Universal Translator

Monday, May 30, 2011

How Roger Ailes's Solipsism Might Doom the GOP

I’ve long been fascinated by the kind of mental blinders we get saddled with, or we saddle ourselves with, as we go through life.  It always has seemed to me that one of the greatest difficulties we humans have with accurately understanding the World around us is that by the time we start actively contemplating that World we already and subconsciously have filtered it into various mental constructs that inform our understanding of it.  And those unconscious constructs are not necessarily accurate.

One of the biggest such unconscious filters is the implicit assumption that most people understand the World and their relationship to it the same way we each do.  We have a strong tendency, whenever we meet somebody new or we abstractly contemplate what “the people” think, to believe that a new person or “the people” think pretty much along the same lines that we ourselves do.

Very probably, at least some of this results from the fact that “[w]e are cursed by the limits of our own perception to see ourselves as the center of the Universe.”  It is simply impossible for us to understand our unique experience of the World other than with ourselves at the center of it because that is how we are forced to perceive it.  This is what is meant by the lament that it is impossible to really place yourself in the position of anyone else.  If you try hard you might be able to imagine what somebody else is experiencing or thinking, but you can’t really know.

Then there is that cliched phrase “the fish will be the last to discover water.”  This is generally true for each of us.  Immersed as we are in the necessarily singular and exclusive point of view we each are saddled with, we assume that of course everybody experiences the World the same way we do, and forget that in fact nobody experiences the World precisely same way each of us do.

I was reminded of that this morning, while reading Tim Dickinson’s excellent Rolling Stone article “How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory,”  and these facts jumped out at me:

The network’s viewers are old, with a median age of 65 . . . .  The audience is also almost exclusively white – only 1.38 percent of viewers are African-American.  “Roger understands audiences,” says [Ed] Rollins, the former Reagan consultant.  “He knew how to target, which is what Fox News is all about.”  The typical viewer of Hannity, to take the most stark example, is a pro-business (86 percent), Christian conservative (78 percent), Tea Party-backer (75 percent) with no college degree (66 percent), who is over 50 (65 percent), supports the NRA (73 percent), doesn’t back gay rights (78 percent) and thinks government “does too much” (84 percent).  “He’s got a niche audience and he’s programmed to it beautifully,” says a former News Corp. colleague.  “He feeds them exactly what they want to hear.”

Which is, y’know, great for Fox News as a business concern.  As Dickinson’s article makes clear, Fox News is the profit center of Rupert Murdoch’s empire; Ailes clearly saw a niche audience that wasn’t being served and appropriated it for himself.  Demographically it may not be the largest audience or the most coveted (18 – 34 year old men are, I believe), but Ailes is indeed adept at “feed[ing] them exactly what they want to hear.”  This has made Fox News bigger than MSNBC and CNN combined and grants Ailes huge power and influence within the Republican Party.

Indeed, in his recent New York Magazine article “The Elephant in the Green Room” Gabriel Sherman recognized Ailes as the de facto “head of the Republican Party” and quoted a GOP operative who told him:  “You can’t run for the Republican nomination without talking to Roger.  Every single candidate has consulted with Roger.” 

According to both Dickinson and Sherman’s pieces, wielding political influence is the driving force in Ailes’s life.  According to both pieces, Ailes is believed to have consulted with George W. Bush virtually every day of his presidency, coaching him in presentation and talking points; even if Dick Cheney may have been the person deciding policy in W.’s White House, Ailes and Fox News were the people who helped the White House sell it.

And according to both pieces, Ailes continues to look to the future.  Everyone interviewed in these articles agrees that it was Fox News that turned the Tea Party from a national joke into a political force.  And the main focus of Sherman’s article is that Ailes’s greatest desire this election cycle is to unseat President Obama and install a candidate in the White House of his own personal choosing.

* * *

Which is why I was heartened to see those demographics above and discover that while it may be true (as many acknowledge) that Ailes is a “genius” when it comes to programming and ratings, he seems to be a dismal failure when it comes to fashioning a political movement that can have any long-term effectiveness.

After all, the drumbeat repeated over and over for decades now about American demographics is that they are fundamentally and irrevocably changing, and that the country is getting less and less white.  And yet, to whom does Fox News pander?  Almost exclusively White America.

And for anybody who has been paying attention to the fight for gay rights over the past decade or so, the shift in public attitude has been (relatively speaking) lightning swift.  The most recent polls show that a majority of all Americans (albeit still a slight majority) now fully support gay marriage or, at least, civil unions.  Matthew Yglesias recently weighed in on Miley Cyrus’s outspoken support for gay marriage and pointed out

Celebrities risk alienating fans if they wade into partisan politics.  But Cyrus knows perfectly well that among her core audience of young people, combating anti-gay bigotry isn’t a divisive issue.  For younger Americans, it’s just common sense.  Whether or not her fans are able to vote in the 2012 election, they’ll be voting in 2014 or 2016 or 2018 and so forth for decades.

And yet, to whom does Fox News pander?  The anti-gay rights crowd.

And this is almost assuredly because – hey, that anti-gay rights crowd? – they’re old.  They’re the anti-Miley Cyrus group.  The median age of the Fox News audience is 65 – this means that 50% of everybody who watches Fox New is 65 or older.  And one thing we can say for certain about this audience:  unlike the Miley Cyrus fans, they will not be voting in elections for decades to come.

In short, the audience to whom Ailes pitches Fox News’s programming is not an audience that can be counted upon to sustain a long-term political movement.  Sure, it may have some outsized clout now because, let’s face it, old people vote.  But not to put too fine a point on it, old people die too.  Unless Ailes can figure out some way to bring newer, younger people into the Fox News audience (without, at the same time, alienating the core group of senior citizens who provide its bread-and-butter), Fox News’s days of being able to direct the Republican party, gin up support for its policies, and function as its de facto kingmaker are necessarily numbered.

* * *

Given the Fox News demographics, this would seem to be blatantly obvious.  So why, given Roger Ailes’s supposed intelligence and his consuming drive to shape American politics to his liking, has he consigned Fox News to what must unavoidably become an ever shrinking sphere of influence?  Why hasn’t Ailes acted to expand his audience beyond this core Conservative group?

The easiest and most straightforward answer is that Fox News simply got trapped by the market it thought it had captured for itself.  As Ed Rollins said, Ailes knew a market existed for Conservative ideology and he went after it very successfully.  This resulted in almost instant and never-before-seen levels of cable news commercial success.  When an action proves to have been very successful, an obvious response to that success is to repeat the same action. 

And 15 years ago when Fox News was founded, tapping into the Conservative backlash against Bill Clinton and feeding upon the paranoid sense of victimization Rush Limbaugh slurped up, targeting this niche audience must have seemed like a no-brainer.  Besides, even if the audience Fox News captured originally is exactly the same audience it is saddled with today, the median age then would have been only 50; that would have given Fox News at least 20 years to diversify and bring in younger audience members, and 20 years is a long time to make that much profit.

But as we have seen over the years, the Conservative mind is one that demands ever and ever greater ideological purity.  (How many litmus tests are we up to now for Republican presidential candidates?  They can’t raise taxes, they can’t believe in evolution, they can’t support a woman’s right to choose, they can’t believe in global warming, they can’t doubt Paul Ryan’s “budget plan,” they can’t be anything other than Christian, they can’t support equal rights for gays, they must be willing to support Israel unthinkingly, they must be reflexively anti-Muslim, they must be willing to slash Medicare, they must be willing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they must be willing to re-instate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” they must be willing to invade Iran unprovoked, they must be pro-Torture, they must at least have some doubts about whether Obama was born in the United States . . . .  I am sure I am missing some, but these are the ones that came to me just off the top of my head.)

Insisting on this level of “purity” makes it very difficult to expand your audience without alienating existing viewers.  So it is possible that Fox News is simply the victim of its own success:  trapped with a lucrative but finite client base, and without the ability to diversify its appeal.

And, I suppose, there is probably something to that.  But in reading Dickinson’s article, I came to also wonder whether solipsism might be playing a large part in dooming Fox News’s (and, therefore, the GOP’s) long-term viability.  In fact, I came up with at least three reasons to think why that might be the case.

* * *

First, it appears that Ailes’s paranoid political views are genuinely held.  This scene from Sherman’s article is instructive:

Going back to the 2008 campaign, [David] Axelrod had maintained an off-the-record dialogue with Ailes.  He had faced off against Ailes in a U.S. Senate campaign in the early eighties and respected him as a fellow political warrior and shaper of narrative.  But early on, Axelrod learned he could’t change Ailes’s outlook on Obama.  In one meeting in 2008, Ailes told Axelrod that he was concerned that Obama wanted to create a national police force.

“You can’t be serious,” Axelrod replied.  “What makes you think that?”

Ailes responded by e-mailing Axelrod a YouTube clip from a campaign speech Obama had given on national service, in which he called for the creation of a new civilian corps to work alongside the military on projects overseas.

Later, Axelrod related in a conversation that the exchange was the moment he realized Ailes truly believed what he was broadcasting.

If Ailes truly does see the World this way, it is easy to believe that he also thinks everybody else either sees the World this way or should see the World this way.

Ailes’s paranoia reflects itself not only in his politics but in his own concerns about his personal safety.  Dickinson paints a vivid picture of a man who surrounds himself with security guards, has “bomb-proof” plexiglass windows in his “blast-resistant office,” who purchased and keeps empty the houses surrounding his own home in order to “create a wider security perimeter,” who is convinced that he personally is on al Queda’s hit list, and who once locked down Fox News when he spotted (on a monitor) a janitor in what looked to Ailes to be “Muslim garb” because Ailes thought the janitor could be coming to bomb him.

But again, if Ailes truly sees the World through this lens then it only makes sense he thinks everybody else does or should see it this way too.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that this is the view of the World presented by Fox News.  Indeed, after recounting the episode involving the Fox News janitor Dickinson quotes from someone close to Ailes:  “Roger tore up the whole floor.  He has a personal paranoia about people who are Muslim – which is consistent with the ideology of his network.” (emphasis added)

As both Dickinson and Sherman make clear, Fox News is Roger Ailes’s personal fiefdom, and it reflects exactly what Roger Ailes thinks.  Because Roger Ailes sees fantastic conspiracies and mortal danger everywhere, this is what Fox News reports. 

Second, I have no difficulty in imagining that Ailes also truly believes that his success in audience capture is just further evidence that his World View is correct.  Obviously, what he is selling is hitting a nerve with a lot of people; I am sure that Ailes thinks that if a lot of people agree with him, he must be right!

But, you know what?  Take a look at the demographics listed above, and then take a look at Roger Ailes.  He is 71 years old, and white.  As for being an NRA supporter, well, he does carry a concealed firearm.  Although he does have a college degree and I don’t know about his religious background, he is definitely a Tea Party-backer and is pro-Business. Oh, yeah . . . and he is anti-gay, too. (In his article Dickinson relates how Ailes worried about his first office at Fox News being too close to the street; he was sure activists would attack him for his "hostility to gay rights").  In short, Roger Ailes is a member of the same demographic that Fox News targets.  Roger Ailes is broadcasting to Roger Ailes!

Given this, I don’t have much difficulty imagining that the audience Fox News has managed to capture are the people that Roger Ailes believes are the “Real Americans” – you know, the ones who look most like Roger Ailes.  Conservative politicians, most notably Sarah Palin, invoke this phrase all the time and they always invoke it when referring to the Fox News crowd:  the White, Conservative Christians.

This is a particularly pernicious idea both for its effect on the people listening to it and on the speaker himself.  For the audience, it sows the seeds of division:  “If I am a Real American, then it follows that the Other Person is not!”  For the speaker, it sows the seeds of dismissiveness:  “If those Other People are not Real Americans, then I don’t have to bother with them!”

I think this goes a long way toward explaining how Ailes can disregard the fact Fox News is broadcasting to an audience that can only grow smaller over time.  If the people outside of that audience aren’t “Real Americans” then they are unimportant and can be dismissed.  That conclusion is wrong, of course, but it fits in well with Ailes’s paranoia about Muslims and “others” and it allows him not to face up to the truth that unless Fox News’s audience fundamentally changes the Fox News juggernaut will eventually grind to a halt.

Third, it seems clear that Fox News is nothing more or less than an extension of Roger Ailes.  As Sherman describes it, “In the halls of Fox News, people do not want to be caught talking about what will happen to Fox News after the Ailes era.  The network continues to be Ailes’s singular vision, and he’s so far declined to name a successor. . . .  [M]ore than one person described fearing Lord of the Flies—type chaos in the wake of Ailes’s departure, so firm has his grip on power been.”  Both Dickinson and Sherman spend time describing the increasing antipathy between Ailes and the Murdoch family.

Ailes’s reluctance to name a successor to his throne may be just another manifestation of what increasingly looks like an effort to create a mirror-world for himself.  As personal as the creation and operation of Fox News appears to have been, perhaps Ailes simply cannot imagine it continuing without him.  And who knows? Since Ailes is part of the demographic to whom Fox News broadcasts, perhaps on some deep level Ailes isn’t overly concerned with what happens to Fox News when that demographic passes away.  After all, Ailes will be gone too.

* * *

Despite the title of this post, neither Fox News nor the Republican Party will ever completely go away.  But the Fox News demographics skew heavily to elderly white Americans viewers, just as the exit polls show Republican candidates skewing heavily to elderly white Americans voters.  And “elderly, white” is by definition an ever-shrinking constituency.  Both Fox News and the Republican Party will eventually have to change their policies and capture viewers/voters who aren’t exclusively white and elderly.  And no doubt but that both, eventually, will.

But the problem for the Republican Party is that Fox News’s power to promote policies and candidates has in many ways eclipsed that of the politics and politicians it supposedly “covers.”  When you can’t run for the Republican nomination without Fox News’s imprimatur, then Fox News effectively is calling the shots.

Which means that before the Republican Party can change and seek a new – or at least a larger – voter base, Fox News is going to have to change and seek a new – or at least a larger -- audience.  Fox News cannot promote candidates and policies its audience won’t like and also maintain its ratings, and Republicans cannot sell their candidates and policies without Fox News.  But since there is every reason to believe that Roger Ailes’s penchant for programming Roger Ailes’s vision to Roger Ailes has resulted in Fox News being captured by its own audience, I don’t see that Fox News has the ability to change gears very rapidly.

Which means that for the foreseeable near future – say the next 10 or 15 years – one of two things will happen.  New management at Fox News might eventually realize its current programming is unsustainable and attempt to change it; this will likely result in decreased market share for Fox News over the short-term and will almost certainly involve it walking back from the craziest of the crazy, fringiest of the fringe right-wing faction now in American politics in order to make itself more appealing to other groups.

But much more likely is that Fox News will continue following the path of least resistance and greatest momentum, and become increasingly shrill as it attempts to shore up its hold on an ever-shrinking demographic.  This will drive Republicans even deeper into political paranoia and hubris and will increasingly alienate the burgeoning mass of non-elderly, non-white Americans going to the polls.  And this will result in huge electoral losses.

Of course, we’ll still have the Crazy 27% (like the poor, they will be always with us) and they will still elect some truly batshit insane people, but overall I think we might be able to look forward to a nice long decline for these people. 

What can I say?  The more I learn about Roger Ailes and Fox News, the more optimistic I feel.

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