Monday, May 29, 2017

Whatever Ailes You

Late Thursday evening two weeks ago, my wife awoke me from a deep sleep to tell me that some really serious stuff was about to go down in Washington. From her reading of news articles posted by her friends on social media, the following day would be a Black Friday, not only for the Trump administration, but also for the Republican leadership in Congress. From the stories she was reading, damning proof would be released the next day of collusion with the Russians in their hacking of the last US presidential election that went beyond the president, to the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Black Friday would be the beginning of the end not only for President Trump, but also Vice President Pence and Speaker Ryan. Following the line of succession, the new president would be the current president pro tempore of the United States Senate, Orrin Hatch.

I have to admit that in my drowsy state, I bought into the news reports, and was downright giddy. Some of Gerald Ford's first words as President after Richard Nixon's resignation came to mind:
Our long national nightmare is over: Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.
I put myself to sleep that evening figuring out ways to explain to my Trump supporting friends that no, this was not a tragedy for the country, but rather a glorious day that proved once and for all that our government ruled by law prevailed over a would be despot who had his sights on undermining our constitution and thereby dismantling our democratic republic.

Needless to say, the tide did not turn the next day. There would be no Black Friday, or Black Saturday or Sunday for that matter. The glorious victory for the constitution and our rule of law would have to be postponed for another day, if ever.

And with that realization, I came back to my senses. It goes both ways of course, There are means in place to remove a president and other political leaders in the case of malfeasance. But for very good reasons, it is not a simple process. Our rule of law demands that even a mischievous president deserves due process. Our government needs to be protected from a capricious citizenry as well as a capricious president.

In that sense, my Trump supporting friends have a point. Perhaps we Trump detractors have a far too myopic focus on the impeachment of this president. The crux of their argument is unassailable. Donald Trump was elected president within the rules of our electioral system, and those of us who did not support him are angry because of the unusual way he won.

First of all, he didn't win the popular vote, but won enough electoral votes to put him over the top. The day after the election, a Trump supporting friend likened the Electoral College to a playoff series in sports, where the ultimate winner is not determined by the total number of points (i.e.: votes) scored over the duration of the series, but the number of games (i.e.: state contests) won. That sounded reasonable to me. I may not have liked it, but that's how the game is played.

Immediately, the 1960 World Series came to mind. In the seven games of that series, the New York Yankees scored 55 runs while their opponents, the Pittsburgh Pirates scored only 27. But as every person from the Steel City can tell you, a ball hit off the bat of Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski sailed over the head of Yankee left fielder Yogi Berra, then the fence of old Forbes Field and into Schenley Park, Pittsburgh at 3:36 PM on October 13th to break a 9-9 tie in the 10th inning of game seven.

Now anyone who knows anything about baseball will tell you on paper anyway, that Yankees team who was in the midst of their greatest streak of championships in their storied history, was by far the better team. But look it up and you will find that the champion of the 1960 season was indeed the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yes friends, Donald Trump in a sense, is the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates of politics, only not as likable.

We're also upset because the Russians, who from all evidence, strongly preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, hacked the election. Once again the Trump supporters have a point; despite the hacking, there is no evidence, yet anyway, that Russian mischief had any impact on the outcome of the election.

Finally there was that little matter of (now former) FBI director James Comey publicly announcing the week before the election, that he was re-opening the bureau's investigation of Clinton's use of a private e-mail server, over which she sent classified information. Despite Comey's later announcement that the FBI came up with no new information about Clinton, the seeds of suspicion were planted in the minds of undecided voters, and the damage was done. No one will ever know the extent to which Comey's unorthodox statements coming when they did, affected the outcome of the election, but one would hope that Donald Trump sent Comey a very nice Christmas present after he was elected president in November, that is, before he unceremoniously fired him three weeks ago.

Irritating as the Comey affair was to Trump detractors, it's unlikely that Comey was intentionally working on Trump's behalf when he made his statement, after all, he was working at the time under the administration of Barack Obama, who appointed him to the job in 2013.

So Trump supporters are absolutely correct when they say that his opponents are angry that he won. Beyond that however, their argument gets shall we say, a little goofy.

So incredulous that Hillary Clinton lost, say the Trump supporters, that Clinton and Barack Obama have taken it upon themselves to launch a massive resistance movement, all of which is bankrolled by the hedge fund billionaire, liberal gadfly, and darling of right-wing conspiracy theorists, George Soros. It is impossible according to them, that millions of people could be acting on their own in opposition to the new president, therefore someone must be paying them.

My first question to that accusation is this: "Hey George, where's my check?" My second question to that is: "no, seriously, where's the money?"

What Trump supporters fail to accept, or more likely admit, are the unbelievable number of missteps, screwups, lapses of judgement, and all out chicanery of the Trump administration, misdeeds so numerous said comedian Bill Maher, that he could not name them all without having to stop at some point to shave.

If you ask Trump supporters today what they think of the man for whom they voted for president in November, most of the time their response will not mention Trump at all. Instead you are likely to hear disparaging remarks about "Obummer", "Killary", the "libtard snowflakes" (translation: liberals so sensitive they need to retreat into the "safe zone" of like minded people), or "fake news" presented to gullible liberals by "The Lying Media". If they do mention Trump, they will lament how liberals, under the influence of the Svengali-like, agenda-driven main stream media, are so unfair to Donald Trump. Then without a trace of irony, Trump supporters say they are incredulous at the amount of hatred those people have against their man. After all they say, "we put up with eight years of Obama, why can't they put up with eight years of Trump?"

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled If Liberals Hate Him, Then Trump Must be Doing Something Right, conservative radio host, (but no Trump supporter), Charlie Sykes argues that ad hominum attacks of the Left, rather than critical thinking or rational discourse on policy, have become the hallmark of the rhetoric of pro-Trump ideology:
While there are those like Sean Hannity who are reliable cheerleaders for all things President Trump, much of the conservative news media is now less pro-Trump than it is anti-anti-Trump. The distinction is important, because anti-anti-Trumpism has become the new safe space for the right....
For the anti-anti-Trump pundit, whatever the allegation against Mr. Trump, whatever his blunders or foibles, the other side is always worse.
A friend of mine put it more succinctly the other day. He said the reason Trump supporters don't defend Trump is because you cannot defend the indefensible.

As there is no reasonable justification for Donald Trump and his performance up to this point, the only talking points left for his supporters is to harp on Obama, Clinton, and all those nasty 'liberals", the name Trump supporters give to people who do not support their man, regardless of their political leanings. In other words, in his opposition to Trump, the Republican Charlie Sykes much to his chagrin I'm sure, in Trump supporter's minds is no different from Al Sharpton. As a result, our country becomes more bitter, divided, and clueless each day.

I've written before of the cavernous gap that is dividing this country, but didn't have a concrete idea as to where it all came from until last week with the death of Roger Ailes. Quite honestly, I had never heard of Ailes until he was booted out as the boss of Fox News last year. As I've caught up with his life posthumously, I've concluded that Ailes has to be considered a maverick, one of the most influential and powerful men in this country in the past 40 years or so, largely responsible for the elections of every Republican president since Richard M. Nixon.

The story goes something like this. In 1967, the Republican candidate for president, Dick Nixon, was about to appear on the Mike Douglas variety show. The young Roger Ailes, at the time a producer of the show, took the future president aside and commented to him that the candidate needed TV because "television is not a gimmick." It's a little hard for me to believe that Nixon needed any convincing of that as he lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy, largely because he came off bad in the famous TV debates, compared to the suave, better prepared, and make up wearing JFK. Regardless, Ailes made enough of an impression on Nixon and top aide, H.R. Haldeman, that the latter suggested his boss hire Ailes to be his television advisor in 1970. According to a New York Times article published last week after Ailes' death: significant as what Mr. Ailes taught Nixon is what Nixon taught Mr. Ailes: the political power of popular resentment against a liberal cultural elite.
In his career, Ailes took those lessons to heart. His greatest contribution to the American scene went far beyond his role as kingmaker. In 1996, Ailes created, Fox News. The seeds of Fox were planted in two commercials made for George H.W. Bush, while Ailes worked his magic on his campaign in 1988. The first was a swipe at the proposals of Bush's opponent, Michael J. Dukakis, in regards to military spending which concludes with a humiliating shot of Dukakis playing soldier, looking like a small child while riding aboard a tank. Then there was the infamous Willie Horton ad which played on the fears and righteous indignation of Middle America.

Much has been written in the subsequent years about how the Horton ad either did or did not affect the outcome of that election. But there can be little doubt that the idea of a criminal in jail on a life sentence, being let out of prison for the weekends thereby enabling him to rape and murder innocent people, certainly ignited the fury of a good many people. That Horton, an African American male, looked particularly scary and threatening in the photograph of him used in the commercial, certainly drove the message home.

According to the Times piece, Ailes:
... transmogrified (Dukakis) from an immigrant success story and consummate technocrat into a namby-pamby liberal who opposed the Pledge of Allegiance and succored criminals like the murderer and rapist William Horton.
By now the origins of Fox News are well known, Ailes, for years derided the main stream media and its (in his view) liberal agenda. He would create an alternative network that spoke to the political leanings of right-wing middle America. At the core of that mission would be the same messages found in those two commercials: this country is going to hell in a hand basket because of those damn namby-pamby liberals who have no respect for this nation's traditional values. The demographic for Fox was, and continues to be overwhelmingly white and old, the average age of a Fox viewer is close to 70 years of age. Fox plays upon its viewers fears, fear of crime, fear of foreigners, fear of minorities, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of whatever. Fox has mastered the art of igniting the righteous indignation of its viewers with it's incessant attacks on "liberal" values such as universal health care, equal opportunity, open borders, and the ever popular, "political correctness." You will find very little substance as far as political philosophy or policy matters on Fox, hardly any meaningful dialog between people of opposing views, and certainly no reflection or self-criticism. If there is someone on Fox who supports an opposing view of the network, that person most likely will be shouted down by three or four other pundits with their own "correct" opinions,  that is to say, those of the management.What you will find is plenty of condemnation of the other side, usually in the form of humiliation, much like the kind found in the Dukakis tank ad. Frequent targets of those attacks are the usual suspects, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, along with liberal politicians and celebrities who suffer from frequent bouts of foot-in-mouth disease such as Maxine Waters and Katy Perry.

More than anyone besides Roger Ailes, Fox News owes its success to Bill Clinton. In 1998, Fox was put on the map in the words of a New Yorker article, by its "gleefully censorious coverage of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals". Its salacious coverage of Clinton's numerous escapades put Fox at the top of the charts of cable news networks, where it has remained until very recently. Fox's recent slip in ratings corresponded to the downfall of Ailes, whose own penchant for the sexual abuse of his employees was revealed, as well as that of their biggest star, Bill O'Reilly.

Clinton was impeached because of his scandals which Fox relentlessly exploited, but he managed to stay on his feet and served out the remainder of his term. But lives were irrevocably damaged if not destroyed as a result of Fox's shameless coverage of the event. At the center of the storm, was a 22 year old intern named Monica Lewinsky, Now because of her mistakes, Lewinsky as a consenting adult must bear part of the burden for the negative feelings directed at her by the public. But in large part thanks to Ailes and Fox, Lewinsky became a pariah, a national laughing stock, exploited mercilessly by the media and the public alike. Even feminists refused to rally around her. Few Americans in recent memory have been as universally scorned, least of all Bill Clinton, her partner in the tryst. Needless to say, Fox and other networks' coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair was driven by ratings. We the public drank it up like a glass of cold water in the middle of the Mojave Desert. In our rush to judge Ms. Lewinsky, as a nation we hit rock bottom as far as compassion, empathy and moral rectitude are concerned. Consequently, we as a nation got exactly what we deserved, Fox.

But Monica Lewinsky got the last laugh. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times,  published shortly after Ailes's death, she exposed the bold-faced hypocrisy of Roger Ailes and his media outlet:
Our world — of cyberbullying and chyrons, trolls and tweets — was forged in 1998. It is, as the historian Nicolaus Mills has put it, a “culture of humiliation,” in which those who prey on the vulnerable in the service of clicks and ratings are handsomely rewarded...

...On Fox, it seemed, no rumor was too unsubstantiated, no innuendo too vile and no accusation too abhorrent... 
...As the past year has revealed, thanks to brave women like Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, it is clear that at Fox, this culture of exploitation wasn’t limited to the screen. The irony of Mr. Ailes’s career at Fox — that he harnessed a sex scandal to build a cable juggernaut and then was brought down by his own — was not lost on anyone who has been paying attention.
As Newton's third law of motion states, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." That law works for cable news networks just as well as for objects in motion. Thanks to Fox, biased, boutique news outlets are no longer exclusively the purview of the right. Today whatever your political ideology may be, you can find a news source that will give you all the news you want to hear. A left-of-center version of Fox, MSNBC, now leads the ratings for cable news networks. While their journalistic street cred is higher than Fox's, that network makes no bones about promoting a staunchly liberal agenda. Tuning into MSNBC today you are as likely to hear unrelenting reports about new evidence of impeachable offenses in the Trump administration (at the expense of all other news),  as you are to tune into Fox and hear BREAKING NEWS about something Hillary Clinton did back in 2014, or more breaking news that new evidence has emerged that proves once and for all that Barack Obama's birth certificate was forged.

Ironically, liberal news commentators at MSNBC such as Lawrence O'Donnell, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, owe their current celebrity to Roger Ailes, as MSNBC would not exist, at least as it does today, without Fox.

And so it goes, the left has its own news sources, the right has its own, and never the twain shall meet. For better or worse, the days of everyone tuning into the same news source are long gone. Thanks to cable TV and the internet, the variety of published expressed opinions and ideas has never been more available to the general public, which by and large is a good thing.  But perhaps the consequence of all that is the fact that fewer opinion outlets (as genuine news outlets are becoming harder and harder to find), are willing to exchange in meaningful debate or self-reflection, but rather incessantly pound their message into the heads of their subscribers, as if the failure to do so, would mean losing ground in the battle, not just for ratings, but for political supremacy as well. Genuine discourse, critical thinking, and respect for a plurality of opinions, are sadly becoming things of the past.

We have Roger Ailes to thank for that. He was a true visionary and innovator. And we are all the poorer for it because of him.

1 comment:

Michael said...

This may be one of your best! If only everyone could be as aware and observant as you. Thanks.