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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Good Riddance, Roger Ailes. You Were a Disaster for America, Journalism and the Truth

Roger Ailes in 2015, looking every inch at the peak of his power. (photo: Andrew Toth/Getty)
Roger Ailes in 2015, looking every inch at the peak of his power. (photo: Andrew Toth/Getty)

By David Schrieberg, Forbes
 
s a young reporter, in the days when coal mining was still a significant industry, I covered a national strike by the United Mine Workers union. Based in Washington, D.C., I was working for an independent coal industry publication and as a specialist reporter, had unprecedented access to the key players in the dispute.

It was one of those wonderful moments for a still-green journalist – I actually knew what was going on. My inside knowledge rested entirely on the facts and insights I had into behind-the-scenes negotiations. Best of all – or worst, depending on your perspective – it was the first of many lessons in how media can bend, twist and manipulate reality.

One of my colleagues on the story was a middle-aged New York Times reporter. I watched in amazement how in each of his stories he got facts wrong. I don’t mean minor, unimportant details. These were significant aspects, central to the moment-by-moment developments in a tense situation across the country’s coalfields.

But that was just the one-half of the lesson – that the august New York Times (then and still, the gold standard for young journalists) could make and publish massive mistakes. The other half was still more astonishing: How the major and minor figures on both sides – the mineworkers and the coal companies – would then bend to the “new reality” as reported by the Times. When I questioned my sources about how this could happen, they would literally shrug their shoulders.

It taught me how media could create “facts on the ground,” and how reality could shape and shift around untruths, distortions and deliberate misinformation.

So I watch with the greatest satisfaction the fall of Roger Ailes, a man who singlehandedly has done more damage to journalism and the role it plays in a healthy democracy than almost any single individual I can think of (ok, maybe Rupert Murdoch belongs by his side). Under his two-decade-long stewardship, the founder, Chairman and Chief Executive of Fox News was instrumental in creating the political golem that is Donald Trump.

Through an endless and deafening tide of phony issues and outright deliberate lies – see: death panels under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare); the birther movement that served as the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign - Fox News has been as destructive a force to intelligent discourse as any Founding Father could ever have envisioned. (The Daily Show prepared a tasty selection of 50 Fox-broadcast untruths that were then corroborated by Politifact).

I can’t resist reproducing a few flagrant examples:
  • More children died in bathtubs in 2013 than killed accidentally by guns

  • NASA scientists fudged the numbers to make 1998 the hottest year to overstate the extent of global warming.

  • Since 1965, the United States has spent “untold trillions” yet the poverty rate hasn’t budged.

  • There is no good data showing secondhand smoke kills people.

  • The insurance industry is actually run by mostly Democrats.
If you have a few hours to kill – or a few days – Google “Fox News lies distortions” and knock yourself out.

In the coverage of Ailes’s fall from power (his fall from grace came way, way, way before then), this is the quote that recalled my early-reporting-days education in the reality of media impact on actual events:

“I think back to when I was in the Bush White House, there was an issue with management of the ports being sold to a firm out of Dubai, and post-9/11 that was something Fox made an issue,” Alex Conant of Republican consultancy Firehouse Strategies told The New York Times. “Once Fox made it an issue, then all of the sudden Congress made it an issue, and it was something that the Bush administration hadn’t seen as an issue, but suddenly became a big priority.”

It’s no wonder that Trump has relied on Fox News as his principle mouthpiece in the “mainstream” media. He got more airtime there than any of his Republican primary rivals. The cable channel has been the home of choice and entryway-to-legitimacy for the loud-mouthed, short-sighted, xenophobic and racist political interests. It may have brought ratings and riches to its masters at Fox and it’s unlikely to change under Ailes’s successor (for now, Rupert Murdoch on an interim basis).

But no one who cares about truthful information and honest discourse will mourn the passing of the Roger Ailes era of media dominance.

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