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Media and Society

The Real Meaning of “Covfefe”

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Covfefe: When you make a typo and then make a big deal about it so people talk about a silly typo rather than about the fact that you are pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord when humanity and life on Earth is facing a serious threat to our very existence due to climate change.

I don’t know how covfefe is pronounced because I don’t give a fuck.

Guarding the Fox House: The Life and Legacy of Roger Ailes

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Roger Eugene Ailes died comfortably in his own home in Palm Beach, Florida, this Thursday, May 18, 2017. The cause of death was reportedly the result of a subdural hematoma, aggravated by his lifelong illness with hemophilia. He is survived by his wife of nineteen years, Elizabeth, and their only child. It was three days after his seventy-seventh birthday.

Upon hearing the news of his death I felt a sense of morbid satisfaction that the man had met his end. It was a feeling that I had felt before and had felt very guilty about soon after. He was a person, after all, with a family, a life, and, to my clear chagrin, a legacy we should not easily forget. In many ways the forces that shape our politics today were unleashed through the medium that Roger Ailes helped create.

It was these elements, however, those unchecked forces he helped bring about, that proved the necessary ingredients for a reality TV president, a distorted media landscape, and this is what ultimately brought Ailes and several others down. Much like the fox guarding the hen house, Ailes thought he and others could control these forces they had brought to bear. Instead, it served as a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences we are still grappling with to this day. Here is that tale.

Roger Ailes grew up in small town Warren, Ohio. He came from a broken home and graduated from the Ohio State with a degree in communications in 1962. After serving a while as a TV station manager in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Ailes was picked by Richard Nixon to serve as the TV executive producer for Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. It was an unusual position, as TV was still a relatively new medium in the scope of American politics. But Nixon had already learned the hard lessons from his televised debates in 1960 with John F. Kennedy too well and knew he was not a darling of the screen.

With the help of Ailes, Nixon pioneered the use of the paid televised political commercials in the form of tightly choreographed town halls called “The Nixon Answer.” Once seen as an awkward and uncomfortable man, Nixon came across as accessible, friendly, and with his hair down. In this way Nixon was able to remake his image – quite literally – on the television and establish a persona that would meet a hard death through a little “third-rate” burglary. For Ailes, his pioneering work in political television had ushered in a new era in political consulting and would portend a bright new career for him.

Election night 1972 would be a red-letter date for the history of the conservative movement, as Nixon cruised to re-election with the largest electoral majority in American history. For Ailes, his use of effective and devastating TV ads was crucial. It also meant a start for two young ruthless political operatives by the names of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. Together this informal troika of conservative activists and political consultants would speedily remold the Republican Party after the debacle of Nixon/Watergate into the electoral juggernaut of Reagan/Bush.

Gone were the days of strong African American and minority support for the party of Lincoln. The politics of grievance for the white working class, the Southern Strategy, and racialized identity politics was in. Ailes would see to it that more than just our political landscape would change; the very way the media would cover a political campaign fall prey to his grand designs.

“If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”

In just one comment, dubbed the “Orchestra Pit Theory,” Ailes correctly predicted what the future of modern media coverage in America would look like. No longer would it be a serious examination of the news and issues of the day but rather another form of entertainment. Gone was the substance of a political campaign and debate; now politics would turn into the empty character bouts we see today as well as to the dark side of thirty-second television ads.

No ad so epitomizes the gruesome blood sport that politics became through Ailes than the infamous “Willie Horton ad” of 1988. Though never directly implicated in its creation and broadcast, the Horton ad was a chilling harbinger of what was soon to come and a blueprint of the politics that Ailes, Rove, and Atwater had helped orchestrate. Today the Horton ad would be considered mere child’s play to the numerous sordid political commercials we’ve become accustomed to. Ailes himself would create his own toned-down Horton-style ad called “Revolving Doors,” but its implications remained the same. Because of it, George H. W. Bush would win an unprecedented third Republican term in 1988 by an unexpected landslide.

New horizons beckoned Ailes in 1996 when billionaire Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch offered Ailes the inaugural chairmanship of the Fox News Network. Although the product of Murdoch, the network was wholly the creation of Ailes’s design. As the political and media consultant for Presidents Reagan and Bush, Ailes could only manage the media so far. With Fox News, however, he now had a platform, fully under his control, to move the media narrative in his direction.

Even as such network stars such as Bill O’Reilly, Glen Beck, Steve Varney, Charles Krauthammer, and Megyn Kelly would all earn a reputation of their own at the network, they would largely owe their careers – and lucrative contracts – to the man who would daily write the narrative the network would push. Unlike other TV news executives, Ailes had an agenda to sell and was not about to let the stubborn facts – or even reality – get in his way.

During his eighteen years as chairman of the network Ailes singlehandedly changed the twenty-four-hour TV news format and created some of the highest-rated cable programs in TV history. By 2008 it would have been laughable to think that there was such a thing as a “liberal” American media, as Fox News had had such a hand in defining it. No doubt that Ailes would have still peddled the theory, though, as it aptly served his purposes.

Despite the growing nativism and populism within the Republican party, Ailes still owned the vital real estate in conservative media with Fox News. It was a balance that was increasingly harder to maintain as other alternative media sources such as Breitbart News, the Drudge Report, and Info Wars gained a vocal audience and readership of their own. In the end, however, it would be his personal dalliances that would do him in.

Allegations and rumors of rampant sexual harassment and an unfriendly working environment were not foreign to the network, beginning as early as 2004. It was clear, though, that the network no longer had a strangle-hold of the conservative audience as it used to, as the rise of Trump clearly showed. Gretchen Carlson saw the signs and became the first in what became a growing chorus of women to dare challenge the infallible chairman. Once network star Megyn Kelly joined that group, it was a matter of time before Ailes would fall.

Ailes would end his long relationship with the network on July 21, 2016, receiving a $40 million severance package in the bargain. The fact that this amount was allegedly three times as large as the money given to settle his harassment cases out of court was largely ignored.

Ailes would spend the rest of the 2016 campaign informally advising the Trump campaign to its unprecedented victory in November, and rumors swirled as to a formal role in the White House during the transition. Meanwhile the network he had worked so hard to control and dominate began its tailspin we see today, losing reporters Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly to their competitors and firing conservative darling O’Reilly to scandals of his own. One wonders if the recent Russia narrative and lack of direction/focus by Washington Republicans weighed heavily on his mind to the last.

In the end Roger Ailes will be lionized as the media guru he was. For better or worse, no matter your political stripe, his influence on how we consume and view both media and politics is largely fashioned on ideas and theories he tested and later refined over the years. Numerous political leaders, from Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and even Rudy Giuliani and Trump, owe their political careers to his skillful manipulation of the media to his will.

To me, though, despite his well-earned accolades, his life stands as the epitome of a political stain that has led to the destructive style of media and politics we see today. The corrosive distrust in our civic institutions, while leading to the most conservative government America has ever known, has also made for the least functional government we have seen as well. That there is controversy over what a mere fact really is serves as a sad but natural progression of Ailes’s vision for slanted journalism packaged to entertain as well as to misinform. It perhaps goes to show that he clearly understood the implications of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s aphoristic phrase “The medium is the message.”

The long-lasting consequences of Ailes’s legacy are still a long way from being fully understood. What we can take away now is how callously superficial conservatism eventually became under his watch. More a shell than a three-dimensional movement, it was susceptible to the cult of Trump and acted as a serviceable host to mainstream his electability. He also is as stark a reminder there is of the power that exists behind that black mirror of our TVs and smartphones. An extract from George Orwell’s classic 1984 perhaps perfectly illustrates the dangers of Ailes’s legacy:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Let us hope that from now on we remember the importance of vigilance as a key aspect of our civic duty. And that the likes of Ailes have a much harder time peddling their message to the American people. It will not be easy – there will be others – but we will be ready. A democracy only survives because of the diversity of opinion and the strength of the press and media. Hopefully we’re doing our part here.

The Power of Companies in the New Age of Citizenry

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As you probably know, Bill O’Reilly and 21st Century Fox recently announced an end to their nearly twenty-year association, ironically just after agreeing to a lucrative multiyear contract. Although some might reasonably say that Fox News made O’Reilly, I think a good argument could be made for the opposite. In its twenty-year run, his show would easily become the most watched weekday primetime cable news program. O’Reilly would cement the network as a bulwark for a brash and new type of conservative, sowing the seeds for the election result we saw last November.

Bill O’Reilly (left) and Tomi Lahren (right) have come to represent the current and upcoming generations of popular conservative television personalities. Recent controversies from both have ended the career of one (O’Reilly) while endangering the career of the other (Lahren).

It was a format and style developed by conservative media maven Roger Ailes that would be quickly adopted by such conservative pundits such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and, more recently, newcomers Tomi Lahren and Alex Jones. Sadly, developments have turned the tables on these commentators in ways we could scarcely fathom just one year ago.

Roger Ailes is no longer chairman on Fox News, effectively bought off by Rupert Murdoch’s young heir-apparent sons after settling numerous sexual harassment charges levied on him and the network. Glenn Beck left Fox News after an acrimonious fallout between him and executives in 2012. Although his startup online organization known as The Blaze is seen as a viable alternative to Fox News, even Mr. Beck has professed shock and dismay at the ascendance of Donald Trump. Rush Limbaugh has seen his listenership steadily decline in the face of more able and congenial radio hosts such as Mark Levin and Charlie Sykes, while Tomi Lahren and Alex Jones have fallen from their own personal grace by either failing to toe the line (Lahren) or seeming to admit that their show is nothing but an act (Jones).

This all pales in comparison to the realization that accusations of harassment and victim shaming on the part of the network to protect their star host have been swirling around O’Reilly and Fox News for more than a decade now. That this new environment finally produced the necessary ingredients to force his ouster is a sad reminder of how far we have come and how far we still have left to go.

Recent accusations of sexual harassment from Fox News personalities such as Gretchen Carlson (left) have led to a rash of departures of key high-profile on-air talent such as Megyn Kelly (right) to more mainstream media networks such as NBC.

This article, however, is not about how prolific the conservative media landscape is or the concurrent dearth of mainstream progressive media sources (thankfully free of harassment!) but rather about how these titanic shifts in our media landscape came about. As you have all probably read, O’Reilly’s recent ouster was the result of over fifty high-dollar TV sponsors pulled their ads from the 9 p.m. O’Reilly Factor time slot. This tendency to only pull a controversial figure when sponsors begin to pull their money is not new in our recent history.

The recent spate of child and domestic abuse scandals in the NFL, the ouster of Don Imus from his radio show, and even President Trump’s rare moment of contrition (at least seeming to be) when the Hollywood Access tape was released were all the product of major advertisers making their dissatisfaction known after intense public pressure to do so. It is an alarming trend that seems to have become quite predictable once a scandal begins to gain traction. You can pretty much bank that once major sponsors like automobile and pharmaceutical companies, along with the added online company or two, begin to release statements of condemnation, it’s merely a matter of time before that host, issue, or scandal comes to a head.

But although these moments, such as the departure of Bill O’Reilly, stand as important reminders of the new world that has evolved over the past decade, it is wrong to credit that change simply to the fact that companies have simply dropped their advertising or sponsorship. Such narratives promote the false impression that Fortune 500 companies are the true guardians of civilization and decency rather than what they really are. At the end of the day companies such as Daimler-Chrysler, Amazon, and Viagra are just companies—entities and organizations created for the simple purpose of making money and little else. They cannot decry injustice any more than a simple plant or a park bench can read. They’re simply not set up for that. The idea that these companies have been imbued with such abilities to strip power from others is not only preposterous but dangerous as well.

It speaks to a larger issue that we all must confront in the post–Citizens United era. Not only should we reassess what makes a citizen, but we must also seriously look at the emerging narrative that companies should be counted among those privileged few who influence elections and voting through their contributions and policies. This is not as academic a debate as some might rightly assume it to be. I for one do not consider myself to be the equal of McDonald’s or Sherman-Williams. They cannot think, they cannot reason, they cannot judge, and, most important of all, they do not breathe, sleep, eat, or talk.

The real credit for O’Reilly’s ouster should instead go to the thousands of people—like you and me—who pressured those advertisers to pull their funding. It was they who put the screws on such companies as Geico, Subaru, and Lumber Liquidators, which together accounted for $35 million dollars in losses to Fox News’s bottom line. The scandal also stood in the way of the Murdoch brothers’ plan to acquire SKY News, purportedly an $11 billion transaction, which the brothers are desperate to complete. In all, it was a combination of the money and bad PR that did O’Reilly in.

Calls for O’Reilly’s departure from Fox News had been steadily increasing after the first allegations came to light in 2004. In the end the loss of nearly $35 million in ad revenue is what did him in—despite numerous protests and petitions from ordinary citizens, as seen above.

Sadly, the work of those activists who pressured these companies has been ignored in this narrative. But I would like to salute them here, not only for their persistence and perseverance in making O’Reilly accountable for his actions but also for every time some controversy flares and requires our attention. If only our government could respond with the same speed and heft as companies as Credit Karma and Allstate (no offense).

Meanwhile, young progressive commentators continue to flourish both online and across various social media outlets. Here the Young Turks’ host Cenk Uygur (far left) and politics reporter Nomiki Konst (far right) are flanked by actress Rosario Dawson (center left) and immigrant-rights advocate Linda Sarsour (center right).

So next time a major scandal occurs on the airwaves, remember the secret ingredient to make the wheels of change happen. Once companies begin abandoning ship, the drumbeat for change will not be far behind. Although this is a practical reality to the way things work now, we must never forget that it is we the citizens, we the taxpayers, and, yes, we the people who are the real power behind our moral social order. It’s time we start reminding the politicians, CEOs and TV executives of that.

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