When someone dies, it’s good manners to say something nice. But Roger Ailes is truly a challenge.
The founder of Fox News, who died last week, was a broadcasting pioneer who arguably influenced American politics more than any individual in the last 50 years. That sounds nice — as long as you airbrush the rest of his legacy. Truth is, his right-wing propaganda shop monetized “alternative facts” long before Trump; by stoking white-guy anger and cratering our political divide, Ailes and his fake-fact coterie sowed the seeds for Trump. Now we’re reaping the whirlwind.
And how fitting it is that as the Trump-Russia scandal gets worse, Trump’s Pravda keeps scrambling to change the subject. (Sample chryrons: “Trump’s Pledge to Police” and “Clinton Foundation, Where Is It Now?” and “Tim Allen’s Show Cancelled” and “White House Under Assault,” with commentary by Ted Nugent). How fitting it was, last week, that as the Ailes obituaries poured forth, Fox tried every conceivable trick to disinform. With each new revelation (Friday’s gem: Trump told the Russians that James Comey was “a nutjob,” and that firing Comey eased the scandal pressure), Fox got more and more panicky.
Ailes, who served as Fox chairman until he golden-parachuted last summer amidst allegations of serial sexual harassment, used to say that he loved to “create some bullshit.” Well, his legacy lives on. Basically, the Fox audience (in Ailes’ words, “guys who sit on their couch with the remote all day and night”) is currently being told that the Trump-Russia scandal isn’t nearly as insidious as the summer ’16 murder of a young staffer from the Democratic National Committee.
I hesitate to amplify another classic Fox News lie — circulated by the likes of Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich — but a quick sketch is necessary, if only to see the Ailes formula in action. I’ll stipulate up front that there’s no police evidence whatsoever to support the disinformation.
DNC staffer Seth Rich was shot and killed on the street in his Washington neighborhood late one night last July, one of many unsolved city murders. But the way Gingrich described it yesterday on “Fox & Friends,” Rich was actually “assassinated.” Gingrich said: “Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what’s going on? Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians [who hacked the DNC and fed stuff to WikiLeaks]. It was this young guy, who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee.”
Case solved, everybody. It wasn’t the Russians at all. It was a murder victim who can’t defend himself.
Gingrich yesterday, and Hannity on Friday and over the weekend, took their cues from an occasional Fox News contributor named Rod Wheeler, who claimed last Monday that he had revelatory evidence about Seth Rich from the FBI and/or the Washington police. There’s no such evidence — indeed, Rich’s purported perfidy didn’t jibe with the fact that the FBI discovered Russia-linked hackings as early as autumn ’15 — and by Thursday, Wheeler had largely recanted his story.
Rich’s grieving parents filed a cease-and-desist order against Wheeler, and the parents’ spokesman put out a statement: “Only people with transparent political agendas or sociopaths are still perpetuating Seth Rich conspiracy theories and in Newt Gingrich we find both. He can never know the deep pain he has caused the Rich family, and I hope he is held accountable either in this world or the next.”
We certainly can’t expect Fox News’ loyalists to hold the network accountable; they’ve been cocooned by its fake news for so long that willful ignorance is a reflex. Lest we forget, it was Fox News that amplified Trump’s bat-crazy birtherism about President Obama, by putting him on the air as a regular contributor in 2011 and buttressing him with cheerleaders like Steve Doocy and Hannity.
To truly assess Roger Ailes, it’s important to know that at least six studies — by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, Stanford University, American University, Kaiser Family Foundation, Ohio State, and Fairleigh Dickinson — have concluded that Fox viewers are far more misinformed than news consumers who get info elsewhere. That’s the gist of the Ailes legacy.
And so is this: At a Saturday memorial service, attended by family and friends, Ailes’ 17-year-old son Zachary threatened to avenge Dad by going after the women who filed sexual harassment charges. As reported by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s website, young Zachary said: “I want all the people who betrayed my father to know that I’m coming after them and hell is coming with me.”
As translated from the 16th-century German, “The apple does not usually fall far from the tree.”
Trump’s Pravda is not totally monolithic, however. Chris Wallace still practices real journalism on his Sunday show, and he recently clashed with “Fox & Friends” co-host Pete Hegseth. When Hegseth contended that Comey’s firing was no big deal, Wallace retorted: “This is a big story … This is the first time in history that a president has fired an FBI director who was conducting an investigation that was directly investigating him and his associates. It’s a big story, and I think it’s a legitimate story to cover.”
And on the air yesterday, Wallace confronted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about latest Trump revelation: “My question to you, sir, as someone who was in that meeting [with the Russians] — was he telling the Russians that firing Comey was taking off legal and political pressure?”
Tillerson: “Chris, that’s not my — my interpretation, certainly, of the conversation. I think what the president was trying to convey to the Russians is, ‘Look, I’m not going to be distracted’ …”
Wallace: “But, sir, he seemed to be saying that firing Comey would help remove one of the distractions.”
Tillerson: “I — Chris, I just didn’t — my takeaway from that conversation was not that point at all.”
Stick around, Chris. You’re needed there.