TV JANUARY 27, 2014
The release of Gabriel Sherman's book about Fox News chief Roger Ailes has led to a number of reviews and articles about the conservative channel. Is Ailes a diabolical genius in control of the Republican Party or merely a man who presides over a network with aging viewers and dimished political clout? Meanwhile, several liberal columnists have essentially urged other liberals to ignore Fox News altogether. But just because Fox can't elect a president or steer the Republican Party in whatever direction it pleases does not mean that it should be ignored. Fox News is still dangerous, even if it cannot decide elections.
Some commentators have restricted themselves to the argument that liberals should simply not fret about Fox's electoral power. Jill Lepore implied as much in her New Yorker review of Sherman's book, and Michael Wolff wrote that, "Ailes hasn't divided the country. He's chipped off his own profitable piece of it." In my own review of Sherman's book, I argued that an otherwise excellent biography was slightly marred by the author's tendency to overstate Ailes's power and influence. Television networks do not decide elections, or even choose Democratic or Republican nominees.
But it requires a leap of logic to say that because Fox is not omnipotent it should be ignored. And yet that is the argument that Frank Rich makes in a long piece for New York magazine, titled "Stop Beating a Dead Fox." Rich runs through all the familiar arguments about Ailes's large yet not limitless political influence, but Rich has a larger point to make: that Fox's insanity should essentially be treated by liberals as if it were not occurring.
Rich begins with the "White Santa" story of several weeks ago, in which Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, whose obsession with skin color should really be addressed by someone with more psychological training than I possess, declared on her program that "Santa just is white." Rich uses this example to scold liberals for getting angry about Kelly's comments:
Of course what Kelly said was dumb. But the reaction was even dumber...When this supposed “national firestorm” (as Al Sharpton inflated it on his MSNBC show) finally died down, only two things had been accomplished beyond the waste of everyone’s time. Liberals had played right into Fox’s stereotype of them—as killjoy p.c. police. And Fox News could once again brag about its power to set an agenda for its adversaries even as it also played the woebegone victim.
For Rich to claim that outrage over this remark was "dumber" than the actual remark is absurd. As is the notion that outrage over Fox's racial games makes liberals seem like the "killjoy P.C. police." (Because racism is so fun!) But Rich's underlying reasoning is even more flawed:
In truth, Fox News has been defeated on the media battlefield—and on the political battlefield as well. Even the 73-year-old wizard of Fox, Roger Ailes, now in full Lear-raging-on-the-heath mode as portrayed in my colleague Gabriel Sherman’s definitive new biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room, seems to sense the waning of his power. The only people who seem not to know or accept Fox’s decline, besides its own audience, are liberals...
Rich's point here, as far as I can tell, is that because the channel is fading in importance, and has an aging viewership, its racism, Islamophobia, and disgusting fear-mongering should be ignored by liberals. This conflates two entirely separate things, as if a channel that cannot elect presidents should therefore be given a pass on anything and everything.
Rich takes this argument even further, however, writing near the end of his piece that, "Rather than waste time bemoaning Fox’s bogus journalism, liberals should encourage it. The more that Fox News viewers are duped into believing that the misinformation they are fed by Ailes is fair and balanced, the more easily they can be ambushed by reality as they were on Election Night 2012."
This is partisan in the crudest sense, and also irresponsible. Fox still has, as far as cable news is concerned, a giant audience among all Americans—especially Republicans, conservatives, and influential businessmen and businesswomen. It still has major power within the Republican Party. To say that Fox's bigotry should just be discounted is therefore odd. I am sure Rich has spent some time watching Fox News, so he must be aware of how toxic it is. Putting aside its top-down class warfare, segment after segment is meant to scare its white audience into believing that African Americans, or Muslims, are out to get them. This is not some random nut on Twitter: no, this is real bigotry transmitted to a large audience, and it must be combatted. Rich seems to think Kelly's Santa comment was merely dumb and frivolous; it wasn't. The subject may have been both, but that's not the point. Kelly's remark was another attempt to rile up a white audience about a multicultural America. The actual subject is nearly irrelevant.
Moreover, for someone who is intent on scolding liberals for being too uptight, Rich himself is awfully humorless. At one point, he tells liberals to stop obsessing about the "War on Christmas," but as far as I can tell, the liberals who do bring it up constantly, such as Jon Stewart, are doing so with comic intent. (Rich also seems to err in his understanding of who watches the channel when he writes, "Paradoxically enough, the most powerful right-wing movement in the country, the insurgency in the Republican grassroots, loathes the Boehner-Christie-Rove-centric Fox News nearly as much as the left does." Really?)
Sherman's book has done a real service in bringing about this conversation, and the constant fretting from the left that Fox or Rush Limbaugh is going to determine the next president has—thank God—died down. But the ideas that Fox's peddles remain gross and dangerous, and as long as they are in circulation, they should be criticized, debunked, and scorned.