Liberal Editor Evaluates Fox News Success: 'There Are a Lot of Stupid People Out There'

Former Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll tackled Gabriel Sherman’s attack-job biography on Fox News chief Roger Ailes (“The Loudest Voice in the Room”) for the latest cover story in the New York Review of Books.

Unsurprisingly, Coll largely endorses the liberal-media mindmeld that Fox News ruined the GOP’s chances in 2012 with a rabid over-painting of Barack Obama as some sort of liberal/socialist, attracting only an extreme-right audience, and not the independent voters:

A month after Election Day, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a report about what had gone wrong. The study’s authors did not cite Fox News by name, but they made clear that they thought the network’s polemical programming aimed at the Republican base was a major part of the problem. “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself,” they wrote. “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us.”

....In Sherman’s account, Ailes was personally responsible for this ill-conceived strategy. At 72 years old, wealthy and isolated, the Fox chief had apparently reached the conclusion that President Obama was driving the United States to ruin. Ailes therefore insisted that Fox News promote an idiosyncratic narrative of America-in-danger. In this story, the country was beset by runaway government power, rising racial conflict, hostility toward Christianity, and out-of-control immigration. But the voters, it turned out, were more concerned with job creation, levelheaded governance, and some measure of accountability and equity after the worst recession in seventy years.

In the view of liberal journalists, the Obama presidency is an oasis of “moderate” reason. The America-in-danger narrative was exhausted in the Bush years. Hyperbole about American decline and runaway government was saved for Bush. Coll patronizes Ailes that he knew the conventional wisdom that the GOP had to go to McCain’s left for a presidential contender, but the Fox-loving nuts wouldn’t allow it:

Ailes understood that if the GOP wished to win the White House in 2012, the party should nominate a moderate-sounding candidate. He tried privately to recruit New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and General David Petraeus. Yet these pragmatic instincts proved to be “at odds with the vivid political comedy Fox often programmed,” as Sherman puts it. In the end, the 2012 election was a case of “Ailes being unable to put his party’s goal of winning independents ahead of his personal views.”

....Here lies the problem in the alliance between Fox News and the Republican Party that Ailes has constructed. Fox owes its degree of profitability in part to its most passionate, even extremist, audience segment. To win national elections, the Grand Old Party, on the other hand, must win over moderate, racially diverse, and independent voters. By their very diversity and middling views, swing voters are not easy to target on television. The sort of news-talk programming most likely to attract a broad and moderate audience—hard news, weather news, crime news, sports, and perhaps a smattering of left–right debate formats—is essentially the CNN formula, which Fox has already rejected triumphantly.

Earth to Steve Coll: somehow you missed all the Obama fawning and liberal bias that is the CNN formula. Just because MSNBC is twice as fawning doesn’t mean CNN is “moderate.” Coll also suggests that Ailes is smart enough to know his audience are stupid and hateful, a booboisie:


Ailes comes across as both profoundly angry and whimsically charming, darkly driven and creatively humorous; it is difficult for a reader to arrive at an accurate balance of these forces. At one point, while lobbying a local politician in his office, Ailes tosses down printed charts on a desk and declares, apropos of nothing in particular, “What do you think of that?… Fox is outperforming any other cable news network!”

“Well, there are a lot of stupid people out there,” the politician replies.

“Ha!” Ailes answered. “A friend of mine said that, too.”

The lifelong entertainer in Ailes seemingly recognizes that his principal genius might just be showbiz, yet the fierce partisan in him takes excited pleasure from fighting Democrats, regardless of the issues. And increasingly, the ersatz Ayn Rand ideologue lurking somewhere in Ailes’s inner life seems to have guided him toward the belief that market capitalism and America are in grave danger. Only the United States could have produced such a figure at the heart of its political and media culture.

Notice the clever hint of anti-Americanism there: Old Europe could never produce this kind of freaky-deaky “ersatz Ayn Rand ideologue” that frustrates the spread of Western Sweden in North America. Only the United States has these nightmarish capitalist Tea Party folk that think Obama means to "fundamentally transform" America's economic system.

Coll concludes that Fox doesn’t ultimately need Ailes, because the virus of conservatism – always perceived as a series of resentments – remains strong. “Resentments of taxes, of immigrants, of the expansion of government, and of the acceptance of gay rights are among feelings that run deep in some parts of the American population, and they will not go away.”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis