Roger Ailes and the Politics of Resentment

When New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman set out to write a biography of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, he knew that Fox's PR machine would do everything it could to discredit him. Sherman's answer, it seems (the book hasn't yet been released) was to be as thorough as he could (he conducted over 600 interviews) and hire fact-checkers to pore over the manuscript. Nevertheless, what's now beginning is essentially a political battle over the book, with Sherman on one side and Fox on the other. I would imagine that media outlets that report on it will do so in pretty much the same way they do any other political conflict. I'll surely have more to say once I get my hands on it, but for now I want to address one thing about Ailes and Fox

This morning, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple takes Sherman to task for a portion of an interview he did with CBS This Morning in which Sherman failed to provide particularly good support for his contention that Ailes "divides the country." In fairness, it came right at the end, and Sherman doubtless had plenty more to say. I'm not sure what Sherman's answer is, but I'll tell you my answer. Before that, here's the portion of the interview:

O'Donnell: You say he's divided the country.

Sherman: Yes, he has.

O'Donnell: How?

Sherman: Because his ability to drive a message: He has an unrivaled ability to know what resonates with a certain audience. You know, he comes from a blue-collar factory town in Ohio, he speaks to…

Rose: So what's the message that divides the country?

Sherman: He speaks to that part of America that feels left behind by the culture. You know, it's the old Nixon silent majority, which is what was his formative experience.

Wemple asks, reasonably enough, "What's divisive, after all, about understanding what 'resonates with a certain audience'? What's the problem with speaking to Americans who feel 'left behind by the culture'?" What's divisive is the way Fox does it.

And the way they do it is through resentment. You have to remember that the typical Fox News viewer is a 70-year-old white guy who wants America to get the hell off his lawn. Fox feeds him resentment like it was the water of life. When he tunes in to O'Reilly or Hannity or any of the other Fox shows, he can bathe in resentment, of anyone who doesn't look like him or think like him. All of his troubles and our nation's troubles are their fault, he's told again and again and again. They aren't just wrong, they're trying to destroy everything he holds dear. What we need in office are people who will crush them like bugs, and what we need on our TV screens are people who will stand up to them and shake a fist in their despicable faces.

But wait, you say, don't liberals do the same thing with their rich-hating class warfare? Don't they peddle resentment too? The difference is that when liberals talk about things like inequality, there's a policy agenda behind it. They want to do things that would lift the fortunes of the non-rich, like raise the minimum wage or empower workers or enhance educational opportunities.

The resentment that Fox peddles, on the other hand, is agenda-free. There isn't some set of policies they propose to limit the influence of pointy-headed college professors and uppity black people and the lazy moochers stealing your taxes. It's resentment for resentment's sake. Which, if you're a television network, is more than enough, because all you want is for those angry viewers to keep coming back. In fact, it's much better if they never get what they want, because then they'll stay angry, and they'll keep watching.

It isn't just Fox, of course. Other conservative media peddle the same thing, and some politicians have even built entire careers on resentment. But Fox is the epicenter, and given how successful they've been at mining, crafting, and encouraging resentment, there's little reason for them ever to stop.

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