As the clock ticks down in the last days of the US election, it’s already clear who one of the losers has been.
Just who will be the next president of the United States isn’t the point here. Mitt Romney should have been a shoe-in from August. This should have been the unlosable election for him, riding the wave of roiling economic problems, disappointment in the incumbent and general disenchantment among voters.
It should have been a walkover. Instead his campaign has shown signs of becoming a victim of dysfunctional pressures within the party, which have pulled him in ways which may have made him unelectable even before his knack for political gaffes.
If and when Romney goes down—or even if he squeaks home—the post-mortems will begin immediately. It’s a whodunit mystery. Who killed off the GOP?
When it comes to finding people to blame, expect a cast of many. But some of the hardest questions need to be directed at Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, and his boss, Rupert Murdoch. Their role here is not a minor one.
It’s impossible to talk about US right-wing politics without talking about News Corporation. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages are two of the leading Republican voices, both controlled by Murdoch—though control is perhaps too high to put it these days.
Today, caught in the drama of an election campaign, the American media seems to have little purchase in finding the questions to ask about Fox News, or even to recognise the lethal effect it has had on the American right.
I sat down to write briefly about this effect based on some reinterpretation of data about Fox News coverage produced by The New York Times. It was one of those efforts that the Times does exceptionally well as a process, which does not necessarily reflect in the quality of the end result. I thought they had missed the story.
In looking at the figures, however, and how they came about, I realised that they were part of a broader narrative of how US mainstream media covers Fox News. There is a story behind the story, which says much about how Ailes has managed to keep his mainstream critics wrongfooted in the last 16 years as they struggled for a meaningful way to talk about Fox.
Most of the criticism levelled at Fox News comes from the Democrats. They argue with some force that Fox determined the outcome of the cliffhanger 2000 presidential race when George Bush’s cousin, who was a Fox News commentator, called it inaccurately in Dubya’s favour late on election night.
It’s hard to imagine Bush committing to the Iraq invasion in 2003 without determined support from Fox News. Ditto for the rise of the Tea Party. And of Glenn Beck.
But Fox’s effect on politics has arguably been more damaging for Republicans. By now it’s an effect that has become such a part of American politics that it goes almost without remark.
For a time last year deconstructing Ailes was a media fascination. Rolling Stone covered on him (Tim Dickinson’s “How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory” http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/how-roger-ailes-built-the-fox-news-fear-factory-20110525 ) as did Esquire (Tom Junod, “Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America” http://www.esquire.com/features/roger-ailes-0211 ).
David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt’s book The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine will be published next February while Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room: Fox News and the Making of America is due out next May.
The 2011 coverage painted Ailes as the most evil man in the Murdoch empire—at least until the UK hacking scandal exploded in July last year and Ailes clearly lost his mantle.
While it lasted, the game was clearly to focus on Ailes the man, rather than trying to tackle the effects of Fox News, a la Robert Greenwald’s film Outfoxed.
It was a neat inversion. Rupert Murdoch has always said if you want to understand my character, my thinking, look at News Corporation. The approach here was to look at Ailes as a way of explaining the cable news channel he had created.
In a sense this shift was an acknowledgement of defeat. Fox News has exerted a powerful effect upon American politics. It has been much analysed, criticised and derided—OutFoxed is the textbook diatribe—but by ignoring it all Fox News had carved out a position which seemed beyond challenge.
Hence the change of target.
Playing the man, however, is probably even more of a losing proposition with Ailes, because he does it so much better in response.
Tom Junod (who wrote the Esquire story and don’t think Roger is going to forget it) is “a little bit of whack job”, Ailes said in an address at Ohio University last May. “He’s a nice guy, but you know, his father left the family and he thought I was his father I think, and he started writing strange stuff that didn’t make any sense.”
That’s mild compared to Ailes’ sentiments towards the ancient enemy, the New York Times. At Ohio he confined himself to calling the Times “a cesspool of bias” and “a bunch of lying scum”.
When consulted later, Ailes’ people said he wasn’t calling everyone at the Times lying scum—actually he had someone in mind. Apparently that was Metro investigative reporter Russ Buettner.
It’s something of a badge of distinction for Buettner, to be the journalist who has managed to get under Ailes’ skin most successfully—though the Fox News chief seemed hopelessly confused in his account about what Buettner did and didn’t do.
Buettner’s pursuit of Ailes reflects the broader tension between writing about the political effects of Fox News coverage, and the aroma of potential scandal surrounding Ailes.
Some background: Buettner joined the New York Times in 2006 from the Daily News, where for years he had pursued corruption allegations against the head of New York City’s Department of Correction, Bernard B Kerik, who became George W Bush’s nominee as secretary of Homeland Security after 9/11.
The Kerik angle would resurface in November 2007 when Buettner reported that book editor Judith Regan was suing News Corporation for $100 million for defamation after she was fired the year before for making allegedly anti-semitic comments.
Part of the 70-page lawsuit filed in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan referred to a tape she had of a phone call in 2004 in which a senior News executive urged her to lie to federal investigators about an affair she had with Kerik after 9/11, in an apartment set aside for rescue and recovery workers at ground zero.
Regan claimed that News had long sought to promote the political ambitions of former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani, who had given Kerik a series of promotions before Kerik became a business partner at Giuliani Partners.
“In fact, a senior executive in the News Corporation organization told Regan that he believed she had information about Kerik that, if disclosed, would harm Giuliani’s presidential campaign,” the lawsuit said. “This executive advised Regan to lie to, and to withhold information from, investigators concerning Kerik.”
Regan did not name the News executive. Two months later News settled the lawsuit by paying Regan $10.75 million with a confidentiality agreement.
It was an open secret in media circles that the unnamed media exec was Roger Ailes, but no one could say so.
It would be another three years until Buettner confirmed that Ailes was the mystery man, in an article in the Times that quoted yet another lawsuit after Regan’s lawyers sued her. Kerik by this time had been jailed for corruption.
The story was an alluring one. However, the tape of Regan’s alleged conversation with Ailes has never surfaced, and the story has never gained any traction as a result.
But from mid-2007, when the stories about the lawsuit Regan was preparing began to percolate, the cutting edge of writing about Fox News in New York was about tying Ailes to Regan’s claim.
It’s in that context that Buettner in mid-2007 ran one of the most comprehensive studies I have seen, charting the political bias of Fox News.
The research came from political website “The Hotline”, which had set out to track “face time”: the amount of time in the previous six months that the 18 Democrat and Republican candidates had appeared on NBS, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox or MSNBC.
It required a serious commitment of resources to put together. Some 3,363 minutes of interviews were tallied, and the Times ended up with a table showing how each of the 18 candidates had fared in terms of air time, being interviewed on the six networks, excluding news reports or taking part on panels.
Naturally they transformed this into a bubble diagram. The bubbles were quite modest affairs if you judged them by the bubbles favoured by the Guardian, for example. But it had Serious Graphic written all over it.
If you looked at the bubbles that marked the Fox News Coverage, clearly the large red bubbles for Republican candidates overwhelmed the small blue bubbles for Democrat candidates. The largest of these red bubbles was for Rudi Giuliani.
Buettner had his story, which began, “Roger Ailes and Rudolph W Giuliani have been pulling for each other for nearly two decades.”
Ailes had been media consultant to Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign in 1989, Giuliani had officiated at Ailes’ wedding, and his intervention as mayor had helped beat a move by Time Warner to block carriage of Fox News when it launched in 1996.
What did all of this Ailes/Guiliani bonhomie mean? Not very much on its face. But to New York media insiders it would have had a particular significance.
It was an open secret that Judith Regan’s lawyers were working on her lawsuit against News Corp. When it was filed after some delays three months later with its explosive claim about Ailes, it was Buettner who would break the story.
It’s tempting then to speculate that back in August 2007, Buettner was setting up the groundwork to show links between Ailes and Giuliani which would provide a context for Regan’s claims.
If this was the case, the extensive survey of face time by The Hotline provided merely a pretext to write a story linking the two men. That would reduce it to an exercise in inside baseball by the New York Times. But there was more going on with these figures.