“Hello, this is Fox News calling with a new service – Make the Press. Fox News management and star broadcasters have admitted that we tell our viewers what they want to hear, regardless whether it is true or not. We don’t want to offend our viewers by telling them what they don’t want to hear. So what news would you like to hear tonight?”
Viewer: That’s really thoughtful. Do you ask all your millions of viewers to participate?
“No, just the most stup – I mean the most faithful; People like you. It’s a very exclusive honor.”
Viewer: “Well, I’m flattered. Do you have any ideas that I should suggest?”
“No, that’s up to your own dumb – I mean your astute preferences about what most turns you on and keeps you watching Fox.”
Viewer: “Well I love anything that makes Donald Trump look good. And Biden bad. Like him and his son being Chinese pedophiles.”
“Do you want news on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas?”
“Never heard of him.”
“Oh, I forgot. You watch us exclusively, and we don’t give such stories much play. We don’t want to disrespect the good people who watch us by telling woke stuff. That’s why we aren’t saying much about our multi-million settlement of the Domin - oops, I’m not supposed to mention that. Please redact that comment.”
“What does redact mean?”
Okay, Fox has not gotten this creative yet, but most observers think it will go right on, paying the settlement as a business cost, and continue, at best, distorting every political story, and at worst, lying so blatantly that it contributed to the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s capital.
Over the last 60-plus years, we have known a lot of journalists, from small-town newspaper reporters and editors to nationally known magazine writers, and we doubt if a single one of these pros has any respect for Fox News – at least the opinion broadcasters who attract most of their following. We consider them a disgrace to our profession.
Our distaste for these scoundrels may be greater than most – for good reason. This writer is among the declining few who saw Fox develop from a germ in one man’s mind and got to know one of its future stars long before he reached that role.
In 1969, Joe McGinniss, based in Philadelphia, wrote “The Selling of the President – 1968.” It was a number-one bestseller that introduced the world to Roger Ailes. Ailes was the young producer of the popular Mike Douglas Show, then broadcast out of KYW in Philadelphia. Ailes met former President Richard Nixon when he was a guest on the show and so impressed him with the power of TV in political campaigns that he hired Ailes to help manage his 1968 presidential campaign against Hubert Humphrey. McGinniss, who was just in his early 20s, in a bold move, quit his juicy job as the featured columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. An ad man told him the campaign would reinvent Nixon, and McGinniss thought that would make a highly readable book. He gave up his column to follow the campaign.
Roger Ailes in 1970s
Was he ever right, and Roger Ailes was the reason. He gave McGinniss, who conned him somewhat into thinking he was an unbiased observer, an extraordinarily intimate look at political manipulation. He openly shared his technique of exposing Nixon only to favorable press who asked programmed softball questions. Behind the scenes, he hilariously ridiculed his own candidate. It was a cynical performance, and McGinniss chronicled it all. Ailes was stunned by the exposure of his own candor, but his sense of betrayal was balanced by the fact that he looked like a media genius when Nixon won. He and McGinniss became friends.
Not long after the book appeared, we interviewed Ailes for Philadelphia magazine. It was not a long meeting, less than an hour in Ailes’ small office at KYW. But in that short time, Ailes defended his slanted presentation of Nixon by saying the mainstream media was pro-liberal Democratic and his goal was to establish a format that would even things up by being slanted toward conservative Republican causes.
Now his premise was suspect in the era of Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, balanced newscasters who keep opinions to a minimum, but Ailes' goal seemed fantasy. There were only three big networks. But few people in 1969 saw cable news coming.
Just a few years later we got to know a future superstar of the new network Ailes would start. We had bought Miami Magazine, and Bill O’Reilly, who, fresh out of college and teaching high school in Miami, freelanced briefly for our magazine. He came across as a can’t-miss kid – good-looking, talented, witty, and ambitious. We never talked politics with him but he hardly seemed like the right-wing commentator that made him famous at Fox.
A young Bill O'Reilly
He became friendly with our editorial partner, Gaeton Fonzi, and stayed in touch as he moved upward rapidly in various broadcast roles around the country. He was especially interested when, after O’Reilly had moved to Dallas, Fonzi, in the mid-1970s, became an investigator for the government committee that reopened an Inquiry into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was initially hired by Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, who recalled Fonzi’s 1966 article in Philadelphia challenging the Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald alone murdered JFK. Schweiker was convinced Oswald was a U.S. intelligence operative, and Fonzi went a long way toward proving it when he discovered a contact between Oswald and a top CIA officer involved in anti-Castro activities in South Florida.
That story was a natural for O’Reilly, who was logging his own credits as an award-winning TV investigative reporter. He later co-wrote “Killing Kennedy.” By then, he had risen to become the star of Roger Ailes’ dream – the “fair and balanced” Fox News. It was never that, and those of us who admired O’Reilly’s success were puzzled by his seeming embrace of Fox’s slanted reporting. Fonzi, who remained friendly with O’Reilly until his death 10 years ago, summed it up tersely: “Bill took the money.”
So did a number of other Fox personalities, and the network finally paid a huge price for its kind. For the late Roger Ailes, who like O’Reilly was ousted from Fox on sexual harassment charges, today’s Fox may be a little too much. A recent New York Times history of Fox said at one point Ailes, who always wanted his baby to have a veneer of legitimacy, realized he had created a monster. Its thirst for money made it a servant to ratings, which dipped whenever Fox actually tried to be fair and balanced.
What now? The principal liars on Fox have not been forced to admit their behavior, and most media observers seem to think they will go on as before, a propaganda machine catering to a right-wing audience.
It seems to this writer, and many others, that what they are doing is borderline criminal. Charges could range from obstruction of justice to outright treason by poisoning the minds of millions of viewers, to the point of encouraging insurrections. Or, as some very recent moves have suggested, Fox ownership may decide to clean up its act. But that likely would mean honesting itself out of business.