Correcting Mr. Chafee

I’m a huge admirer of Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, who as a United States Senator took a courageous stand against the Iraq War and strongly condemned the George W. Bush administration’s abject failure to respond to the climate crisis. (His 2008 description of Sarah Palin as a “cocky whacko” was perfect.) However, in an October 2 interview for Boston PBS affiliate WGBH-TV, Chafee made an odd remark that merits a correction.

Asked by WGBH News reporter Adam Reilly about the drivers of hyper-partisanship in US political culture, Chafee acknowledged the strong influence of ultra-conservative media outlets such as the Fox News Channel. He then suggested that those ultra-conservative media outlets were only enacted in response to supposedly unfair progressive criticism of former President George H. W. Bush during his 1989-1993 tenure. That’s a curious allegation, in part because one of the most prominent ultra-conservative media outlets–the nationally syndicated Rush Limbaugh program–debuted in August 1988, three months before Bush was even elected. Chafee’s allegation is also curious because other ultra-conservative media outlets were developed long before Bush 41 was even Vice President.

David Brock’s seminal 2004 book The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy comprehensively covers the development of wingnut media over the past several decades; seven years after the book’s publication, Greenpeace produced a lengthy report on the role Lewis Powell’s infamous 1971 memo to the US Chamber of Commerce played in building the foundation for far-right media forums–to say nothing of moving mainstream media entities in a more Republican-friendly direction.

In 2011, Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson reported on an early-1970s effort by future Fox News head Roger Ailes to make Wingnut TV work:

In 1974, [Ailes’s] notoriety from the Nixon campaign won him a job at Television News Incorporated, a new right-wing TV network that had launched under a deliberately misleading motto that Ailes would one day adopt as his own: ‘fair and balanced.’ TVN made no sense as a business. The project of archconservative brewing magnate Joseph Coors, the news service was designed to inject a far-right slant into local news broadcasts by providing news clips that stations could use without credit – and for a fraction of the true costs of production. Once the affiliates got hooked on the discounted clips, its president explained, TVN would ‘gradually, subtly, slowly’ inject ‘our philosophy in the news.’ The network was, in the words of a news director who quit in protest, a ‘propaganda machine.’

But TVN’s staff of professional journalists revolted over the ideo­logical pressure by top management. So the fledgling operation purged 16 staffers and brought in Ailes to command the newsroom. ‘He was involved in the creation of the effort,’ recalled Paul Weyrich, a leading figure in the New Right who had close ties to Coors. ‘He was sort of the godfather behind the scenes.’

During the time he spent at TVN, Ailes began to plot the growth of a right-wing network that looked very much like the future Fox News. The network planned to invest millions in satellite distribution that would enable TVN to not just distribute news clips but provide a full newscast with its own anchors – a business model that was also employed by an upstart network called CNN. For Ailes, it was a way to extend the kind of fake news that he was regularly using as a political strategist. ‘I know certain techniques, such as a press release that looks like a newscast,’ he told The Washington Post in 1972. ‘So you use it because you want your man to win.’

Under Ailes, TVN even signed an open-ended contract to produce propaganda for the federal government, providing news clips and scripts to the U.S. Information Agency – a hand-in-glove relationship with the Ford administration that Ailes insisted created no conflict of interest. But TVN collapsed in 1975, depriving Ailes of the chance to implement his vision for a right-wing news network. ‘They were losing money and they weren’t able to control their journalists,’ says Kerwin Swint, author of the Ailes biography, Dark Genius. Ailes would have to wait two decades to launch another ‘fair and balanced’ propaganda machine – and when he did, he would make sure that the journalists he employed were prepared to toe the party line.

It’s one thing to suggest that Bush 41 should have received more credit for some of his actions during his administration. (He’s certainly getting that credit now.) It’s quite another thing to suggest that progressive attacks on Bush 41 gave rise to the powerful propaganda of the rancid right, when plans to pound the people with waves of wingnuttery were made years before the 1988 presidential election. Lincoln Chafee is a good man, but boy, did he make a bad call.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.