"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Caution, you’re about to enter a No Spin Zone. Or is it the Twilight Zone? We’ll report, and you decide, based on this recent “unspun” news update from Fox News’ flagship primetime program “The O’Reilly Factor.”
“Why are some Americans hindering the war on terror?” O’Reilly barked at the camera. “As we predicted, President Bush’s poll numbers have gone up after last week’s press conference. The elite media wanted Mr. Bush to grovel, but he remains defiant and determined to fight the terror war his way. Today the Supreme Court heard arguments that the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay should have lawyers and due process. Predictably, the New York Times wants lawyers for the accused terrorists, editorializing that some of them ‘may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
“Sure. They just took a wrong turn into Uzbekistan and wandered onto the battlefield. How ridiculous is that?”
Remember, the Spin Stops Here.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Fox News was a joke — albeit a bad and sick one — to liberals and TV journalists raised on Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. But even those who rue the success of Rupert Murdoch’s flag-waving cable channel have to admit: The old boy has done it. CNN founder Ted Turner once famously mocked Murdoch, saying he’d squish his cable news rival like a bug. We all know now who has squished whom.
Just check the Nielsens: When the president gave his prime-time press conference last week, 5.2 million viewers watched on Fox News, compared to CNN’s 1.7 million and MSNBC’s 867,000 viewers. For the year, Fox ranks ninth among all cable networks in primetime, averaging 1.4 million viewers. CNN and MSNBC don’t even make the Top 20. In 20th place: The Home and Garden Network.
How the erstwhile journalistic laughingstock Fox News — or “Faux News,” as mocking bloggers know it — managed to climb atop the cable news industry in the 1990s is the topic of Los Angeles Times television reporter Scott Collins’ often entertaining book “Crazy Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN.” Collins traces Fox’s scrappy success — and the simultaneous tanking of rivals CNN and MSNBC — through the colorful characters who have ruled the seamy journalistic underworld of cable news over the past decade while detailing the wheeling and dealing that made Fox’s success possible.
At its core, Collins’ book is a business story. Drama and suspense ensue from backbiting rivalries among the cable news players, behind-the-scenes jockeying and big media mergers. It’s laced with killer quotes that buoy the story along. Ted Turner, who didn’t sit for an interview but still gives nutty commentary, likens himself to a genitally mutilated African girl, saying he’d been “clitorized” by Time Warner. Turner tells TV producer Rick Kaplan he’s the “biggest goddamned Jew” he’d ever seen. Ailes, also with a flair for the outlandish, offered this take on the failed MSNBC experiment to pit Phil Donahue against Fox golden boy Bill O’Reilly: “[Donahue] made his name convincing all the women in America that their husbands were fucking their secretaries. Now all those women are 65 or 70, and they want their husband to go anywhere. They don’t care who he’s fucking. They didn’t want [Donahue] on nuclear proliferation. They didn’t give a shit.”
But Collins’ book is most compelling when showing how Murdoch tapped into conservative disaffection with the so-called “liberal media” — and capitalized on the floundering of once-dominant CNN — to become America’s most watched cable news channel. The Aussie right-wing media mogul combined his business prowess with a conviction that the news media was hopelessly biased to give birth to his conservative cable baby in 1996. With former Nixon aide Ailes at the helm, Fox attracted right-leaning journalists convinced America’s newsrooms were uninhabitable for people like them. John Moody, a former Time reporter and editor once stationed in Nicaragua, lamented how his magazine colleagues were “drawn ideologically, romantically, theoretically, to the side of the Sandinistas. I always was able to hold my enthusiasm.” Moody defected to Fox, where he felt at home.
As a political consultant, Ailes was known as the master of the attack sound bite. At Fox, he devised the sleight-of-hand slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide,” phrases that provide endless fodder for the likes of Al Franken and send journalism school professors apoplectic. But the Fox team denies bias — they say they’re correcting the course of a left-slanted media. Before Fox’s launch, Murdoch taunted Turner by saying CNN was “too liberal,” and needed a rival that would restore balance to TV news. Ailes said Fox’s mission was to “be objective, to do fine journalism. We’d like to restore objectivity where we find it lacking.” As Ailes told the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2001: “In most news, if you hear a conservative point of view, that’s called bias. We believe if you eliminate such a viewpoint, that’s bias. If we look conservative, it’s because the other guys are so far to the left.”
Collins largely avoids the debate over whether the media does actually skew left, although he cites studies, like a 1995 Times Mirror poll that showed 40 percent of Americans identified as conservative while only 5 percent of journalists did. He might have acknowledged the strong arguments, presented most prominently by the Nation’s Eric Alterman, that mainstream, corporate-owned media is not “liberal” at all. Any true lefty knows that corporate media-owned television news outlets do not reflect the “liberal” mindset. Million-dollar TV anchors who wine and dine with titans of government and business — who themselves rank among the nation’s most powerful and wealthy, with fortunes to protect — don’t tend toward the progressive. And TV news operations living and dying by ratings don’t adequately cover progressive causes. Ever wonder why you aren’t bombarded with TV news stories about the impoverished and the oppressed? Right.
But whether liberal bias rules TV news is almost beyond the point here. Ailes understood that perception is all that counts. “Somewhere between 65 and 75 percent of the American people believe the media tipped to the left,” Ailes said, according to his own research. “Now whether it does or it doesn’t, if that’s what they believe, that leaves a lot of room as long as you don’t tip to the right.” Fox, of course, does tilt to the right, as any even casual observer would know. But this ruse of blazing an objective swath through a blindly biased news media is the foundation of Fox’s philosophy.
Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly spinning yarns about his “No Spin Zone,” or feeble Fox Democrats like Susan Estrich lamely presenting an opposing viewpoint, Fox playfully perpetuates its fair and balanced myth. The selectively worded “Fox Facts” are often anything but. One Fox Fact plastered across the screen as President Bush spoke in Buffalo, N.Y., last Tuesday: “Bush: Free Nations are Nations Where People Find Hope.” Another Fox Fact on the same day came from the lips of Donald Rumsfeld as he gave a press briefing about violence in Fallujah. “Rumsfeld: Enemies of Freedom are Taking a Final Stand.” In comparison, CNN’s banner under Rumsfeld at the podium during the same briefing read, in relatively humdrum fashion: “Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary.”
On Thursday, as other TV news outlets scrambled to air images of U.S. soldiers’ flag-draped caskets home from Iraq, published online by an industrious First Amendment activist who FOIA’d the Air Force, Fox decided against running the poignant images. Fox’s allegiance in this case was to the Pentagon, not the freedom of information. And of course, Ailes embarrassed Fox when Bob Woodward revealed in his book “Bush at War” that Ailes sent the president a memo after 9/11 containing political advice. There’s a reason Fox News is the default channel on White House televisions, and it ain’t because of fair and balanced coverage.
But, to its credit, Fox often combines its attitude with good old-fashioned breaking news work — the kind that made CNN its name during Gulf War I. Last Saturday, a channel-surf of Fox and CNN yielded something telling. The Hamas leader had been assassinated, and the body of missing student Dru Sjodin was found. Over on CNN, a Paula Zahn magazine show featured a documentary about the life of Christopher Reeve. The news-junkie in me yelled at the screen — and I turned to Fox News. Fox nimbly switched from one story to another, giving expert analysis and live video from both locations. An agenda was also quite apparent. On the Hamas story, there was talk of “wiping a terrorist leader from the face of the Earth.” As for the case of the missing girl, the Fox anchor seemed most concerned about whether the feds were getting involved so the suspect could be eligible for the death penalty. Once he got word that the feds were on the scene, he practically sighed in relief. His subtext: Don’t worry, people, this guy at least has a chance of getting fried — something we at Fox wholeheartedly endorse.
It’s impossible to understand Fox’s rise to ratings glory outside of the context of CNN’s crash and burn. After the first Persian Gulf War, when the Boys of Baghdad thrilled America with their gutsy war reporting, CNN’s ratings — and reputation — soared. But Collins shows that CNN’s troubles began when the bombing stopped. After the made-for-TV war, news became less exciting. Ted Turner’s slogan early on was “news is the star,” Collins writes. But not all the news is fit to be the star, it turns out, when you’re out for ratings. Collins describes CNN adrift after the mid-1990s. The deeply controversial 1998 Tailwind report about the U.S. government allegedly authorizing a chemical attack on American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War — which CNN retracted — was a tremendous embarrassment. The incident so disturbed Turner that he said at the time: “If committing suicide would help, I’ve even given that some consideration.” Tailwind also fed conservative anger that the Communist News Network had taken another hit out on the U.S. government. Ted Turner’s CNN became one more target for conservative conspiracy theorists looking for a liberal cabal in their remote controls.
CNN’s editorial foibles were compounded by business deals that weakened the network, Collins shows. The Time Warner merger, in loosening Turner’s grip on cable systems, gave Fox access to more homes, and the AOL Time Warner merger distracted management and brought personnel changes, including morale-killing layoffs, that alienated stars and lowly staffers alike. After the merger, WB founder Jamie Kellner took the helm of Turner Broadcasting. Although Kellner brought in the highly respected print journalist Walter Isaacson to run CNN, the network continued casting about for a purpose. Kellner wanted to “rejuvenate” CNN, and make it more “viewer-friendly,” Collins writes. But Turner considered Kellner and others in the new CNN management to be Hollywood carpetbaggers.
The book also covers the study in mediocrity that has been MSNBC, an experiment that never quite took off. NBC’s Andy Lack thought MSNBC would be like a Starbucks for news: “People are going to be on television, drinking coffee.” As it turns out, MSNBC became the Peacock’s ugly stepsister. MSNBC sometimes has seemed a continuous loop of soft, pseudo-documentaries like the nostalgic “Time & Again” and Matt Lauer’s “Headliners & Legends.” As Tom Brokaw’s heir-apparent Brian Williams says of the recycled fluff, “If you played the guitar in one ‘Partridge Family’ episode, there’s a half-hour show about you in the MSNBC archives.”
MSNBC’s story shows how even top media gurus like Bill Gates and NBC president Bob Wright failed miserably at the cable news gamble. But it also helps us understand the true star of the book, Roger Ailes. Ailes built CNBC, but when NBC executives made a splashy announcement at Rockefeller Center about the launch of MSNBC in December 1995, Ailes was pacing in his office across the river, watching on TV. He had been passed over. “Fuck them,” Ailes swore at the screen. He eventually quit, channeling his feelings of revenge into future endeavors, including squishing his former bosses like bugs.
Ailes may be un-P.C. — He once introduced a female lawyer by telling a joke about the difference between lawyers and prostitutes — and he may be reviled by news purists. But Ailes has always been, at the very least, interesting. As a sickly hemophiliac child in an Ohio factory town, he sold his mother’s handmade embroidered handkerchiefs door-to-door. As a 20-something staffer on “The Mike Douglas Show,” Ailes scolded guest Richard Nixon: “Television is not a gimmick, and if you think it is you’ll lose again.” Nixon hired him. Later, in what can only be described as a career transition, Ailes took a turn as a Broadway producer, staging the theatrical bomb “Ionescapade” — yes, that Ionesco. Ailes eventually worked for Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush before landing with Rupert Murdoch.
In Fox’s early days, the channel suffered from typical new-kid-on-the-block stumbles. But its red-state approach to news began resonating with conservatives during the Clinton years and reached critical mass with the viciously partisan 2000 presidential election. But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were the real turning point. 9/11 was to Fox News as Gulf War I was to CNN. Fox’s ratings soared 43 percent after the attacks, and while CNN and MSNBC’s ratings went up too, only Fox sustained its flood of viewers. Fox also introduced the now ubiquitous “news crawl,” and added its own special patriotic branding after 9/11: An animated flag waving over the anchor’s right shoulder. Fox News eventually surpassed CNN in the ratings in 2002.
Those who flocked to Fox after 9/11 were looking for more than just the facts, Collins writes. “If terrorism had made Americans feel wounded, frightened, and confused, Fox helped wash those feelings away, becoming a beacon of moral certainty and defiance … If viewers during Desert Storm wanted just the facts, viewers post-Sept. 11 wanted a rallying point. To paraphrase NBC’s Bob Wright, Roger Ailes had converted viewers to his church.” And there’s no shortage of preaching on Fox.
Indeed, editorializing is now a hallmark of all news on cable, where a steady flow of bickering pundits fills the hours. The “Crossfire” culture has seeped into the general media, making the 24-hour opinion churn a driving force behind even print coverage. Fox’s influence should not be overblown — network news still commands many more viewers than cable. Still, many Americans do seem to be looking for more than just the facts. They also want the spin.
But Fox’s success, like Rush Limbaugh’s on talk radio, may indicate that in echo chambers like Fox, many Americans are looking less for real political debate than validation for their strongly held beliefs. And this isn’t just true for conservatives. Liberal publications — including Salon — serve as havens for those feeling alienated and angered by the president’s policies. A recent study by the Austin-American Statesman newspaper showed America is a nation of politically segregated neighborhoods, that we actually live near people who think like we do. But do we also want our media in red and blue? So far on cable, Fox has the red all taken care of. There is no such blue-state equivalent, yet — something Al Gore would like to change.
Being the objective reporter, Collins withholds his judgment from Fox, showing how Murdoch succeeded, not pronouncing whether his success was ultimately bad for the news business. As a reader appalled by many of Fox’s pseudo-journalistic tactics, I wanted a bit more criticism from Collins. But the facts do speak for themselves. Fox’s success should scare anyone concerned about the future of news.
In a way, I understand why Fox gets such relatively high ratings, and why some Americans find comfort in its patriotic and populist overtones. Those alienated by mainstream media may wonder why more journalists don’t outwardly express their sympathies with victims of crime — or why they aren’t allowed to wear flag pins on their lapels or ally themselves with U.S. troops in combat. Fox may soothe a certain segment of American cable consumers in uncertain, frightening times, but where will its viewers go when they need more? Or will they not know the difference? Near the end of Collins’ book, he shares this quote by Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, responding to critics who said Fox shouldn’t say things like “our troops” when referring to U.S. soldiers. “Fuck them. Once we’re in this war, it’s us against them. And we’re going to win.” As Collins says, Smith may as well have been articulating the Fox News creed. Collins’ book makes clear that there are no winners here, especially in the viewing audience.
Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.More Geraldine Sealey.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)