In this media rant I wish to make three points:
- Fox News, guided by the values of founder Roger Ailes, did not originate but did magnify the worst tendencies of post-World War II news media in the United States.
- The real significance of Ailes and Fox is his/its revival of the ancient “eristic,” an intoxicating mode of argument rooted not in the civil exchange of ideas for the purpose of arriving at sound public policy, but rooted instead in the desire to defeat and humiliate opponents.
- The end and tragic result of Fox’s magnification of the news media’s worst tendencies and revival of the eristic has been the death of political conservatism as a force for generating new ideas or reformulating old ones.
Fox and the Three Worst Features of American News Media
Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, died recently. The response by his critics was, paradoxically but predictably, Fox News-like in its vitriol. Media Studies Professor Marc Lamont Hill tweeted, “Roger Ailes has died. Wow. Sending deep and heartfelt condolences to everyone who was abused, harassed, exploited, and unjustly fired by him.” Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi chimed in with “The extent to which we hate and fear each other now – that's not any one person's fault. But no one person was more at fault than Roger Ailes. He never had a soul to sell, so he sold ours. It may take 50 years or a century for us to recover. Even dictators rarely have that kind of impact. Enjoy the next life, you monster.” Media critic Neal Gabler posits that Ailes created a monstrous news channel:
You could say that Fox News gave voice to those who felt voiceless, though it might be more accurate to say that he gave voice to those who were so filled with enmity that they seemed on the borderline of sanity. With his hosts and guests howling at elites without surcease, he created not just an alternative media or even an alternative set of facts, but an alternative universe that has overtaken the real one — a bizarre universe bubbling with resentments and conspiracies and fabrications in which liberals aren’t a political opposition; they are the source of all evil. Basically, he poisoned America.
Think Gabler is exaggerating? Consider the recent case of Princeton University assistant professor of African-American Studies Keeanga-YamahttaTaylor. Professor Taylor delivered the commencement address at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. In the speech she called President Trump a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.” After Fox News covered her speech, she was subjected to bitter, angry, threatening, racist trolling that forced her to cancel public lectures in Seattle and San Diego. She put out a statement which said in part:
My speech at Hampshire was applauded but Fox News did not like it. Last week, the network ran a story on my speech, describing it as an “anti-POTUS tirade.” Fox ran an online story about my speech and created a separate video of excerpts of my speech, which included my warning to graduates about the world they were graduating into. I argued that Donald Trump, the most powerful politician in the world, is “a racist and sexist megalomaniac,” who poses a threat to their future. Shortly after the Fox story and video were published, my work email was inundated with vile and violent statements. I have been repeatedly called “nigger,” “bitch,” “cunt,” “dyke,” “she-male,” and “coon” — a clear reminder that racial violence is closely aligned with gender and sexual violence. I have been threatened with lynching and having the bullet from a .44 Magnum put in my head. I am not a newsworthy person. Fox did not run this story because it was “news,” but to incite and unleash the mob-like mentality of its fringe audience, anticipating that they would respond with a deluge of hate-filled emails — or worse. The threat of violence, whether it is implied or acted on, is intended to intimidate and to silence . . . The cancelation of my speaking events is a concession to the violent intimidation that was, in my opinion, provoked by Fox News. But I am releasing this statement to say that I will not be silent. Their side uses the threat of violence and intimidation because they cannot compete in the field of politics, ideas, and organizing.
The most credible accounts of Roger Ailes’ tenure at Fox suggest that he created a toxic, ratings driven corporate culture, while his predatory behavior toward women is now well documented. (Appropriately, Ailes’ biggest defender is Bill O’Reilly, himself finally forced out at Fox in April of this year after his show’s corporate sponsors could no longer stand by the sexual harassment behaviors that Ailes enabled for many years). Maybe what’s most shocking is that the TV liberal Rachel Maddow openly admits to considering Ailes a “friend.”
As regards his journalistic legacy, most of Ailes’ critics seem convinced that he represented something uniquely awful in the history of American and/or global news media. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that historians of the future will find Ailes and Fox News noteworthy for how they magnified the three worst features of post-World War II American news media:
Worst Feature #1: The news media as an arm of the State. Some Vietnam War reporting and Watergate-era journalism created an inaccurate perception of American news media as adversarial towards the interests of the State. In fact the establishment media have always had a cozy relationship with the powers that be, exemplified most distressingly by the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. And probably the best example of the reigning in of what little media/State tension did exist during the Vietnam era was CNN’s 1998 termination of April Oliver and Jack Smith, producers of a feature report showing that the US military used sarin gas during the Vietnam’s “Operation Tailwind.” Oliver and Smith were fired after significant pushback to the story from the Pentagon. (Oliver and Smith ended up writing a 77-page rebuttal to the CNN internal report that was used a justification to fire them. It is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the real world challenges to journalists who dare to be more than stenographers for the powerful.).
Worst Feature #2: The News as Entertainment. Fox has taken this feature to lamentable heights, but it did not begin with them. Reuven Frank, who served as President of NBC news from 1968-1974 and again from 1982-1984 reportedly said that every news story should "display the attributes of fiction, of drama. It should have structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle and an end." Attorney Floyd Abrams claims that Frank told him “sunshine is a weather report. A flood is news.”
Worst Feature #3: The News as Alternative Reality. In 2012 Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein published It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. The authors published an op-ed that same year in the Washington Post that summarized one of the key points of the book: “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier in American politics — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” That is, the modern day GOP inhabits an alternative reality.
No doubt Fox News aided and abetted the Republicans march toward an alternative universe. But as with the news as entertainment, this is not unique to Fox. Put on your local television news or read your local corporate newspaper. What you will see and read bears only marginal relation to the real lives of the majority of people inhabiting the geographical region. Most mainstream media subscribe to what Roger Ailes called the Orchestra Pit Theory: “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?” News media, from Fox on up, give us a view of reality as nonstop orchestra pit malfunctions, consequently making “reality” (especially for heavy TV news viewers) seem more chaotic, evil, and beyond repair than it actually is.
Roger Ailes, Fox News, and the Revival of the Ancient Greek Eristic
More than 2000 years ago, ancient Greek philosophers developed a fascination with what we today call “mass communication.” They called it Rhetoric, and they had spirited debates about the ethics of such communication. Most people today receive little education about that time period or those debates, which is unfortunate because if they did maybe it would be easier to understand the rise of Roger Ailes and Fox News.
In the 5th century BCE, as Greece dabbled in experiments with democracy, attention was given to the importance and power of communication in civic life. Today when people hear the word “rhetoric” they think of “spin” or “bullshit,” but to the ancient Greeks the study of rhetoric was equal to the study of citizenship; rhetoric was vital as an aid in making policy decisions, resolving disputes, and mediating the discussion of public issues to citizens.
Early teachers of rhetoric were known as “Sophists.” Many of them were brilliant philosophers and educators teaching the skills necessary to be successful as a public advocate, but others were kind of like early versions of Dale Carnegie; “winning friends and influencing people” took priority over sound argument and the search for truth. Socrates, his student Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle developed a sense of rhetoric as “philosophy in action.” Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the most well developed exploration of the “art of rhetoric” from that time period, conceives of a rhetorician as someone who presents a well-argued case, develops an emotional connection with an audience, and is perceived by them to be a person of goodwill.
Plato was quite hostile to the sophists. In his writings, most of which feature his teacher Socrates, Plato has Socrates accuse the Sophists of engaging in “eristic” argument. Eristic argument was a kind of verbal duel; the purpose was not to enlighten or arrive at truth but only to win an argument. Plato’s Socrates differentiates eristic from dialectic. According to professor James Benjamin, “A defining characteristic of proper dialectic is that the participants must seriously pursue the subject under discussion. Disputes become eristical when one of the participants violates the serious purpose of the dispute. Just as a card game deteriorates into chaos when one player intends to play bridge while another player intends to play hearts, so too does dialectic deteriorate into eristic if one participant holds a serious intention while another participant holds a less serious intention . . . Eristic is fallacious dialectic that corresponds to fallacious argumentation in rhetoric and is motivated by a disregard for the rules of serious argumentative pursuits.” (quote appears in Benjamin, J. "Eristic, Dialectic, and Rhetoric." Communication Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter 1983, pp. 21-26). Eristic argument, given that it is like a sport, has high entertainment value and literally draws crowds.
Seen from this perspective, Roger Ailes and Fox News since 1996 have provided us with a powerful model of modern eristic. The bluster and bloviation of blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity—maddening to their opponents—is rooted in a communication model that ancient philosophers and rhetoricians warned us about many years ago. In a corporate media world that lives and dies by the advertising dollar, it is not surprising that the success of Ailes’ eristic has spawned a wide range of imitators all over the political spectrum, from the alt.right to the so-called left over at MSNBC. The mainstream media's obsession with Vladimir Putin, cleverly coined "Putinology" by Keith Gessen, comes straight from the Fox playbook in use of the most vulgar guilt-by-association tactics.
Ailes, Fox, and the Death of Political Conservatism
Perhaps the most disastrous consequence of Ailes’ eristic has been Fox’s impact on political conservativism. Conservativism used to be about, and should be about, figuring out how to adapt precedent and traditional principles to modern problems. Conceived of that way, conservativism at its best is a rigorous and spirited testing of ideas. Ailes and Fox, because of their addiction to the eristic mode of argument, literally destroyed any of that sense of conservatism. They replaced it with a sham conservativism that seeks not to advance new ideas or provide fresh takes on old ones, but rather is content to demolish “liberal elites.”
Charlie Sykes, the conservative talk-radio host who appears to have finally “had it” with the excesses of the movement that he himself had a prominent role in creating, penned an important op-ed recently for the New York Times that gets at the heart of what the eristic style has done to conservatism. He writes:
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of airtime on conservative media is not taken up by issues or explanations of conservative approaches to markets or need to balance liberty with order. Why bother with such stuff, when there were personalities to be mocked and left-wing moonbats to be ridiculed?
What may have begun as a policy or a tactic in opposition has long since become a reflex. But there is an obvious price to be paid for essentially becoming a party devoted to trolling. In the long run, it’s hard to see how a party dedicated to liberal tears can remain a movement based on ideas or centered on principles.
Conservatives will care less about governing and more about scoring “wins” — and inflicting losses on the left — no matter how hollow the victories or flawed the policies. Ultimately, though, this will end badly because it is a moral and intellectual dead end, and very likely a political one as well.
If you want to test Sykes’ argument, just go to Facebook and monitor the posts of your self-identified “conservative” friends. You won’t see much original argument or insight, but you will see a boat load of memes mocking liberals. (There are of course exceptions, but the exceptions always seem to prove the rule.). Is this entirely because of Roger Ailes and Fox? No, but Fox has for over 20 years produced an almost intoxicating brand of eristic that has normalized mockery, name-calling, and knocking down straw (wo)men as legitimate forms of conservative argument. If liberalism died because its advocates lack guts, maybe conservatism died because, as Stephen Colbert famously noted in his roast of George W. Bush, it argues “from the gut.”
So addictive is the eristic that if you point out the strategy to the addicts, a typical response is “whataboutism;” “Whatabout when liberals attack conservatives? Whatabout that professor’s commencement speech? Didn’t she call Trump names?” Etc. etc. A great sign of a philosophy going bankrupt is when its adherents are reduced to answering all major criticisms by pointing out the hypocrisy of the critics.
Eristic argument will always be with us. The answer is not to censor it or whine about it, but to teach citizens how to recognize it. Once citizens recognizes the eristic at work, they can seek out more ethical discourse interested in the pursuit of truth as opposed to the pursuit of power and ratings points. Even better, they can become a more active contributor to the media; we need more blogs, newspaper columns, social media posts, podcasts, and other forms of media that reject trolling (i.e. the eristic) and seek understanding and insight. Drown out the eristic with a healthy dose of ethical citizenship.