What Ailes Us

Brock was a self-acknowledged journalistic butcher who plied his falsehood-filled trade at the Heritage Foundation, The Washington Times and The American Spectator, gaining notoriety for sliming Bill Clinton in the fabled “troopergate” opus for the Spectator and in a book trashing Anita Hill, the critic of Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. His awful oeuvre was so vast that most don’t even recall one of the most hideous magazine pieces of our time–an overwrought, misogynistic 1999 Esquire profile of former California congressman Michael Huffington’s decision to come out of the closet. This world-exclusive by Brock, who is also gay, was crafted with the agreement that the demonette of Huffington’s tale, ex-wife Arianna, would not even be allowed to respond to allegations of skullduggery and gold-digging manipulation. Esquire‘s “The Strange Odyssey of Michael Huffington” served as a melancholy reminder that journalism has no minimum standards for entry.

Well, Brock says he subsequently saw the light (largely due to belatedly perceiving injustices done to Bill Clinton), switched political sides, and learned the benefits of rigor in reporting. His crossing this ideological bridge is not unlike treks by more notable figures in the annals of media, notably Walter Winchell (who supported, then excoriated President Franklin Roosevelt), Westbrook Pegler (who went way, way right) and William Randolph Hearst (a liberal Democrat transformed into another Roosevelt hater). Brock’s book on Hillary Clinton is said to have inspired his transition, which in turn generated a book-length confession of his past misdeeds and a frantic assertion of how deeply he craved redemption.

The Republican Noise Machine is a lengthy, and not uninteresting, look at the impressive rebound of right-leaning thought in American (mostly Washington-based) media, personified by the current ascendancy of the FOX News Channel, riding its wonderfully effective and disingenuous slogan, “fair and balanced.” His case for a right-wing conspiracy would make Hillary Clinton smile. Funded by deep-pocketed conservatives and intellectually inspired by various partisan think tanks, it encompasses right-wing talk radio hosts (Rush Limbaugh and Rush wannabes) along with aggressive book publishers, Internet impresario Matt Drudge, and of course, their beloved FOX. Frustrated by what they all deem traditional “liberal” domination of media and culture, they are said to constitute a propaganda machine to rival anything ever created in the old Soviet bloc.

Brock reminds the reader of a multitude of significant curiosities: How former Capitol Hill staffer Paul Weyrich, “an organizational genius,” played a crucial role in the 1970s by beginning to redefine media on conservatives’ terms; the domination of newspaper op-ed pages by conservatives; the dramatic reshaping and “awesome market power” of talk radio, and the coming of Limbaugh, once the courts had struck down the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine; the head-turning smears of Bill Clinton, including The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page; the red-baiting and error-filled legacy of Robert Novak, now an improbable eminence grise of cable punditry; the occasionally paper-thin credentials of authors of numerous conservative think-tank reports gobbled up by the media; the rise of loony commentators such as Ann Coulter, Alan Keyes, and Michael Savage; the very way in which the CNN “Crossfire” mode of debate has favored those on the right with little penchant for nuance; and the increasing gulf between right- and left-leaning media definitions of basic fairness.

Along the way, Brock seems to touch upon virtually every figure, big and small, in the modern conservative movement–Irving Kristol and son William, Pat Buchanan, Richard Viguerie, George Will, Cal Thomas, Robert Bork, Rupert Murdoch, Bill O’Reilly, Ronald Reagan, Reed Irvine, Roger Ailes, Newt Gingrich, Barry Goldwater, Grover Norquist, Phyllis Schlafly, William F. Buckley, William Safire, Amway Corp. founder Richard DeVos, publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, and beer mogul Joseph Coors, among many others. He establishes connections among the think tanks, their patrons, and the skewed studies which the think tanks feed to an all-too-obliging and lazy press. He reminds one of the woeful histories of wrongheaded declarations by Limbaugh and Drudge, but also why they tend to be more potent proselytizers than their ideological opponents.

Central to the right’s success has been money, and Brock is good at collating various disclosures over the years about lucrative and conservative politics. In a Washington world in which the Brookings Institution was long dominant, the rise of the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and CATO Institute, among others, was significant, and none could have happened without the funding of ideologically-driven Scaife, Olin, Bradley, and Coors foundations and families.

To a far greater extent than their “liberal counterparts,” notably Ford, Rockefeller, and Pew, these groups coordinated efforts and had scant desire to support open-minded, empirical research as they threw hundreds of millions of dollars the way of like-minded groups and individuals, including former Judge Robert Bork, William Kristol (a close childhood chum and a friend of mine), Richard Perle, and Dinesh D’Souza, who has received an estimated $1.5 million in conservative grants to boost his speaking and writing careers on subjects such as affirmative action.

As an undergraduate, D’Souza was associated with the right-wing, at times racist and homophobic Dartmouth Review, one of many campus papers funded by a group called the Institute for Education Affairs. That organization, the handiwork of the Olin Foundation and Irving Kristol, led a successful effort to cultivate conservative journalists and pundits nationwide. As Brock outlines it, this outreach to young conservatives also benefited existing journalists on the right, such as columnist Robert Novak. Novak, as Brock shows, made a mint off his connections, not just by operating a paid newsletter but also by holding twice-yearly conferences for subscribers at which they could hobnob with the same conservative officials whom he used as sources. Today, Novak, a sterling beneficiary of First Amendment protections, closes his gathering to the media–a gambit that would simply not be allowed if he were a full-time employee of any respectable newspaper (he slips through the cracks of ethics rules as a syndicated columnist with a loose affiliation with the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as a regular contributor to CNN, which clearly does not care about his ethically-challenged buckraking).

As important, if not depressing, is the generally correct assertion that the right plays by a different set of journalistic standards. Brock is most informative when reminding one of the unceasing string of unabashed atrocities published and broadcast by conservative magazines and television pundits. Whether it was a bogus Heritage paper on Bill Clinton proposing “the largest tax increase in world history” or one on African-American males being shafted by Social Security due to their lower life expectancies, such claims found a ready conduit in the likes of MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, FOX’s Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. A CATO Institute study discrediting the Head Start program, claiming that “heredity so strongly determines behavior that early intervention is a waste of time,” was the handiwork of a man with no credentials in the field.

The Clinton years showed this rough network at its most effective, and at times scurrilous. Brock recalls how outlandish claims of Clinton-related drug running and murder were matter-of-factly spread by a wide spectrum of people including Jerry Falwell, the Spectator, Limbaugh, and The New York Post.

Limbaugh routinely proffered the notion that White House deputy counsel Vince Foster’s death was “a suicide cover-up, possibly murder,” with the producer of his short-lived TV show, Roger Ailes, parroting the same during a Don Imus appearance, heralding the anti-Clinton craziness of a Scaife-backed journalist named Christopher Ruddy who heavily promoted the murder notion. All this played out with no small help from perhaps the conservative network’s most provocative handmaiden, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. The Journal even produced five books of hyperbolic editorials on the Whitewater non-scandal.

With Clinton gone, the right hasn’t lacked for new targets to attack and causes to promote, focusing in recent years on subjects such as Saddam Hussein. Conservative magazines such as William Kristol’s Weekly Standard went into overdrive promoting a link between Saddam and al Qaeda; one cover story simply declaring, “Case Closed,” while beating the drums for a preemptive invasion and suggesting that failure to support such an endeavor was unpatriotic.

Together, Brock contends, these cadres of individuals and conservative institutions form a seamless web whose intent is not just to discredit but also to smash opponents and dominate the means of communication. And with growing consolidation of ownership, he argues, is coming incipient control by a single ideology.

It is a tempting but very untidy argument, reflecting someone who has perhaps spent too long in the media echo chamber of Washington, not to mention someone too given to caricature of corporations and individuals alike. At best, it’s a nice and provocative clip job. For the most part, the analysis is reliably executed, though Brock occasionally tilts his data. For example, he conveniently omits Brookings in comparisons of the number of times conservative think tanks and liberal think tanks are cited in the media.

But someone who so hungers, as does Brock, to be taken seriously by us supposedly bona fide journalists should have exhibited a bit more ingenuity and grit to dig out new information and provide new analysis, for example, revealing how exactly the Republican National Committee seems to work in such lockstep with Limbaugh, Novak, and others to position issues.

Absent specific explanation, he falls back on conspiratorial suspicions and innuendo. For example, there is media ownership and his belief that it forces an ideology upon the national marketplace. Brock seems to forget that Murdoch and Ailes, the savvy tactician who runs FOX News Channel, aren’t forcing a view down American throats as they are adroitly filling a clear, if small, market niche; mostly older, white males of conservative stripe who are the core of the modest cable news audience and simply felt CNN was not their cup of tea. These are people who can make a plausible argument that key institutions in the society, including the elite print and broadcast media and academia, have long exhibited a general consensus on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, school prayer, welfare, and military spending–and they simply do not share that consensus.

As for individuals, few are more ham-handedly dealt with here than CNN’s mercurial founder, Ted Turner. He’s portrayed as a virtual nutbag conservative for, among other things, having supported Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and having given Novak and others prominent airtime on CNN. This characterization overlooks Turner’s admirable internationalist streak, suspicion of organized religion, huge donations to the United Nations, and ironclad environmentalism, all of which endear him to liberals, not conservatives. When Brock rings his hands over the growth of FOX, he forgets to mention the debilitating effect that Turner’s departure has had on CNN. Murdoch and Ailes have succeeded in no small measure because once-proud CNN–where I was once a paid contributor and have good friends–has self-immolated, at this moment having no apparent long-term strategy and lacking a mensch like Turner, a tough-minded and brilliant soul who would defend CNN against FOX, shredding the “Fair and balanced” mantra, in a manner seemingly foreign to Turner’s successors.

To declare that the right has won in certain sectors of the media is not to acknowledge a conspiracy. After all, the market itself tends to win out. That is also why it is wrong to find the current polarization and fragmentation of media consumption anything but an incremental return to a past of far greater polarization and fragmentation. Does anyone not recall those days of six and seven newspapers in a big city, with coverage so slanted as to make FOX and Drudge look more like C-Span? Lord, Chicago reporters used to routinely identify themselves to grieving families as cops so they could con their way into a home to fetch a photo of the murder victim. Detroit reporters got freebie cars from General Motors and Ford to take on vacation. I worked side-by-side with one Pulitzer Prize winner who had exterminating contracts with the city government on which he reported, and with another who took booze, sports apparel, and U.S. Open tennis tickets from firms on which he reported. Let us not get too misty-eyed about days gone by or too anxious about the fumbling and declining standards of today.

So what is really going on? Yes, Republicans are more effective in communicating their ideas, and clearly do exploit a nexus of think tanks, pundits, and both cable and radio hosts in an aggressive, frequently error-filled manner simply not seen on the left. (The notion that the National Public Radio is as ideologically-driven as, say, Limabaugh or O’Reilly may comfort the right, but is simply inaccurate.) But Democrats are not exactly ham-handed, as one sees with the filmmaker Michael Moore, a sort of Limbaugh with a camera, or the millions being spent by George Soros and MoveOn.org to prevent the reelection of President Bush.

Yes, a group of largely Republican TV viewers have found a comfort zone in watching FOX, though they remain a piddling-sized audience (roughly two million a day) compared to those lured to HBO and pro wrestling, not to mention those of broadcast TV’s prime time shows. Yes, one does have a surface sense of a more partisan media, largely due to all that shouting going on at FOX, CNN, and MSNBC. But don’t forget where Americans still get their news by and large: the inescapably bland and often dumb local TV stations where happy talk, not ideology or conflict, dominates. The dumbing down of America, not its political shaping by sinister forces, is our real challenge.

Yes, a growing group of media executives may look at the success of more strident competitors and wonder if that’s the way to go. But those same pinstripers are increasingly throwing money at niche products with narrow audiences of various genders, demographics, and politics because advertisers have begun to turn away from the mass audience and hunger for those slices. Heck, mainstream advertisers are beginning to support Internet blogs and videogames. And the pinstripers have shareholders whom they rightfully aim to please. If Murdoch had the choice between creating a moneymaking, liberal-leaning cable channel and going back to Sydney, you really think he’d be on the next Quantas flight?

And don’t forget, as President Bush and John Kerry won’t, the middle. It’s where this election will probably be won, per usual. It exists, no matter how many lies spread by journalists and assorted fakers are believed by various media constituencies. There may be a Republican Noise Machine, as Brock contends. But no matter how much it pushes a set of views, such as the one heralding our invasion of Iraq (flag waving at the top right or left of your screen), the machine won’t convince a majority that the loss of lives was worthwhile if their gut and good sense tells them otherwise. And that consensus appears to be growing. As Mikhail Gorbachev and his Soviet predecessors learned the hard way, there are always limits to the selling of a faulty product.