Media critic Jeff Cohen and Paul Jay discuss the critical role Roger Ailes played in creating Fox News, who died yesterday at age 77.
Jeff Cohen is the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and he was the founder of the media watchdog FAIR. He is the co-founder of RootsAction.org. He sat down with the Real New Network to talk about Roger Ailes, Fox News, the tenures of George Bush and Donald Trump, and more.
Paul Jay: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. Roger Ailes, a political and sexual predator, died today at the age of 77. The leader of Fox News, Ailes played a critical role in building the political power of the extreme right. AP reports that Democrats had an 82-seat House majority when Fox News was launched in 1996. Republicans now have a 45-seat majority, a swing of 127 seats. It’s far worse for Democrats in state houses across the country, where they’ve lost more than 900 seats since 2009. The GOP has total control of the government in at least 25 states and partial control in 20 others.
Of course, the policies of corporate Democrats that helped the greatest wealth gap in history had more to do with the Republican victories than Fox, but Ailes’s influence should not be underestimated. I met Ailes once when he came into our studio space at the Democratic Party convention. He came in, put his arm around me, and smiled for the camera. I couldn’t believe he knew the Real News or me, and as it turned out, he was just mugging for a documentary film crew that was following him around. It was truly the most bizarre moment of the convention, that is, until the next, even more bizarre thing happened. After shaking my hand, Ailes walked over to one of my female colleagues, put his hand on her shoulder. He looked at me, winked, and said, “Be sure to take of your ladies.”
This was only weeks after he’d been fired for being a sexual predator at Fox. The arrogance and complete lack of inhibition of the man, who lived drunk on money and power, was truly amazing. Ailes might have believed the dangerous political nonsense his station peddled, but he believed in something more. Ailes is quoted as saying, “People think I stayed in politics because I wanted conservatives to run the world,” he said to the New York Times in 1995. “Actually, it was the money.” That likely sums up the real money for Fox News and its hosts. It’s about the money, and how much damage they do to the American people is quite beside the point.Now joining us to discuss the significance of Roger Ailes’s life and work is Jeff Cohen. Jeff is a media critic and lecturer, and founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he’s an associate professor of journalism. He’s the author of many books, including Cable News Confidential, My Misadventures in Corporate Media. Jeff has been a TV commentator on CNN and Fox News, MSNBC, and was a senior producer of MSNBC’s Phil Donahue primetime show until it was terminated three weeks before the Iraq invasion. Jeff is the co-founder of the online activist organisation rootsaction.org, and he joins us from Woodstock, New York. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.
Jeff Cohen: Great to be with you, Paul.
PJ: You were in this business. A lot of your time in the corporate news was during that Roger Ailes era. What do you make of just what he did in terms of shaping American politics and American media?
JC: I don’t think there’s an individual that I can think of who had more impact on US politics in the last 20 years than Roger Ailes. He was a key force in building the right wing of the Republican Party and continuing to push the Republican Party to the right. You often hear people erroneously compare, “Well, we have Fox News on the right, and we have MSNBC on the left,” which is laughable because Fox News has continuously pushed the right wing of the Republican Party and tried to get the right wing to replace the more moderate Republicans. On the other hand, MSNBC, after we saw during the Bernie versus Hillary months, or Edward Snowden being hounded by Obama, that at MSNBC they boost the middle, the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. They’re not interested in giving voice to progressive movements, progressive candidates, changing the Democratic Party from a moderate, corporate, centrist party to a progressive one. That parallel leaves me cold.Roger Ailes has had a huge impact. He was a genius as a propagandist. He was brilliant at the 30-second attack ads. He almost was the genius of 30-second attack ads. When Rupert Murdoch decides he’s going to start a “news channel,” I think in Murdoch’s mind, he thinks, “If Roger Ailes can accomplish this much in a 30-second attack ad at a Democrat or a liberal, imagine what he can do 24/7 with a TV channel.”
PJ: Jeff, you were the producer of the “Phil Donahue Show” just in the weeks leading up to the Iraq War. To me, if there’s two major crimes of Ailes, one is how he helped prepare conditions for the Iraq War, and we’ll get to the next one, which is climate change or climate change denial. I think it’s interesting what happened. You produced the “Phil Donahue Show”, which starts to critique the American buildup for the war, and the show gets cancelled. Roger Ailes beats the drums for war and goes on to great success.
JC: Yeah, there’s no doubt, and it’s not just Ailes. Ailes was brilliant with Fox News, but every news outlet that Rupert Murdoch owned in England and the US was instrumental in beating the drums for war. I was there at Fox News at the time of 9/11 and when the drums first started getting beaten for it’s not just enough to go after Afghanistan. Here are the other countries we’ve got to take on. Fox News has been brilliant.Roger Ailes, you might remember, came into politics through Richard Nixon. When he was in the Nixon White House, he played some sort of role with a memo how to put the GOP on TV. His goal always has been how to use the propaganda potential of television on behalf of the right wing, and he did it brilliantly as a political consultant for Nixon, for Ronald Reagan, for George Bush the first. Remember, Roger Ailes played a key role in the racist 1988 Willy Horton campaign. It was Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater who masterminded that very racist campaign against Dukakis, the Democratic candidate.When he has 24/7 to push right-wing propaganda, he was called the news chairman at Fox News. Of course, Roger Ailes had no experience as a journalist. He was a propagandist. He was a guy who designed ads. He becomes the news chairman of Fox News, and he has one goal in mind besides earning a big profit, which they did, and that’s how do we build up the right wing. We build up the right wing by fear. Roger Ailes, and television itself is a medium that’s very good at throwing fear. In my view, when I say he’s at least as important as any single individual in American politics in the last 20 years, I can’t imagine there being a President Trump without there having been a Roger Ailes and Fox News.
PJ: George Bush the second said he probably wouldn’t have been president without Roger Ailes. He said that today.
JC: No doubt, but I think that Trump is more of an Ailes candidate. Keep in mind that when I was at Fox News the first five years I was on the air, I got to know Fox News viewers. They are not intellectual. They are not well read, but they are ardent voters. Ailes had millions of voters. He had a lot of impact, especially, in off-year elections.The worldview that Roger Ailes and Fox News put forward is that the people who are getting the best of us are rich racial minorities, women, foreigners, immigrants, terrorists, and they’re getting the best of white males. They’re getting the best of our depleted US military. They’re getting the best of our beleaguered big corporations, who at Fox News of course are called job creators. He was able to create this upside-down worldview that millions of Trump supporters believe today.
PJ: He comes from this school. You connect Lee Atwater. In the beginning, I said a political and sexual predator. A lot of the news today about his death is talking about him as a sexual predator, but Lee Atwater, Roger Stone, and Ailes, who all were operatives for various Republican presidential candidates, they’re really from the Goebbels school of propaganda, which is tell a lie, and keep it telling it, and then when it’s countered, tell another lie to counter that. It proved to be very successful.Then you take that to the scale of a television network with Murdoch money behind it. It becomes enormously influential. You run into people … For example, climate change, maybe even more damaging in the long run, the role Fox and Ailes have played in climate change denial or climate crisis denial. You run into people. We go to Dundalk near Baltimore and talk to people about climate change, and you’re told, “Climate change is just a conspiracy of the government to raise taxes,” and so on and so on, which they’re getting from Fox. The influence and the damage that they’ve done is quite profound.
JC: It’s hoax after hoax. You’re right. The war on Christmas. It’s basically a Fox News channel concoction. The irony is, the one time I ever met Roger Ailes was at a Fox News channel holiday party. The invitation didn’t say Christmas party. It said holiday party. That didn’t mean that Fox News was anti-Christmas or anti-Christian, but we’ve heard that year after year after year. They’ve been wrong about Planned Parenthood. Fox News helped put ACORN out of business with this series of hoax and crazily edited, deceptively edited videotapes. You mentioned the Iraq invasion.Fox News has got diehard viewers. They swear by Fox News. These people are active, and they don’t miss an election. The importance of Ailes is helping the right wing within the Republican Party continue to ascend and helping recruit millions of voters who will push the right wing of the Republican Party not just against Democrats but against moderate or establishment Republicans.I watch Fox News every night. I do it so you don’t have to. They are not friendly to Paul Ryan. They are not friendly to Mitch McConnell. A lot of the Fox News hosts see those people as vacillating moderates.
PJ: I think it’s very important that there couldn’t have been an Ailes, I think, or a Fox News with such success, if mainstream, quote unquote, corporate media weren’t such essentially defenders of the status quo. One thing Fox did, in their own warped way, is they made systemic criticism. They reflected the rage so many people have about how unjust the society is. The rage against government, on its own, is legitimate because the government, on the whole, is controlled by the billionaire class, if you want to use Sanders language, or corporations and the elites.
When mainstream news is so detached from the emotion of the alienation of so many people in the county, and there’s always this thing in mainstream news that the system will self-correct. Here’s something really bad here, but don’t worry, because we just exposed it and now it will be okay. Go back to sleep and watch our entertainment programming. At least Fox was angry and had an edge, and as a result felt authentic, even though it’s completely deceptive.
JF: You’re right. There’s anger in the land, and Fox News was brilliant at tapping into it and misdirecting it. Fox News, it’s almost unconstitutional at Fox News to take on big corporations unless it’s Hollywood. You’ve got to misdirect that anger toward immigrants or welfare recipients or Black Lives Matter or Jesse Jackson. I could go through dozens of who were the villains, the new Black Panther Party that almost no one had ever heard of. They’ve always had villains. They’ve always had someone to blame at Fox News. Television is a medium that lends itself toward attack, and if you’re defending the system, as CNN tends to do and the mainstream broadcast networks tends to do and public broadcasting tends to do, you’re cutting against television.Roger Ailes didn’t understand journalism. He understood the medium, that it’s an emotional medium. When people are angry, you have to do something with that anger. Ailes knew exactly what to do with that anger, which was to make sure it’s not directed against the powers that be, but it’s directed against the people below. Those are the ones to blame.
PJ: Thanks very much for joining us, Jeff.
JF: Thank you.
PJ: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.