Who’ll Stop the Raines?
I’ve never laid eyes on Howell Raines, the former executive editor of the New York Times, but when I think of him, I see a man bent double, trying to locomote beneath the weight of this huge thing that burdens him—this thing called Conscience. Raines is a scold. He doesn’t mean to be; he’d much rather go fishing and dream about writing novels. But the world leaves him no choice. For the world includes Fox News.
This unpleasant fact has been bugging him for years. In 2006, a few years after he was bounced from the Times for presiding over the felonious career of the hoaxer Jayson Blair, he published a bitter memoir. Although the story line has no relationship to the Fox News Channel, Fox is in its pages anyway, wafting through the narrative like the downdraft from a neighboring sewage plant. Fox’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, is “a flagrant pirate.” The network itself deals in “outright lies and paranoid opinions packaged as news.” Its president and founder, Roger Ailes, is “an unprincipled Nixon thug who had assumed a journalistic disguise in much the same way that the intergalactic insect in Men in Black shrugged into the borrowed skin of a hapless hillbilly.”
A scold’s work is never done. In mid-March, Raines resumed his campaign against Fox in an impassioned column in the Washington Post under the clarion headline: “Why Don’t Honest Journalists Take on Roger Ailes and Fox News?”
Ailes, Raines wrote, is “using the network to conduct a propaganda campaign against the Obama administration—a campaign without precedent in our modern political history.” Raines’s little essay was the purest expression yet of the media establishment’s hostility to Fox News. Has a respectable journalist ever before implored one group of journalists to bully another group of journalists into getting back in line? A writer with a weakness for grandiosity might say Raines’s op-ed is without precedent in our modern political history.
“Standards of fairness and objectivity,” he wrote, by way of background, “have guided American print and broadcast journalists since World War II.” But now, Raines went on, “many members of my profession seem to stand by in silence as Ailes tears up the rule book” and “turns reality on its head.”
Amid the rhetorical flourishes, Raines offered only one particular in his indictment of Fox: “its endless repetition of its uber-lie: ‘The American people do not want health-care reform.’” An uber-lie, I guess, is a really, really big, really flagrant lie—the lyingest lie you can imagine—yet Raines, in exposing it, didn’t bother to cite an instance of a Fox reporter “endlessly repeating” it. That’s just as well, because by the next sentence even this lonely charge was partially withdrawn. “This assertion,” he wrote, meaning the uber-lie, “ranks somewhere between debatable and untrue.” From uber-lie to debatable assertion in less than 20 words!
Then it turned out, according to Raines himself, that the assertion wasn’t even debatable—it was actually true. “The latest Gallup poll,” Raines wrote in the very next paragraph, “shows opinion running 48 to 45 percent against the current legislation.” Who are you going to believe, Howell Raines or your uber-lyin’ eyes?
Yet Gallup’s finding was illegitimate, Raines said, for two reasons. First, it came “after 14 months of Fox’s relentless pounding,” meaning that a cable channel with fewer than 5 million viewers on average had somehow determined the thinking of more than 200 million American adults. Ailes must be very persuasive, for an insect.
And second, Raines continued, the Gallup poll ignored “the majorities in favor of various individual aspects of the reform effort.” Here the fiercely free-thinking essayist was parroting a favorite argument of the Obama administration. It should go without saying that another poll would find majorities strongly against individual aspects of this infinitely complicated legislation too—the bill’s tax increases, let’s say, or its Bismarckian mandates. The results depended on which individual aspects you wanted to ask about. That’s why the judgment that mattered was the public’s opinion of the reform in its entirety. The rest was cherry picking.
Raines has been away from daily journalism for several years, so it’s easy to forgive his creaky command of current events; and being a shoe-leather guy, he never developed a knack for sustained argument, as readers will recall from his years as the Times’s lead editorial writer. What is less forgivable in Raines’s essay, if less surprising, is his failure to note the familial relationship that exists between the mainstream press and the Fox News Channel. The latter is entirely a creature of the former.
It all goes back to those standards of objectivity, which as Raines points out are a fairly recent development. Whiggishly, Raines sees objectivity as the culmination of a long evolution, with the amoeba hacks slowly growing backbones and pulling themselves up from the primordial muck of commerce and self-interest. “My generation of journalists,” Raines wrote in his memoir, “was trained in an intellectually rigorous process of fact-finding and analysis that evolved in the country’s newsrooms after World War II.” They were taught “whistle-blowing and afflicting the comfortable.”
That’s one reading of history anyway. Historians of journalism, if you can imagine such a thing, have made the point that the belief in “objectivity” that motivated so much thinking about journalism in the past 60 years was in truth an artifact of a unique economic condition, never to be repeated. In the early days of mass media, news outlets began to draw their revenue not from subscribers but from advertisers seeking a mass audience. A newspaper or broadcast network could keep such an audience, and attract advertising revenue, only by remaining strictly inoffensive. You saw the effects in every corner of pop culture. In entertainment, the trend toward the anodyne gave us limp comics (think of the later Bob Hope) and bland warbling (think of Andy Williams, earlier and later). In journalism, it gave us “objectivity” (think of Walter Cronkite).
Even so, the objectivity was mostly an illusion—and a dodge. Journalists, like caribou, feel more comfortable in packs, and significant views contrary to the newsroom consensus were unwelcome. The problem grew more acute when “objectivity” changed hands, passing from the Stevenson-era Democrats who ran news organizations till the late 1960s to the more strident left-wingers of the Vietnam generation—left-wingers like Howell Raines. The newsroom still held to a consensus, but the consensus was no longer anodyne. The decline in profits in the news business had many causes, but it started then. And so did the alienation of customers. Entrepreneurs like Ailes and Murdoch have been able to make the alienation pay. We have Howell Raines to thank for Fox News.
Yet notice how careful Ailes himself is to profess allegiance, Raines-like, to those standards of objectivity—the ingenious slogan fair and balanced is objectivity updated for an audience who have grown suspicious of the word. Ailes continues to insist that his programming observes the division between news reporting and commentary. The evening fare, consisting of talk shows led by the commentators Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, stands separate from the anchored news broadcasts during the day. Ailes’s innovation here is cosmetic. If you see a slightly buggy middle-aged white guy, it’s entertainment; if you see a saucy blonde with cherry lips, it’s hard news.
Neither Ailes nor Raines will admit that they are engaged in the same battle—or playing the same game, to use a gentler and more accurate metaphor—but from different sides. Each considers himself a renegade, a beleaguered David facing down a growling Goliath, speaking truth to power on behalf of neglected constituencies disdained by a corrupt elite. Each assumes, incorrectly, that a majority of the country agrees with him. And both want daily journalism to do something more than deliver the news.
The similarities don’t mean the two men or their views are interchangeable or equivalent, of course. But they’re in the same line of work. Raines himself must suspect this. It explains why he’s so grumpy.