Although Gabriel Sherman’s biography of FOX News President Roger Ailes (The Loudest Voice in the Room) was widely reviewed in January, it seems almost forgotten. Sherman’s exposure of the traditional media’s submission to Ailes’ news judgment is the likely reason, as editors wish the book and story would just go away.
When historians look back on the period from October 1, 2013-March 31, 2014, they will marvel at why the delayed startup of a website for Obamacare signups got dramatically more media coverage than the decisions by Republican Governors to deny Medicaid expansion to five million low-income Americans. But once historians recognize that Roger Ailes had FOX News provide saturation coverage of the former while largely ignoring the latter, the reason for the rest of the media’s troubling priorities becomes clear.
Ailes’ Historic Importance
The genius of Roger Ailes goes beyond his giving the Republican Party an entire news network to promote candidates and issues. This is no small accomplishment. FOX can have a candidate on daily, and/or endlessly promote Republican election positions in campaigns, without any of this being subject to limits on “campaign contributions.
More impressive is Ailes’ strategy for dictating news coverage for other traditional media organizations. He did this by converting interviews with Republican politician into a news story, and then “echoing” the politician’s comments through a succession of FOX shows.
After FOX gets through pounding a story for eight hours, other television news and newspaper editors begin asking why their reporters have not covered the issue. This turns a right-wing FOX story into a conventional media story. We saw a great example of this when the FOX-driven false attacks on ACORN succeeded in creating a media frenzy that put a longstanding social justice organization out of business.
Of course, there are issues, like Occupy, economic inequality, and the drive for a higher minimum wage, that secure widespread media coverage without FOX assistance. There are also FOX campaigns, like that targeting the New Black Panther Party, that fail to gain broader media traction.
But FOX influences what national political issues are covered by other media more than any other news outlet. And considering Ailes’ right-wing politics and the skewed demographics of FOX (disproportionately older white men), its disproportionate influence on overall media coverage should be the subject of open discussion on MSNBC and other supposedly “progressive” mainstream media.
Recommended for You
Ailes’ Anger and Paranoia
Sherman makes a powerful case that Roger Ailes is a paranoid, mean-spirited bully. He built a large “panic room” underneath his well-protected new home in bucolic Garrison, New York, having convinced himself he was a target for terrorists. He has surveillance cameras everywhere, and cut down trees surrounding his house for further protection. Ailes even bought up adjacent properties to create a buffer zone from the many terrorists allegedly eager to come to Garrison and attack him.
No wonder Ailes saw Benghazi as a full-scale war on the United States, and why FOX’s answer to every foreign policy question is to either bomb or invade. Yet other media follow FOX’s bellicose approach without hesitation, and without acknowledging its roots in Ailes’ own fears.
Sherman describes Ailes getting his political start with Richard Nixon. That makes perfect sense. Nixon was also deeply paranoid. And just as the anti-social Nixon was an unlikely person to be elected President, Ailes became the most influential media person of his time despite an inability to relate to almost everyone.
A Critical Resource
Readers of Sherman’s book will understand why President Obama should not have allowed FOX’s Bill O’Reilly to interview him before the 2014 Super Bowl. First, it gave mainstream legitimacy to a Republican media outlet. Second, it gave journalistic credibility to the non-journalist O’ Reilly. Third, by allowing O’Reilly to devote most of the interview to questions about FOX-created ongoing issues around Benghazi and the health care rollout, Obama gave legitimacy to the excessive coverage of both.
The latter point is the most critical. I think Sherman’s success at establishing FOX’s dominance over defining what’s news is alone why anyone who follows progressive national politics should read this book.
If you think you know how bad Ailes and FOX are, until you read this book you don’t know the half of it.
And considering Ailes’ monumental efforts to prevent this book’s publication, Sherman deserves a medal for completing it. And you can be sure that if anything in the book were not true, Ailes would have already sued Sherman.
I share Sherman’s conclusion that the rise of the Internet has weakened the power of FOX News. But daily newspapers and national television news shows are as dominated by FOX’s issue selection as ever, which remains bad news for all those who care about increasing social and economic fairness in the United States.