I've been reading Gabriel Sherman's Loudest Voice in the Room, a new biography of Fox News impresario Roger Ailes. It makes for fascinating reading, in the way that I find reading about Richard Nixon to be fascinating. Ailes has much of his former boss's paranoia, resentment, bigotry, and unscrupulous Realpolitik. It also got me thinking about the real nature of political power in our world today.
We are much too inclined to ascribe political power to government officials, when they are mostly beholden to much more powerful people who do not hold office but pull the strings. The revelations about Tony Blair this week are a case in point. When News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks was in hot water over phone hacking, the former PM quickly came to her rescue, trying to find ways to mitigate damage to her and her boss, Rupert Murdoch. (Until recently Blair and Murdoch were chums.) For three decades now it has been impossible for anyone to get elected prime minister without Murdoch's backing, so powerful is his media voice in Britain. The recent information reveals without a doubt that it is Murdoch, not Blair, who holds the real power in their relationship. After all, Murdoch owns a massive chunk of the global media, and has used this power in the past to destroy his enemies and promote those he has anointed.
This brings me back to Roger Ailes, who as head of Fox News is one of Murdoch's most prominent employees. For the first time in America's television history, there is a popular network that acts primarily as a propaganda arm for a political movement. As Sherman's book reveals, Ailes is a die-hard Nixonian conservative who thinks that liberals are out to destroy America, and this fundamental belief drives the content on Fox's shows. Fox has played a large role in thwarting president Obama's ambitions by putting fringe conspiracy theories into mainstream political discourse, and essentially creating the Tea Party movement out of whole cloth. (Let's not forget where Rick Santilli's rant was broadcast, or who he was working for at the time.) Beyond that, the Republicans are now beholden to Ailes. No GOP candidate for president can possibly get the nomination without Fox's endorsement. In the larger scheme of things, Ailes has remade political media into a highly partisan game where reportage is meaningless and ideology triumphant.
In light of the media's power to shape narratives and build up and tear down whomever it pleases, I am rather surprised that anyone watches a show like House of Cards thinking it reflects political reality. Politicians are not evil geniuses, that would require intelligence. No, they are venal, petty, and incompetent, ready to kiss the butt of whatever corporate sponsor or media mogul can help keep them in office. In the grand scheme of things, the politicians themselves are usually weak, and almost always serving others. For example, the media turned a two-bit bullying jackass of the kind who has often held the governor's seat in New Jersey, and turned him into a celebrity before his craven behavior showed the real Chris Christie. The GWB shutdown is not a work of masterful political manipulation, but a stupid act reflecting the aforementioned venality, pettiness, and incompetence. Christie was able to ride out his string a lot further than he should have because he had the backing of Ailes and Murdoch. Now they have taken a step back, and MSNBC has turned him into a nightly punching bag.
With that knowledge, isn't it about time we transferred some of our paranoia from the government to media conglomerates?