Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Roger Ailes, King-Maker

Say what you will about MSNBC and its stable of liberals. It has had Ed Schultz (suspended), David Schuster (fired), Keith Olbermann (dismissed), Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews- whom no liberal would claim as his or her own. (And who can forget Phil Donahue?) Matthews sometimes seem as if he's auditioning to replace Jay Carney, but MSNBC is not the leftist equivalent of the rightist Fox News and clearly not the communications wing of a major political party.

We know, of course, about Fox News employing as on-air talent Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin, then all prospective GOP presidential candidates. But it all began much earlier and goes way beyond Roger Ailes giving an extremely valuable forum to major Republican talent. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson writes that the dejure GOP political operative turned defacto GOP political operative in his role as head of the most profitable arm of News Corp

likes to boast that Fox News maintains a bright, clear line between its news shows, which he touts as balanced, and prime-time hosts like O’Reilly and Hannity, who are given free rein to voice their opinions. “We police those lines very carefully,” Ailes has said. But after Bush was elected, Ailes tasked John Moody, his top political lieutenant, to keep the newsroom in lockstep. Early each morning, Ailes summoned Moody into his office – often joined by Hume from the Washington bureau on speakerphone – and provided his spin on the day’s news. Moody then posted a daily memo to the staff with explicit instructions on how to slant the day’s news coverage according to the agenda of those on “the Second Floor,” as Ailes and his loyal cadre of vice presidents are known. “There’s a chain of command, and it’s followed,” says a former news anchor. “Roger talks to his people, and his people pass the message on down.”

When the 9/11 Commission began investigating Bush’s negligence in the lead-up to the terrorist attacks, Moody issued a stark warning: “This is not ‘What did he know and when did he know it?’ stuff. Do not turn this into Watergate. Remember the fleeting sense of national unity that emerged from this tragedy. Let’s not desecrate that.” In a 2003 memo on Bush’s overtures for Middle East peace, Moody again ordered the staff to champion the president: “His political courage and tactical cunning are worth noting in our reporting throughout the day.” During the 2004 campaign, Moody highlighted John Kerry’s “flip-flop voting record” – a line that dovetailed with the attacks coming out of the White House. In fact, Fox News was working ­directly with the Bush administration to coordinate each day’s agenda – as Bush’s own press secretary, Scott McClellan, later conceded. “We at the White House,” McClellan said, “were getting them talking points.” (Ailes and Fox News declined repeated requests from Rolling Stone for an interview.)

When Bush was re-elected, Murdoch and Ailes toasted the victory together in the control room of Fox News, celebrating until three in the morning.

Ailes deserved to take a victory lap or two. Indispensable to the election to the presidency of Richard Nixon, Ronald(6) Wilson(6) Reagan(6), and George HW Bush (the latter by way of the racially-charged Willie Horton ad), Ailes left nothing to chance on election night 2000. Dickinson noted

The man he tapped to head the network’s “decision desk” on election night – the consultant responsible for calling states for either Gore or Bush – was none other than John Prescott Ellis, Bush’s first cousin. As a columnist at The Boston Globe, Ellis had recused himself from covering the campaign. “There is no way for you to know if I am telling you the truth about George W. Bush’s presidential campaign,” he told his readers, “because in his case, my loyalty goes to him and not to you.”

In any newsroom worthy of the name, such a conflict of interest would have immediately disqualified Ellis. But for Ailes, loyalty to Bush was an asset. “We at Fox News,” he would later tell a House hearing, “do not discriminate against people because of their family connections.” On Election Day, Ellis was in constant contact with Bush himself. After midnight, when a wave of late numbers showed Bush with a narrow lead, Ellis jumped on the data to declare Bush the winner – even though Florida was still rated too close to call by the vote-tracking consortium used by all the networks. Hume announced Fox’s call for Bush at 2:16 a.m. – a move that spurred every other network to follow suit, and led to bush wins headlines in the morning papers.

“We’ll never know whether Bush won the election in Florida or not,” says Dan Rather, who was anchoring the election coverage for CBS that night. “But when you reach these kinds of situations, the ability to control the narrative becomes critical. Led by Fox, the narrative began to be that Bush had won the election.”

Dwell on this for a moment: A “news” network controlled by a GOP operative who had spent decades shaping just such political narratives – including those that helped elect the candidate’s father – declared George W. Bush the victor based on the analysis of a man who had proclaimed himself loyal to Bush over the facts. “Of everything that happened on election night, this was the most important in impact,” Rep. Henry Waxman said at the time. “It immeasurably helped George Bush maintain the idea in people’s minds that he was the man who won the election.”

We never will know whether Osama binLaden was similarly exultant upon hearing of the election of George W. Bush to the presidency. He probably didn't know at the time, however, that the chance of success of his plan for a devastating attack upon the U.S.A. would be enhanced by the blind eye toward Islamic terrorism that would be turned by the new President.

Now, that was a cheap shot. But one that is as well-deserved as is grudging admiration for the powerful man who makes Republican presidents.

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