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Aiming at Ailes–and Missing Badly

One of the most famous quotes about Fox News is Charles Krauthammer’s quip that Fox’s success was due to its appeal to a niche market: half the country. There are times it seems almost an understatement, so thoroughly does Fox dominate the ratings. And in fact it’s almost as though Krauthammer’s “half the country” might refer to the speakers instead of the audience. Just as talk radio thrived as an alternative to mainstream liberal news and opinion, so too did Fox suddenly offer otherwise-marginalized right-of-center views to a public who didn’t want to be as ideologically cloistered as is the modern liberal establishment.

This came to mind when I read a humorous, but telling account of a recent interview with Gabriel Sherman, the author of a new book on Fox’s Roger Ailes. The title of the book is The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News–and Divided a Country. That last phrase piqued the interest of Norah O’Donnell and Charlie Rose, who interviewed Sherman late last week. Specifically, they wanted to know, how precisely has Ailes divided the country? The Washington Post’s media writer Erik Wemple caught the exchange and posted a transcript of that part of the interview:

O’Donnell: You say he’s divided a country.

Sherman: Yes, he has.

O’Donnell: How?

Sherman: Because his ability to drive a message: He has an unrivaled ability to know what resonates with a certain audience. You know, he comes from a blue-collar factory town in Ohio, he speaks to…

Rose: So what’s the message that divides the country?

Sherman: He speaks to that part of America that feels left behind by the culture. You know, it’s the old Nixon silent majority, which is what was his formative experience.

Wemple notes that Sherman does not, in fact, come close to answering the question. It’s quite a charge to say that someone divided the United States. When it’s put in the title of your biography of that person, the reader expects you to not only make that case but use it as a basis for understanding the subject’s work. Wemple continues:

After three years of reporting and more than 600 interviews, Sherman should come equipped to his media interviews with better answers. What’s divisive, after all, about understanding what “resonates with a certain audience”? What’s the problem with speaking to Americans who feel “left behind by the culture”? Wouldn’t that be a public service? Indeed, everything that Sherman cited to the CBS people — including blue-collar origins — would appear to be assets for a guy like Ailes. Why haven’t Fox News allies seized upon these remarks as evidence of Sherman’s disdain for conservative America? (Stelter tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he planned a follow-up to that portion of Sherman’s “CBS This Morning” interview but ran out of time).

Taken at face value, the exchange would seem to be totally unedifying. But it’s actually quite the opposite. Roger Ailes most certainly did not divide the country, and few people are unhinged enough to believe he did. So what made Sherman use the phrase–in the book’s title, no less? It becomes easier to understand when you remember that Sherman’s evasive response was actually him thinking he answered the question.

The American left became spoiled by its dominance of major media before Fox. Liberals reveled in their belief that they had ownership of a high-minded consensus. In order to own that consensus, however, the liberal media elite had to be speaking for the country. But who strikes you as more representative of the broader American public–Gabriel Sherman, a writer for New York magazine who also lives in New York City, or the “blue-collar” Ohioans Sherman mentions?

This is not a paean to the “real America” that supposedly excludes coastal elites. It was Sherman, in fact, who brought up the blue-collar folk that Ailes resonates with as an example of the supposed divisive nature of Ailes’s work. In his blisteringly negative review of the book for Slate, Michael Wolff notes that Sherman gets facts wrong and uses unreliable sources. But even more than that, he doesn’t seem to understand the difference between cable and network news, and the audiences they attract. Wolff adds:

Fox’s prime-time audience averages 1.1 million. Network news audiences in the great old days reached 40 million. Sherman’s thesis that Ailes “divided a country” is quite absurd. What Ailes did do is to help turn politics into a special interest category. It is not just the Fox view that is a closed ecosystem—it is the liberal view of the Fox view that is as much a part of the bubble. Perfectly targeted co-dependents.

The country was already divided politically among conservatives, liberals, and everything in between. What Ailes did was enter the conversation, and did so quite effectively. And liberals won’t forgive him for it.



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