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How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory

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Fox & Friends is where the smear about Obama having attended a madrassa was first broadcast, with Doocy – an Ailes lackey from his days at America’s Talking – stating unequivocally that Obama was “raised as a Muslim.” And during the campaign, the show’s anchors flogged Obama’s reference to his own grandmother as a “typical white person” so relentlessly that it even gave Fox News host Chris Wallace pause. When Wallace appeared on the show that morning, he launched a rebuke that seemed targeted at Ailes as much as Doocy. “I have been watching the show since six o’clock this morning,” Wallace bristled. “I feel like two hours of Obama-bashing may be enough.”

The Obama era has spurred sharp changes in the character and tone of Fox News. “Obama’s election has driven Fox to be more of a political campaign than it ever was before,” says Burns, the network’s former media critic.“Things shifted,” agrees Jane Hall, who fled the network after a decade as a liberal commentator. “There seemed suddenly to be less of a need to have a range of opinion. I began to feel uncomfortable.” Sean Hannity was no longer flanked by Alan Colmes, long the network’s fig-leaf liberal. Bill Sammon, author of At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election, was brought in to replace Moody as the top political enforcer. And Brit Hume was replaced on the anchor desk by Bret Baier, one of the young guns Ailes hired more than a decade ago to inject right-wing fervor into Fox News.

Most striking, Ailes hired Glenn Beck away from CNN and set him loose on the White House. During his contract negotiations, Beck recounted, Ailes confided that Fox News was dedicating itself to impeding the Obama administration. “I see this as the Alamo,” Ailes declared. Leading the charge were the ragtag members of the Tea Party uprising, which Fox News propelled into a nationwide movement. In the buildup to the initial protests on April 15th, 2009, the network went so far as to actually co-brand the rallies as “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties.” Veteran journalists were taken aback. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a news network throw its weight behind a protest like we are seeing in the past few weeks,” said Howard Kurtz, the then-media critic for The Washington Post. The following August, when the Tea Party launched its town-hall protests against health care reform, Fox & Friends urged viewers to confront their congressmen face to face. “Are you gonna call?” Gretchen Carlson demanded on-air, “or are you gonna go to one of these receptions where they’re actually there?” The onscreen Chyron instructed viewers: HOLD CONGRESS ACCOUNTABLE! NOW IS THE TIME TO SPEAK YOUR MIND.

Fox News also hyped Sarah Palin’s lies about “death panels” and took the smear a step further, airing a report claiming that the Department of Veterans Affairs was using a “death book” to encourage soldiers to “hurry up and die.” (Missing from the report was any indication that the end-of-life counseling materials in question had been promoted by the Bush administration.) At the height of the health care debate, more than two-thirds of Fox News viewers were convinced Obama­care would lead to a “government takeover,” provide health care to illegal immigrants, pay for abortions and let the government decide when to pull the plug on grandma. As always, the Chairman’s enforcer made sure that producers down in the Fox News basement were toeing the party line. In October 2009, as Congress weighed adding a public option to the health care law, Sammon let everyone know how Ailes expected them to cover the story. “Let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option,’” he warned in an e-mail. “Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance’ ... when­ever possible.” Sammon neglected to mention that the phrase he was pushing had been carefully crafted by America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s largest lobbying organization, which had determined that the wording was “the most negative language to use when describing a ‘public plan.’”

The result of this concerted campaign of disinformation is a viewership that knows almost nothing about what’s going on in the world. According to recent polls, Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers. They are 12 percentage points more likely to believe the stimulus package caused job losses, 17 points more likely to believe Muslims want to establish Shariah law in America, 30 points more likely to say that scientists dispute global warming, and 31 points more likely to doubt President Obama’s citizenship. In fact, a study by the University of Maryland reveals, ignorance of Fox viewers actually increases the longer they watch the network. That’s because Ailes isn’t interested in providing people with information, or even a balanced range of perspectives. Like his political mentor, Richard Nixon, Ailes traffics in the emotions of victimization.  

“What Nixon did – and what Ailes does today in the age of Obama – is unravel and rewire one of the most powerful of human emotions: shame,” says Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. “He takes the shame of people who feel that they are being looked down on, and he mobilizes it for political purposes. Roger Ailes is a direct link between the Nixonian politics of resentment and Sarah Palin’s politics of resentment. He’s the golden thread.”

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