Three White Guys and a TV: Roger, Newt and Donald
Was the night of the 2012 Republican Presidential debate in South Carolina a warning sign — a smoke signal sent high into the atmosphere that most of us tragically missed?
Juan Williams, the moderater and an African-American, asked Newt Gingrich:
“Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?”
Gingrich responded, dismissively,
“No, I do not.”
The crowd roared. The Fox News camera panned out as we continued to hear enthusiastic cheering.
Gingrich used Williams’s question as a launching pad to delve into Republican talking points that are misleading and sometimes completely false, including that more people received food stamps under Obama than under any other President. Gingrich proclaimed that he was simply encouraging people to work and that “elites, those politically correct people despise earning money.” It is one of these statements, both incoherent and misleading, that would later become the perfect representation of Trumpism. Say something controversial and insensitive and then double down, and make it more offensive. All the while, the crowd jeered every time Newt said something insulting or racist.
Gingrich, to the delight of the audience, linked an African-American President with the food stamp stereotypes of a welfare mother and, when called on his insults, he doubled-down.
He won the South Carolina primary five days later.
How did we get to a world where the Newts and Donalds of the world had a fighting chance to win primaries, and, ultimately, the…presidency in 2016? Some of the blame, or acclaim, depending on which side of the political aisle you were on, could be attributed to Roger Ailes.
I recently picked up Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 The Loudest Voice in the Room a few weeks ago, and inhaled it, underlining line after line. As Sherman writes in the opening forward new to the paperback version,”[t]here is perhaps no other individual whose life explains how we ended up with President Trump than Roger Ailes.” I was hooked, quenching my thirst for answers of how we got here.
In 1996, Ailes was looking for his next gig. He had been fired from NBC for, among other things, calling a colleague a “little Jewish prick,” and took his first meetings with Rupert Murdoch. The two men identified a hole in the media market. Murdoch astutely observed that there was “an increasing gap between the values of those that deliver the news and those that receive it.”
Where were Nixon’s Silent Majority or Reagan Democrats supposed to get their TV news?
Around the same time, Microsoft and NBC forged a partnership, which spawned MSNBC. The new network was aimed at the coasts and aired informal discussions amongst friends versus the more traditional style of other news outlets. The goal was for the viewers to feel like they were at a coffee shop in Seattle, politely discussing the news of the day. Sherman points out that, “MSNBC’s urbane and cheerful family inevitably left a lot of America on the outside.”
As the Murdoch-Ailes conversations picked up momentum, Ailes hired a Democratic pollster John Gorman to test viewer attitudes about the media. Ailes instincts were correct: “more than half the country did not trust the news media.”
Banking on the distrust of the media by large swaths of the country, Ailes and Fox News created the opposite, according to marketing slogans: “Just the facts.” The programming was “Fair and balanced,” and, viewers were empowered: “We report. You decide.” As Sherman writes, “Fox was putting forth the notion that their audience could come to their own conclusions, while feeling informed.”
There is a difference between reading a conservative paper and watching this viewpoint over and over on TV. When you read, your brain is working, it has to process words, and sentences, and understand meaning. TV is different. The brain is in sleep mode, and accepts easily what is being transmitted.
Ailes knew his target audience (white men) and force fed them red meat.
The left was full of sexual deviants, like Bill Clinton, and Obama hated capitalism, and was creating death panels. To hell with the intricacies of public policy, FoxNews kept antagonizing the left as weak individuals, who needed to call AAA to change their tires (well maybe that was true). Once a candidate came out and just said the most racist and controversial things without sugarcoating it, the viewership followed in lockstep.
Newt’s success race-baiting in 2012 created a roadmap for Trump, but Ailes’s ability to seep into the minds of millions of American and the media juggernaut he created helped our current president not just win a Republican primary in South Carolina, but shock the world, and win the presidency. Sherman’s excellent book will be read by future generations to help understand how a huckster like Trump could be elected president. It is not the sole cause, but Ailes finally was able to deliver the presidency. He is now gone, but his creations sadly live on.