Monday 10 August 2020

Tracing the rise of the abuse of power

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Considered a ‘kingmaker’, Roger Ailes was George W. Bush’s media advisor

The penchant for power, and with that power the often inevitable, abuse of it, is a trait which has no nationality.   

The story of Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News, who was also largely responsible for Trump’s nomination as a Republican candidate and his eventual election as President, is a disturbing one.  It has been made into a mini-series, The Loudest Voice, based on the book by Gabriel Sherman which carries the full, rather wordy, title, The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country.   

It is a chilling account, made even worse because like most true stories, the sheer awfulness of it makes you wish it were not true.  However, as you watch it, and see the gradual rise of both Roger Ailes and Donald Trump, it all makes sense and fully answers the question: how could so many Americans vote to put such a man in the White House?  The two men were like two peas in a pod: identical in their contempt for women whom they considered mere window-dressing and sex objects, their narrow-minded patriotism, which fanned the flames of xenophobia and racism and their cynical, ruthless use of all those who stood in their way.

He was a tyrant, a dictator, a megalomaniac but…in 1996 he was handpicked to build Fox News by media mogul Rupert Murdoch because “he got things done”.  It eventually became the top news channel on cable, a position it still holds to this day. The events of 9/11 spurred Roger Ailes even more in shaping the right-wing, conservative bias of the station, taking an openly pro-war stance, and he actively sought out news anchors who were brash and loud, and who spoke “like the common man”, rather than the Republican elite.  It was that blue collar conservative base which would eventually sweep Trump into power.  

It is a story of media manipulation and manufactured spin, showing how Ailes instinctively understood how to appeal to the uneducated masses and push their buttons, and how to draw the naive into the seductive lure of wanting “to be on TV” – which explains why so many young, attractive, ambitious women allowed themselves to fall under Ailes’ thumb, and seemed unable to wrest themselves away from his powerful grip.   In fact, it was a sexual harassment case which eventually brought him down.

The brave news anchor Gretchen Carlson secretly taped him for a year when they were alone in his office, building a strong body of irrefutable proof against him to show that he was basically, a pig, where women in his employment were concerned.   On the advice of her lawyer, she sued him personally, rather than Fox News, which gave the network a very convenient way out – they held an internal inquiry, in which many other women who were also harassed by Ailes corroborated Carlson’s story about the toxic work environment.  Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the parent company News Corp, forced him to resign, although the decision was more due to Murdoch’s sons wanting to regain power from Ailes who was completely out of control.  Throughout his tenure at Fox, Ailes had paid off countless people with sums often running into millions, making them sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) in the process in order to buy their silence.  Knowing his power and that he would ruin them professionally because of his connections and the smear campaigns he was so good at, many took the money, signed on the dotted line, and just walked away. 

But this is not just about sexual harassment at the workplace, although there is a lot which can be said about that topic.  However, taken from a wider perspective and irrespective of one’s gender, the whole modus operandi of men like Roger Ailes is that they exploit the fact that they are in immensely powerful positions: they know it and everyone around them knows it, and they wield incredible clout which enables them to play God with people’s lives.  In this particular case, his unbridled power included the ability to steer mass public opinion and influence politics. He created unsubstantiated stories to whip up hysteria against Barack Obama (although that didn’t prevent him from being elected twice) and eventually laid the groundwork to create the atmosphere in middle America which led to Trump becoming electable, to the disbelief of the left which had not treated Trump (or Fox News) seriously enough and was caught completely off guard.  

“Truth is whatever people will believe” is one of his most quoted mottos, and in the series he is also credited for coming up with a lot of Trump’s slogans, including the famous “Make America great again”.  He wasn’t too concerned about the newsroom getting its facts right, because his intent was to influence the way people “felt” about a given topic. 

He was one of the first to recognise the immense political power which could be wielded by TV. As far back as 1970, as an aide to President Richard Nixon, Ailes wrote: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: people are lazy. With television you just sit – watch – listen. The thinking is done for you.”  Today, because we rapidly scroll through news headlines on social media, that laziness has been taken several steps further. 

There are so many lessons to be learned from the trajectory of these events, not least of which is to never underestimate one’s opponent or the ruthlessness of those who are insatiable, always thirsty for more and more power.   There are quite a few Roger Ailes in this world, and in this country, whether men in positions of political power or wealthy entrepreneurs who have got to the top by trampling on others. It is not more money which drives them, because they already have much more than can be used in one lifetime, but simply the intoxicating headiness of being on that pedestal, where they snap their fingers and everyone cowers.

It is the exhilarating ego boost they get at having their subordinates agree with everything they say; subordinates who are too afraid to contradict lest they lose their jobs and also because they too would rather be in the inner circle,  than be left out of it. I am always amazed at how much humiliation people are willing to put up with in order to be near the seat of power. In the mini-series, nowhere is this better illustrated than in one boardroom scene where men and women alike, no matter their age or broadcasting experience were psychologically beaten into submission,  “yes Roger, whatever you say Roger”.   

Ailes walked away from Fox News with €40 million in severance pay but did not live long enough to enjoy it; three days before his 77th birthday, he fell on his way to the bathroom one night, hit his head and died of a brain haemorrhage.  

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