Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Tim Dickinson on Roger Ailes and Fox News

Over the past few days, Fox News has launched an all-out offensive against the tax-exempt status of the liberal think tank Media Matters, which specializes in tracking and critiquing Fox and other conservative media outlets. Over the past few days, Fox has aired more than 30 segments demanding that Media Matters lose its tax-exempt status. The Fox Nation website even allows visitors to send canned complaints to the IRS with the click of a mouse.

Fox’s central argument is that Media Matters is engaging in prohibited political activity by accusing Fox of being the voice of the Republican Party. The tax code stipulates that tax-exempt organizations must deal only in statements supported by fact. Fox and its allies maintain that Media Matters has no factual basis to claim that Fox is the voice of the Republican Party.

Last month, Rolling Stone published a fascinating and deeply-reported feature on Fox News and its bombastic, crusading chairman, Roger Ailes.

Tim Dickinson tracks Ailes career as GOP media consultant from his stint as Richard Nixon’s television guru to the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Ailes officially retired from politics in 1991. As Dickinson tells it, Ailes’ penchant for race-baiting tactics, including the infamous Willie Horton ads, eventually tarnished his image. Ailes joined forces with Rupert Murdoch to start Fox News in 1996.

Ailes is the father of the political infomercial. As Ailes later said in an interview, he was determined to bypass the media to bring Nixon’s message directly to the public. To that end, he created a traveling televised roadshow that produced prefab “town meetings” with handpicked voters lobbing softball questions at the candidate. The campaign paid to broadcast these programs in local media markets. Ailes swears he got out of politics, but the infomercial model lives on at Fox News.

Dickinson goes on to describe how Ailes has transformed Fox News into an incredibly powerful fundraising and campaign platform for favored GOP candidates:

[…] Ailes has not simply been content to shift the nature of journalism and direct the GOP’s message war. He has also turned Fox News into a political fundraising juggernaut. During her Senate race in Delaware, Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell bragged, “I’ve got Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money.” Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who tried to unseat Harry Reid in Nevada, praised Fox for letting her say on-air, “I need $25 from a million people – go to SharronAngle.com and send money.” Completing the Fox-GOP axis, Karl Rove has used his pulpit as a Fox News commentator to promote American Crossroads, a shadowy political group he founded, promising that the money it raised would be put “to good use to defeat Democrats who have supported the president’s agenda.”

But the clearest demonstration of how Ailes has seamlessly merged both money and message lies in the election of John Kasich, a longtime Fox News contributor who eked out a two-point victory over Democrat Ted Strickland last November to become governor of Ohio. While technically a Republican, Kasich might better be understood as the first candidate of the Fox News Party. “The question is no longer whether Fox News is an arm of the GOP,” says Burns, the network’s former media critic, “but whether it’s becoming the torso instead.”

Ailes’ genius, in Dickinson’s view, is that he’s turned propaganda into an incredibly profitable business. In an amazing bit of media alchemy, he makes a fortune by giving away free political advertising.

At a time when news organizations are struggling, Fox News broadcasts its conservative message to 100 million American households while sustaining profit margins greater than 50%.

To claim that any non-party organization is “the voice of” a political party is to speak metaphorically. However, Media Matters’ rhetoric is based on solid facts about the intimate links between Fox News and the GOP. Dickinson’s reporting suggests that the metaphor is apt.

However, given Fox’s role as kingmaker and gatekeeper for Republican electoral politics, it might be even more apt to say that the GOP is the voice of Fox News.