Much of the current hand-wringing about this rise in press bashing and delegitimization has been focused on the president, who—as every reporter in America sadly knows—has declared the press the “enemy of the people.” But, like much else in the Trump era, Donald Trump didn’t start this fire; he’s only spread it to a potentially more dangerous place.
The modern campaign against the American press corps has its roots in the Nixon era. President Richard Nixon’s angry foot soldiers continued his fight against the media even after he left office.
Roger Ailes, who went on to help found Fox News, was the most important of those figures. His sustained assault on the press created the conditions that would allow a president to surround himself with aides who argue for “alternative facts,” and announce that “truth isn’t truth.” Without Ailes, a man of Trump’s background and character could never have won. Roger Ailes was the godfather of the Trump presidency.
Nixon’s acolytes blamed the press for drumming a good man out of office. From their perspective, his crimes were no different from the misdeeds of the Kennedys or Lyndon B. Johnson—but only Nixon was held to account. Did they blame this on Nixon? On the voters? No, they blamed the stars of the Watergate drama, the heroes of All the President’s Men. They blamed the media.
Enter Roger Ailes. He first made his name by taking credit for Nixon’s rise in Joe McGinniss’s campaign book, The Selling of the President 1968. Ailes was a media genius who understood better than most how to use television to move people. There’s a fine line between motivating people through TV messages and simply manipulating them. Ailes’s gift, and the secret to his success, was his comfort in plunging across that line and embracing the role of TV manipulator.
He made his name as a political TV-ad man, one of the pioneers of the field, but he couldn’t help dabbling in news and talk. As a network programmer, Ailes excelled at matching a mood with an audience. From Mike Douglas to Limbaugh to, later, Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly, Ailes had a gift for promoting engaging, smart, man-of-the-people talkers.
In the early ’90s, while he was president of CNBC, Ailes had a hunch that an evening lineup catering to a culturally conservative audience would thrive. He wanted to give his theory a chance, but he was passed over for the leadership of the network’s new channel, MSNBC. Enter Rupert Murdoch. The mogul bought into Ailes’s theory, and in 1996 they launched Fox News with the slogan “Fair and balanced.”
From the very beginning, Ailes signaled that Fox News would offer an alternative voice, splitting with the conventions of television journalism. Take the word balanced. It sounded harmless enough. But how does one balance facts? A reporting-driven news organization might promise to be accurate, or honest, or comprehensive, or to report stories for an underserved community. But Ailes wasn’t building a reporting-driven news organization. The promise to be “balanced” was a coded pledge to offer alternative explanations, putting commentary ahead of reporting; it was an attack on the integrity of the rest of the media. Fox intended to build its brand the same way Ailes had built the brands of political candidates: by making the public hate the other choice more.