What Ailes the News - Macleans.ca

What Ailes the News


It wasn’t my intention to do three straight posts on Fox shows, but it’s hard to resist reading Roger Ailes talking about the 15th anniversary of Fox News and why he considers himself so awesome. (This is the interview where he said that he hired Sarah Palin because “she was hot and got great ratings.”) The interview, with his boasting about how much better his network is doing than the other news networks, is a reminder that triumphalism is one of the key components of the Fox News style, and it comes from the top, with his statement that criticism comes from people who are “getting [their] ass beat.”

Once Fox became the most popular 24 hour channel, its ratings became literally a part of its brand: every personality on the network, every PR person, is trained to remind people that Fox is the #1 network and to imply that criticism from other news outlets is due to jealousy. (And given that CNN and even MSNBC have both tried to imitate Fox News at times, there probably is some jealousy there.) The message is that Fox is a winner and other networks are losers, and that message itself is part of the strategy for winning: it’s the Patton theory, that people love a winner and will gravitate toward it. I don’t want to make Ailes out to be too much of a sinister genius, though; he probably also just really likes bashing other news outlets. But it probably does work strategically too.

To make the strategy work, of course, he had to get to #1 in the first place. The question I can never quite figure out how to answer is how much of that has to do with the packaging of the product – the shows – and how much of it has to do with the product itself. Fox News grabbed its own specific audience, the audience that thinks the rest of the news is liberal. Other networks are fighting over bits of at least two different, ideologically incompatible groups (liberals and self-proclaimed centrists) and even try to lure some conservatives away from Fox; they don’t know who they’re aiming for. Fox came along right when it started to became clear that audience fragmentation wasn’t going away, and successfully aimed for a specific portion of that fragmented audience. And because there are more conservatives than liberals in the U.S., there can’t really be a pure liberal version of the Fox approach: even if a network could get as many liberals as Fox gets conservatives, it wouldn’t be enough. This is also one of the reasons liberal talk radio has never taken off – another reason being that some liberals prefer NPR anyway.

Ailes is probably right, I have to admit, that his network does have a better grasp of the fundamentals of broadcasting than MSNBC or CNN. (As he notes, Wolf Blitzer just isn’t a star personality and his show doesn’t even make good use of him) and like most television, it benefits from reflecting the vision of one person rather than a quilt of random decisions from easily-replaced people. But I think the network benefits from knowing who it wants to entertain, as opposed to CNN , which has no idea.

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What Ailes the News

  1. Fox is the modern version of the Coliseum….it attracts the same kind of crowd as the old one did.

  2. The guy is so arrogant he doesn’t bother to conceal his true intent. He practically admits that building ratings is a higher priority than keeping viewers properly informed, without considering that he’s succeeding at the first thing by doing a terrible job at the second.

  3. The fact that Fox News can consider itself a winner in news broadcasting because it pulls the highest ratings by pandering to a certain point of view is itself a great problem. Now that news is entertainment and bias is OK, there is no one to hold politicians to account. Anyone listening to a critical report about a politician has to doubt whether the report is fair or not, and the report loses all its bite. As a result, the politicians see no benefit in doing anything but playing up to the most extreme elements of their base support, which makes compromise impossible, which makes governing impossible. So we have a situation where the world’s greatest power is, for all intents and purposes, effectively ungoverned. That’s why the bond rating agencies are downgrading its debt, because they can see there is no chance of a political solution to its financial problems.

    At this point, the only reason to not say the U.S. is doomed is because the U.S. always seems doomed and always manages to survive.  

  4. The irony of course is that Ailes ran the predecessor to MSNBC, “America’s Talking” which featured a far more varied list of show hosts, including Chris Matthews, also also put on people like Charles Grodin and Tom Snyder when he was running CNBC’s primetime lineup. The later was mildly successful, the former was not, which is why it became MSNBC and Ailes moved over to News Corp. to create Fox News.

    Alies having been in Republican politics for a long time may have wanted to take America’s Talking in a more conservative bent — Chris Matthews was a fairly moderate Democrat in the mid-1990s — but understood the corporate culture was different there from what he was allowed to do by Murdoch at Fox, who had already done something similar in the New York print meida in the 1970s, talking the reliably liberal and staid-for-a-tabloid Post and turning it loud conservative mouthpiece. Whatever the reasoning, the folks in charge of MSNBC by the middle part of last decade didn’t have a problem with taking Ailes’ idea for Fox and turning it on its head, though the effort has only been enough to get it past CNN, without approaching the ratings their former employee has gotten.

  5. Liberals could never replicate the conservative propoganda machine that is Fox News because Liberals are generally more intelligent and analytical then the hard line cons and are compelled by virtue of their philosophy to examine all sides of a question and incorporate the data rather than just echo belief systems from on high. In my view, one Fox News is already too many and the sum total of the impact of the Murdoch communications machine is to have lowered the tone of political debate while increasing the amount of attack ads and the disingenuous  spread of false information.