What Fox News Taught Us About America
By JP Lindsley
Many were outraged when the Emmys’ annual in memoriam segment included Roger Ailes. After all, he resigned as Fox News chairman in disgrace last summer amid a huge sexual harassment scandal. But whether we want to admit it, Ailes’s impact on us is deep and wide, a crater on our national psyche. The Emmys are about the power of television, and in a moment of deep subconscious self-critical honesty perhaps they had to acknowledge his influence.
Ailes, who died in May, was once my mentor. As Politico reported Sunday, ”Ailes’ relationship with Lindsley was all the more extraordinary because the late Fox News chief didn’t cultivate protégés—he decapitated them." Well, one day I quit and he set out to ruin me. But I survived. And as the specter of aspersion and hatred washes over America, as Ailes hovers over our discourse, we need to examine the merits of his phenomenological genius for images. Was this power inherently bad? From Hollywood to Madison Avenue, mastery of images is highly prized. Consider even the cathedrals of the middle ages, and how the stained glass and statues influenced millions. Like Michaelangelo, P.T. Barnum, Apple, or David Ogilvy, he had a gift to create narratives that compel us.
Starting as a young producer at a Cleveland station, Ailes helped the Mike Douglas Show become a nationwide hit. Then, making the unpalatable palatable, he showed Richard Nixon how to use television to win the Oval Office. Soon he was in the White House setting up the first broadcast between the earth and the moon. In the 1980s, he fed Reagan a debate zinger successfully deployed against Walter Mondale, and he pushed George H.W. Bush to go hard and mean against helmet-wearing Michael Dukakis. Later Ailes became president of CNBC, and then he started what became MSNBC.
With the 1996 launch of Fox News, the mantra, “We report, you decide,” resonated with a wide swathe of America that felt ignored by CNN and the broadcast networks. Eventually Fox made half a billion dollars a year for Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.
But as I saw during my time working closely with Ailes, underneath his mastery of images and mottos was a heart of aggressiveness. He deemed ferocity essential to protecting and expanding his business. This aggression, often manifested as vindictiveness, infected Fox News and seeped into the bloodstream of our national discourse. Ailes could slap labels that stuck on people and policies regardless of accuracy. He claimed to despise the Rules for Radicals devised by leftist Saul Alinsky, but he followed those rules fiercely. We report, you decide meant “we craft the narratives, you follow our lead.” Ailes did not listen. He told.
This was not journalism.
The foundation of journalism is asking questions, listening, and only then telling stories. But because Ailes’s Fox was so successful, journalists and regular Americans alike have subconsciously followed his narrative-first, truth-whatever lead. Ailes often called himself the ringleader of the circus that was Fox’s talent, but he was actually the circus master of American discourse. We shout, we yell. We do not listen. We invite Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow into our living rooms more often than we welcome our neighbors. We permit the media masters to suck our attention away from the lives around us into the infinite vacuum of breathless always-breaking entertainment masquerading as news.
Can we walk America back from the edge of the cliff? Plato warned us to watch out for the poets, those who are “great in the empty eloquence of fools.” Our national narrative crafters, however crass, are our poets. They hold sway over us, and they profit when we are all divided into two tribes who hate each other. Our task is to figure out how to create a discourse not rooted in aspersion-casting and opinion-spewing and then to wrap it in a shiny motto that sells.
The aftershocks from Ailes’s impact will continue. Of course he was featured in the Emmys tribute. Now, we need to examine why he became so influential. How do we communicate with each other, how do we create the news, and how do we consume the news?
Whether we are journalists in D.C. or guests at a dinner party in Oshkosh, we should all start our national rehab not by telling, but by listening. Well before Twitter, Mark Twain said a “lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” How much quicker can lies spread now? In a world that is driven by memes and narratives and images, how do we resist? In my extreme case, when I left Ailes's world I banned myself from voicing opinions about controversial topics for a year. I needed A Year of Shutting Up to change my bad habits.
How about more than “we report, you decide.” What will be our motto? More deeply, what will be our ethos? I am asking. Let us talk.
JP Lindsley is the author of the forthcoming Fake News, True Story, available for pre-order at Inkshares.