Despite the party's rebranding efforts, Fox News seemingly has no interest in moderating its attack programming
A question for Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who this week unveiled a nearly 100-page “autopsy” report on the GOP’s recent electoral failings that urged the party to soften its image and become more inclusive: Do you think Roger Ailes is more concerned with his new biography hitting the top ten on the best-seller list, or with the Republican Party successfully appealing to more minority voters?
The answer to that question might go a long way in determining whether the GOP has any luck rebranding itself in the coming years. Early indications are Ailes and Fox News have no interest in moderating their form of attack programming, the bare-knuckle brand celebrated in Zev Chafets’ new bio of the Fox News president, Roger Ailes: Off Camera.
Dubbed the “Growth & Opportunity Project,” the RNC’s laundry list of campaign failures urges the party to become more inclusive, tolerant and able to engage and persuade non-believers. Or to at least be able to not turn them off entirely with angry, absolutist rhetoric. “On messaging, we must change our tone,” the report concluded.
Right now though, the Republican Party, riding a White House losing streak (2-4 since 1992), has a massive messaging problem, thanks to Roger Ailes.
As Variety confirmed last year, “the voice of Republican opposition throughout the Obama administration has been Fox News Channel, and the de facto leader of the GOP its chairman-CEO Roger Ailes.”
It’s fitting that the RNC report, which represents a concerted effort by the GOP to turn the page on its losing ways, arrived the same week Ailes was busy taking his book-release star turn and presenting himself as a clarion voice of the conservative movement. Via the book we learned Ailes, when not making weird media references to Hitler and Stalin and comparing Islamic charities to terrorist organizations, dismissed America’s first black president is “lazy” liar who’s “never worked a day in his life.” (Ailes was clumsily misrepresenting comments Obama had made about himself in a 2011 interview with Barbara Walters.) Then in an interview with the Daily Beast, Ailes lashed out at another prominent African American, Van Jones, calling him a “communist infiltrator” who “ has one job, to stir up racism whether he can find it or not.”
So yes, thanks to a curious bit of timing, this week nicely captures the two paths, or the two options, that lay before Republicans. There’s the “Growth & Opportunity” path of tolerance vs. the Roger Ailes path of divisiveness.
But Republicans aren’t supposed to mention the Ailes conundrum. Instead, the Fox chief is like the crazy rich uncle who owns the fancy beach house where the dysfunctional family reunion is taking place; nobody wants to disparage the patriarch. Or, to mix metaphors, Ailes is the elephant in the elephant’s room. So all week long there’s been a running conversation among Republicans about their messaging, yet there’s been virtually no public discussion about Ailes and Fox News, which own the GOP’s messaging.
There’s been little public acknowledgement that there can be no effective rebranding of the Republican Party if Ailes doesn’t sign off. Meaning, the GOP can turn itself inside out if it wants, but if Fox News, the self-appointed face and voice the GOP, doesn’t change, none of it matters because Fox will still be pounding home every negative stereotype that party leaders now want to erase. (i.e. Antagonistic, paranoid, narrow minded.)
That’s the only approach Ailes knows: the phony Outrage Machine approach. (Obama did what?!) But it’s growing stale. In January, Fox logged its worst ratings since August 2001. (Ratings rebounded somewhat in February.) Even some conservative pundits have grown bored of the Fox News model. It’s the decade-old model that features the same tired voices making the same tired claims.
As I asked two months ago, has the Fox phony Outrage Machine damaged the conservative movement? Is it standing in the way of Republican progress and electoral success?
I think the answer from the “Growth & Opportunity Report” is that yes, it clearly has. Fox’s slash-and-burn, name-calling style is part of the GOP’s larger messaging trouble and is a key reason the party is perceived as angry, intolerant, and out of touch. As conservative Erick Erickson wrote this year, “Who the hell wants to listen to conservatives whining and moaning all the time about the outrage du jour?” (Ironically, Erickson joined Fox as a contributor less than two weeks after leveling that criticism.)
The permanent state of victimhood that Fox markets on behalf of the GOP might keep a loyal audience of Obama haters happy on cable television. But all it’s produced for the party is two landslide Obama victories.
Esquire’s Ton Junod, who wrote a lengthy profile of Ailes two years ago, recently noted Ailes’ political failings. “For all his instinctive showmanship, and for all his purported populist genius,” wrote Junod, “Ailes saw Obama cobble together his new majority right under his nose, and knew neither what to call it or how to stop it.”
Priebus and his colleagues at the RNC now think they know how to stop the Democratic majority, but Roger Ailes isn’t interested.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush." More Eric Boehlert.
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