Roger Ailes Got Us To Mistrust Everyone—Including Himself
“We report, you decide.”
Fox News adopted that slogan way back in 2008. Compared to the epistemological Thunderdome of today’s media landscape, it was a much more innocent era. Barack Obama was terrorist fist-jabbing all over Iowa, and Sarah Palin was still a little-known Alaskan governor. The iPhone was in its infancy, Twitter had recently made its debut, and Microsoft had just invested in Facebook, valuing the young company at $15 billion. (That seemed like a lot back then.) And Roger Ailes, the now-disgraced and soon-to-be-fired head of Fox News, was the undisputed king of political media.
Fox’s new catchphrase was yet another of the network’s nose-thumbings at the “mainstream media.” Since he took over the channel in 1996, Ailes had dedicated himself to battling what he saw as leftist bias, which he saw everywhere. His initial slogan, “Fair and Balanced,” implied that every other news source was unfair, that whether you realized it or not your information was being hand-spun by pointy-headed coastal elites out to push a liberal-humanist agenda. “We report, you decide” went even further. Don’t trust any media property—not even us!—to tell you what the news means. You decide!
Of course, Ailes never really meant it. Fox News was as aggressive a purveyor of a particular worldview as any other media outlet, one that happened to align quite nicely with the conservative wing of the Republican Party. As the indispensable Gabriel Sherman wrote in New York magazine, Ailes told a reporter back in 1968 that TV would replace political parties, and most of his career at Fox seemed dedicated to pursuing that goal. GOP candidates competed in the “Rupert Murdoch primary”—whoever won the News Corp. owner’s favor was sure to enjoy friendly coverage on the influential station.
But Ailes’ genius was portraying his top-down agitprop as bottom-up culture-jamming. Watching Fox didn’t make you a conservative; it made you a free-thinking, savvy news consumer. It was the right-wing equivalent of an arena full of Rage Against the Machine fans chanting “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” in unison, a choreographed facsimile of rebellion.
Well, now the facsimile has become real. Despite Fox News’ attempts to sabotage him, voters—including many Fox viewers—sided with Donald Trump over their own network. The cracks started showing early in this election cycle, when all of the usual Ailes tricks failed to slow Trump’s ascent. Ailes reportedly instructed Megyn Kelly to destroy Trump at the first Fox News debate, which backfired when Trump waged a Twitter war against the anchor and the network. It turns out that Trump could use the same rhetoric against Fox that the channel had used against the media—Fox News, he argued, was out of touch and unfair and in the pocket of the Republican Party. An audience that had been conditioned to distrust the rest of the media now turned their gimlet eye on the network and person who had seeded their distrust in the first place.
As Trump continued his march to the nomination, Ailes had little choice but to accede. Fox News is now promoting Trump with the same fervor they championed Marco Rubio. But nobody is fooled. Like the Republican Party, which found itself similarly powerless in the face of Trump’s social media assault, Fox News is no longer able to steer its followers toward consensus. The echo chamber it built has drowned out its own voice.
The best evidence that Ailes no longer wields the power he once did? If reports are to be believed, Ailes himself is about to step down from the network he defined. On its surface, the reasons have nothing to do with Fox News’ diminishing political influence. Gretchen Carlson, a former anchor, has accused Ailes of harassment, and apparently a number of other women—including Kelly—have come forward with their own accusations. James and Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s sons, have long looked to boot Ailes, and now they seem to have found the opportunity to do so. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Ailes would be so vulnerable if his role as GOP kingmaker were still secure.
Then again, as this election is showing, the very idea of a GOP kingmaker suddenly feels as outdated as the idea of a bald, male TV executive chasing women around his desk. So is the idea of a TV network that can shape its viewers’ opinions against their initial instincts. Twitter and Facebook are no longer the fledglings they were in 2008 but filter-bubble hurricanes, deluging consumers with news that matches their unique blends of personal proclivities. If readers see something they don’t like, they chalk it up to bias and move on to another source. Ailes may not have meant it when he told his viewers “You decide,” but they took that message and ran with it. In this election, they decided. Fox News just reports.