Master deceivers: When Roger Ailes met Richard Nixon

To truly understand cable news as we know it, look back at Nixon and Ailes' partnership in 1967

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 18, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

Roger Ailes   (FOX News via Getty/Wesley Mann)
Roger Ailes (FOX News via Getty/Wesley Mann)

Official records list CNN’s launch date as June 1, 1980. MSNBC broadcast for the first time on July 15, 1996, only a few months before Fox News Channel aired its first telecast on October 7, 1996. Those are merely marks on history’s calendar.

To truly understand the impact of cable news as we know it and its role in shaping the modern political landscape, the public’s current perception of the mainstream media and, one might posit, the steady decline of critical thought, look five decades backward to 1967 and a Philadelphia talker and variety hour called “The Mike Douglas Show.”

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There a 28-year-old named Roger Ailes approached presidential candidate Richard Nixon and engaged in conversation. Nixon hated television; that was no secret. The camera did him no favors, and his visible discomfort on camera is widely credited for securing the presidency for John F. Kennedy in 1960. As Joe McGinniss recounted in his eye-opening 1969 best-seller “The Selling of the President 1968,” Nixon said to Ailes, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.”

To which Ailes retorted, “Television is not a gimmick.” Even then Ailes understood that this young new broadcasting medium was a tool capable of reconstructing entire social and political landscapes.

To Ailes, the man who became a founder, chairman and CEO of Fox News, transforming news consumption into a team sport had more value than supplying the audience with facts. Supplanting journalistic integrity with ratings-boosting alarmism and dissolving the line between factual reporting and punditry enabled Fox News to sway the political process and reshape the federal government in ways that we will be contending with for generations.

Ailes is proof that tools are only as beneficial or detrimental as the people who wield them. Consider that “The Mike Douglas Show” was one of his first jobs in television. He started at the show as a property assistant (as a gofer, basically) in 1964 and became its executive producer only two years later. First jobs have a way of setting a person’s career course, and one might surmise that it was here Ailes became familiar with the potent appeal of personality-driven broadcasting.

Following his time with Nixon, Ailes spent many more years as a Republican campaign consultant, working to secure Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and helping George H.W. Bush gain the White House in 1988.

Under Ailes' leadership, Fox News also helped Donald Trump secure the Republican nomination and the presidency; Fox News' acting CEO and News Corp. chairman, Rupert Murdoch, admitted as much. But long before that it steadily chiseled a rift into the electorate with its nonstop flood of right-wing theatrics and hyperbolic skewing of the day’s events. Panels of experts slowly pushed out liberal or centrist representatives to present experts from right-leaning publications, think tanks and lobbying groups.

Locking its audience in a state of fear and its loyal companion, rage, boosted the network’s ratings after 9/11. An emphasis on keeping these psychological beasts fed transformed what used to be cogent discussions that would occasionally grow heated into screaming matches between flustered talking heads jockeying for their positions to be heard.

Cycling through it all, the hypnotic effect of repetitive branding — "fair and balanced," "fair and balanced," "fair and balanced." The slogan is associated with Fox News, but Ailes’s wielding of it as conservative propaganda infected CNN and MSNBC and TV news as a whole over the course of more than two decades, pushing coverage rightward, making TV journalists more pliant to power,  and ushering in our “post-fact” era.

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The seeds for all of this were planted when Ailes joined Nixon’s campaign team in 1968 — his first big break into national television by way of presidential politics. Ailes produced broadcasts of a series of methodically orchestrated town halls, jammed with audience members recruited by local Republican operatives. The audience was carefully composed to appear as if it represented a cross section of America, including just the right number of “Negroes.” Members were coached to applaud every answer Nixon gave and notably the members of the press were not invited.

“Fuck 'em. It’s not a press conference,” Ailes told a fellow team member. “The audience is part of the show. And that’s the whole point. It’s a television show. Our television show.”

This was the first of many broadcasting and political coups Ailes would pull off or have a hand in over the course of his career, and McGinniss’ account is one of the very few that allows a view of Ailes’ broadcasting philosophy at its sprouting stage.

As crucial as Ailes was to shaping Nixon into an electable candidate via a television-driven effort, he could not have arrived there without his partnership with Harry Treleaven, the J. Walter Thompson advertising executive who became the candidate’s director of advertising.

Out of all the memos and notes McGinniss included in his book, the most telling may be Treleaven’s “Notes re Nixon for President Advertising in the Primary Campaigns” dated Nov. 21, 1967, in which he lists the basics for any ad campaign: “What do we want to communicate?” “How do we say what we want to communicate?”

The noteworthy part of this message, however, is Treleaven’s citation of the strategy employed by ad agency McDonald Davis Schmidt: “The most effective posture for a challenger to take is that of constantly challenging.”

Treleaven went on to add, “It is part of the discipline of sound advertising to put down, as briefly as possible, the advertising ‘proposition’ — the simplest expression of the message we want to communicate.”

Such as, for example, “fair and balanced.”

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"I know certain techniques, such as a press release that looks like a newscast," Ailes famously told The Washington Post in 1972. "So you use it, because you want your man to win."

Fox’s slogan actually dates back to 1974 , when Ailes joined a small video news service founded by brewer Joseph Coors known as Television News Incorporated that existed to supply local newscasts with inexpensive rightward-slanting clips. The business model was nonsustainable, and the service folded in 1975 and was largely forgotten until recently. Now TVN is considered to be the forerunner of Fox News.

Equally as important to the sculpting of the Fox News brand and TV news as a whole however, is Ailes' stint as an executive producer for syndicated tabloid-style magazines and talk shows such as “The Maury Povich Show,” “The Leeza Show” starring Leeza Gibbons, and “A Current Affair.” Another attempt at injecting a personality into syndication was much shorter-lived but may have been a harbinger of things to come: Ailes created a late-night vehicle for conservative radio pundit Rush Limbaugh that aired from 1992 to 1996.

Limbaugh’s prominence in conservative media circles rose in the late 1980s after his show became nationally syndicated, and his fervent support of the Gulf War in 1990 and vitriolic derision of the left cemented his devoted fan base. But he owes his success, in part, to groundwork laid by the abrasive Morton Downey Jr., who was the talk-show host whom Limbaugh succeeded at KFBK-AM in Sacramento, California, after Downey was fired.

Downey went on to host the syndicated talker “The Morton Downey Show” from 1987 to 1989 and made inciting anger with his audiences his claim to fame. Though the series did not last long, it was a precursor to the confrontational style that dominated '90s talk-show programs such as “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Before the rise of Limbaugh, however, another syndicated public affairs program, “The McLaughlin Group,” featured expert panelists facing off in a roundtable format. Debuting in 1982, it mainly aired on PBS member stations but nevertheless became part of the nation’s pop culture fabric and set the standard for issues-oriented debate — namely, with its style of allowing guests to cross-talk and raise their voices at one another.

“McLaughlin” predates most of 24-hour news, but its contentious style bears more than a few similarities to its more salacious cousins in daytime TV. And its influence extends to this day. In its earliest years, the series most similar to “McLaughlin” was CNN’s “Crossfire.”

Ailes was named president of CNBC in 1993 and, calling upon his syndicated producing experience, was instrumental in shaping a cable channel called “America’s Talking” solely featuring talk-show formatted series. This included a morning show starring Steve Doocy and “Politics with Chris Matthews.” CNBC also boosted the careers of Tim Russert, Neil Cavuto and Dee Dee Myers and brought Geraldo Rivera out of syndication purgatory and over to cable.

CNBC became the fastest-growing cable news network on Ailes’ watch, but NBC management pushed him out anyway. In July 1996 “America’s Talking” was rebranded as MSNBC.

So to recap: Ailes is not merely the father of Fox News. He’s also the parent that MSNBC would rather that the public forgot about.

The rest is easy enough to piece together. Ailes joined forces with Murdoch after his ouster, lured Doocy and Cavuto over from NBC and brought Brit Hume over from ABC, and a few months later Fox News was born. Today Doocy regularly engages in mutual ego stroking with Trump via “Fox & Friends,” and Cavuto hosts the midday program “Your World with Neil Cavuto.”

Ailes went on to hire Rivera and notably, Bill O’Reilly, the host of “Inside Edition,” the main tabloid mag competitor of “A Current Affair.” With Limbaugh dedicated to radio, Ailes instead hired a relative unknown but camera-ready Sean Hannity for a “point-counterpoint” type of show “Hannity and Colmes,” eventually winnowing the hosting partnership down to simply “Hannity” and the focus to merely one “point.”

And from its earliest days, Fox News poised itself not as a right-wing news outlet, but as a challenger, taking on liberal bias and mainstream media — and always constantly challenging.

The net effect of this was to flood Fox News with personalities, as opposed to journalists, maintaining enough of the latter to grant a veneer of trustworthiness and authority to the former. Shepard Smith is Fox News’ face of news, but the majority of its viewers don’t see much of a difference between his newcasts and Hannity’s hyperpartisan bluster.

And Fox News’ dominance in the cable news arena has pushed all of television news to the right. Hannity’s success ate into the ratings for “Crossfire” on CNN, which brought on Tucker Carlson in 2001. The introduction of Carlson marked a new era on the CNN show that, as “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart famously observed during a 2004 appearance, reduced a format intended to further public discourse into a showcase for partisan hackery.

CNN’s Headline News arm also gave radio host Glenn Beck his own news commentary program in 2006, only to have him jump ship to Fox News in 2008. Of course, the more recent news that we know about Beck involves O’Reilly — fired from Fox news, like the man who hired him, under a cloud of sexual harassment charges. Beck left Fox News in 2011 to launch his internet-based network The Blaze, and according to reports, it will soon be O’Reilly’s new home.

Fox News set free a number of its prominent progeny before O’Reilly, with Greta Van Susteren making her return to cable news on MSNBC, and Megyn Kelly set to become the new face of the NBC News machine, currently headed by conservative-leaning news group chairman Andrew Lack.

In turn, Carlson has long since left CNN and enjoys O’Reilly’s dominant prime-time slot over at Fox. CNN, mind you, is wrestling with an image tarnished by its enabling of a reality-show host’s presidential campaign at the encouragement of its network head, the man who made him a star during his tenure at NBC: Jeff Zucker.

Meanwhile “fair and balanced” Fox host Bret Baier is set to deliver a speech in Saudi Arabia as part of Trump’s event-filled visit to Riyadh this weekend.

In its time, “The Selling of the President 1968” was seen much more as an insightful profile of how a campaign markets a politician than as a blueprint of media manipulation. McGinniss could not have known he was giving readers the very first intimate look at the man who would change the face of television journalism and take an upstart TV news channel to a dominant roost. Fox News has held onto its position as the No. 1 cable TV channel for more than a decade and a half.

McGinniss may have gotten a clue as to where the media was headed, though. Along with his interviews of Nixon’s campaign staff, McGinniss frequently quoted historian and social theorist Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1961 work “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America.”

In the very first lines of that book’s introduction, Boorstin argued that the source of America's problems is a suffering from “extravagant expectations,” the result of using our wealth, education, technology and progress to “create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life.” The net result, he said, is that we expect too much of our world.

“By harboring, nourishing, and ever enlarging our extravagant expectations, we create the demand for the illusions with which we deceive ourselves,” he said, “And which we pay others to make to deceive us.”

That truth made Roger Ailes a very rich, powerful, dangerous wielder of a tool the public once relied upon. It was called the news.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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