by Scoobie Davis
Fox News: The Televised Potemkin Village
I read a recent article on Fox News and Roger Ailes in the New Yorker (not available online). It gives a history of Ailes’ activities. I knew Ailes worked for Nixon. I didn’t know the extent to which Ailes was part of the repackaging of Nixon—experience that Ailes put to good use on the alleged journalistic outlet he runs--Fox News. In order to make Nixon seem more human for the 1968 campaign, Nixon spoke to warm television audiences--audience members were pre-screened—they were by and large rank-and-file Republicans and gave Nixon enthusiastic responses. I remember a documentary on Nixon’s ’68 comeback that showed Nixon regaling the stacked-deck audience in one of these television appearances.
Before Rush Limbaugh had Ailes as his executive producer of his television show, Limbaugh didn’t know the lesson of rigged audiences. In 1990, Limbaugh did a guest appearance as the host of Pat Sajak’s show after it was announced that the show would be cancelled. The audience wasn’t pre-screened and many took issue with Limbaugh’s homophobic comments; the blustery bully was so shaken by people who talked back that he had the audience cleared from studio during a commercial break. As a producer commented, “He came out full of bluster and left a very shaken man. I had never seen a man sweat so much in my life.” However, it changed when Ailes ran Limbaugh’s television show in the 1990’s. The audience was packed with robots who cheered to whatever the porcine host had to say—even when Limbaugh called 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton the White House dog.
Fox News has Ailes’ fingerprints all over it. Ailes’ idea of balance is finding wimpy liberals like Alan Colmes to receive a paycheck for a beating (it’s no coincidence that the liberals on Fox News shows are weak; David Talbot wrote: “Years earlier, when hunting for a liberal punching bag to pair with Sean Hannity, Ailes had tried out a tough Salon writer. He apparently punched back so effectively in his audition that Fox picked bespectacled milquetoast Alan Colmes instead. Fox likes its liberals soft and chewy, the better to eat them, my dear.”). Debates on Fox News have all the thrill of a caged hunt. That’s what made the recent Simpsons parody of Fox News both funny and scary; the real Fox News is only slightly less biased that the parody—and people still believe that it’s fair and balanced.