the courage to confirm this, Ailes instead fully confirmed McGinnis’ story, adding his name and surname. Ailes said that the candidate was a media disaster, a man who already looked 42 when he was a child; he was boring and furthermore looked like someone who had just spent a late night in a storage closet, with crumpled clothes, and with that stare, expected to rush into a television studio and announce “I want to be president”, (that was why once elected, Nixon did not ask Ailes to work for him). It was necessary to persuade someone like that to change, to create a new personality, to invent carefully chosen questions posed by carefully selected “ordinary citizens” disguised as “improvised” answers. Only such as format would allow him to appear at his best since, au naturel—Nixon was really not presentable.

“The challenge (cooperating with Nixon’s team) was more to me,” Ailes told McGinnis. “It had nothing to do with politics. In fact, all my work with Nixon had nothing to do with politics. It was a media problem. It wasn’t a political problem.” Fox and Ailes have the chronic habit, however, of shamelessly lying about their political orientation. Ailes, in fact, was part of Ronald Reagan’s team in the 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale and in 1988 helped Bush Sr. to succeed Reagan by defeating Mike Dukakis.
The idea was that it would be necessary to erase Bush’s image as a “wimp” and squash Dukakis with a negative advertising campaign, one of the harshest ever created; so it was the Democratic candidate who became a progressive, elitist “wimp”, pro-tax, pro-criminals, pro cuts to military expenditure. Ailes’ pattern was always the same; attack and destroy. And to destroy Dukakis he used a pounding and disreputable advertising campaign that compared him to the African-American criminal, Willie Horton, who had committed murder while temporarily released from prison to undergo rehabilitation as established by the law in Massachusetts (the state where Dukakis has been Governor).

Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch and there is no doubt that there is some truth in what the famous CBS journalist Dan Rather had to say about him, stating that “Mr. Murdoch has a business, a huge worldwide conglomerate business. […] There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s a free country. It’s not an indictable offense. But by any clear analysis the bias is towards his own personal, political, partisan agenda.” This, however, applies to Fox just as it applies to the British tabloid The Sun, or the Sky satellite channels. There is something more specific about Fox, there is an overall “tone” in the Republican, patriotic militancy that has intimidated the rest of the American press since 9/11.

This has been emphasised by Todd Gitlin, Columbia University’s scholar of American television [2], when he observes that Ailes’ talent is percussive and that “Fox News has a tone. The tone is what it delivers. The tone is urgency—crashing noise. Occasionally, this entails interesting debate. More likely, it entails bluster… Fox’s greatest influence is felt in Washington. I find it hard to believe many Fox viewers believe Bill O’Reilly is a ‘no-spin zone,’ or ‘We report. You decide.’ It’s a joke. In Washington it reinforces the impression of ‘we happy few who are members of the club. It emboldens the right wing to feel justified and confident they can promote their policies.”

And Fox News’ ‘tone’ is all the work of Ailes; his is the style of those deciding who are the political or media enemies in order to destroy them. His is the style of the great CEO who joins in the fray and gets his hands dirty every time it is needed. When pacifists protested outside Fox headquarters, instead of vanishing, he reacted, ordering that the electronic news ticker that wraps around the building should state “Attention protesters: The Michael Moore fan club meets Thursday at a phone booth at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street.” It was he who described the ongoing clash with CNN as a “holy war”, it was he who, never acknowledging and often denying this with appropriate wording, wanted journalism with a conservative slant and reported by journalists who must also have conservative tendencies “with no exceptions”.

The famous O’Reilly Factor had three million viewers, which, during the War in Iraq, rose to seven million, but  Ailes decided to go for something even more ambitious: he wanted to change the perception of what is mainstream, the centre of the media flow. “I think the mainstream media thinks liberalism is the center of the road. I really think that they don’t understand that there are serious people in America who don’t necessarily agree with everything they hear on the Upper East Side of Manhattan”, hence New York’s wealthiest and most exclusive district. Presenting liberalism as a lewd luxury for sophisticated consumers of caviar tarts is a fundamental aspect of the tone used by Ailes, an aspect that came in very useful in the days of Chirac, when the French president (1995) vanquished the socialists by addressing working-class issues and relying on workers’ votes.

Fox’s fortunes increased with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but its decisive moment came with the Iraq War. Fox News, as Ken Auletta writes, was the only television channel that instead of following or “covering” the war, went to war, thereby defining its identity.

(…)

With these and other innumerable means, Fox News moved the perception of the centre to the right, making the so-called elite press (this threshold has moved and been lowered significantly) seem a stronghold of progressiveness, hence one of leftism, pacifism and radicalism. According to Ailes’ language, the weekly magazine Newsweek is an anti-Bush bulletin published by the National Democratic Committee; Dan Rather is a journalist at the service of Iraq. This persuasive process consists of continuously attacking, never being on the defensive, because it is aggressive talent that brings up the ratings.

In order not to allow oneself to become overwhelmed by the ideological pressure, it is best at times to stop and check; re-measure the real political distances. A BBC News manager— another planet compared to Ailes and Rove—observed that while it is true that Fox has drawn other news outlets to the right, it is difficult to justify this repositioning as A consequence of the fact that old networks were progressive: “It’s hard to see Viacom (owner of CBS) or GE (owner of NBC) as advocates of the international left. The increasing concentration of US media ownership is squeezing out independent voices, and there is no liberal version of talk radio or the Wall Street Journal or the Murdoch empire. It’s telling that Franken and Michael Moore [3] have achieved their greatest impact outside TV and radio, through books or film. The test for broadcasters and governments is to ensure there is a similar range of voices in the electronic media.” [4]

[1] Denis Sieffert et Michel Soudais, “De l’UMP au PS: la tentation américaine”, Politis, December 9th 1994.

[2] Interviews with Dan Rather and Todd Gitlin by Ken Auletta, “Vox Fox”, op. cit.

[3] Al Franken is the author of Lies and the lying liars who tell them, Michael Moore is the director of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.

[4] Roger Mosey, BBC News manager “The right to be wrong”, The Guardian, October 11th 2003

Translated by Francesca Simmons