Saturday, March 15, 2014

Crazy like a fox

Ailes with Count Murdoch

According to a recent book, The Loudest Voice in the Room,  Roger Ailes parlayed his experience at NBC into Fox News, thanks to the deep wallet of Rupert Murdoch, who was willing to underwrite this venture in the formative years, 1996-2002.  Ailes had a dispute with the conservative NBC top brass over the newly launched MSNBC and pitched the idea of a 24/7 news channel to Murdoch, who didn't seem to need much convincing.  Murdoch put $200 million behind the network, essentially buying space on cable that gave Fox News an early advantage.  That was all Ailes needed to reach his intended audience -- a disgruntled, largely white elderly electorate who didn't feel they were getting the straight news from the existing broadcast news providers.

Gabriel Sherman meticulously charts Ailes' rise to power, and how the media news mogul has both helped and hurt the GOP, notably in his insistence to present highly contentious political figures that don't reach across the political spectrum.  For Ailes, it doesn't seem to matter as long as Fox remains King of the News Hill.  Sherman describes Ailes as having enter the King Lear phase of his life, himself 72 years old.

Much of Ailes' success has come from seeing news as entertainment, essentially co-opting the conservative radio format of volatile pundits and opinionated news anchors who are guaranteed to incite reactions.  He initially teamed up with Joseph Coors in a failed bid to launch a similar cable news network, but the timing wasn't right back in the 70s, and he seized his opportunity in 1996 when things went sour with NBC.

Looking a bit like Hitchcock with Baba O'Reilly

He has turned radio shock jocks into television celebrities like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck (who oddly enough started out at CNN).  According to Sherman, Ailes set the tone, offering a distinctive format that was unheard of on television before 1996.  He even gave television news the "crawler" at the bottom of television screens.  It seems there wasn't a detail Ailes didn't overlook.

Alas, this highly volatile form of news that had stood Republicans in good stead for almost two decades, seemed to blow up in their faces in 2012 when they failed to unseat Obama after one term in office.  Ailes had literally made it his mission to defeat Obama by putting just about every would-be GOP presidential candidate on Fox's payroll between 2008-2012, starting with the feisty Ms. Palin.

Sherman says it was this media overload than killed the Republicans.  Their early hit in the 2010 midterms, when the Republicans were able to take back the House failed to materialize in a 2012 national victory, largely because their brand of news does not extend far beyond its narrow viewer base.  This led the RNC to ponder afterward if they should rethink their strategy, relying less on demagoguery and more on a softer message that might lure back some of the women, Hispanics and Asians they lost to Obama and the Democrats.

Rove and Bush: the early years

Unfortunately, the GOP is still letting the windbags call the shots, largely because they now have so much pull that even a master strategist like Karl Rove finds himself odd man out, despite having been the only man to engineer a successful Republican presidential victory in the last 22 years.

The book is probably more than most anyone can take, but the review by Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books gives you all the pertinent details.

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