Monday, February 28, 2011

Get Ready for the Martyrdom of Roger Ailes

Barry Ritholtz reports that Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, may soon be indicted on federal charges. Judith Regan has alleged in civil court filings that Ailes pressured her to lie to federal agents who were doing a background check on her ex-boyfriend, Bernard Kerik. (That's Kerik who was once nominated to be head of Homeland Security and who is now in prison. That Kerik.) Allegedly, Reagan has audiotape of Ailes pressuring her.

I have no idea if Regan's allegations are true, or if Ritholtz's source is right about a criminal indictment. But I do wonder how Fox News would respond if such an indictment is handed down. At other news operations it would be simple: the network president facing criminal charges would resign as quietly as possible, and the network would try to live it down. But the heart of Fox's business model is that it doesn't play by the rules that everyone else does.

This is a news organization that has cultivated a highly oppositional and combative style. It encourages its viewers to imagine themselves as besieged and persecuted, and some of its on air-talent openly traffics in conspiracy theorizing, tracing out the alleged hidden connections and patterns "behind" totally non-mysterious events. And Fox has no shyness about using the news to drive its own agendas.

There's a real possibility that Roger Ailes could decide not to step down, but to remain president of Fox News throughout a criminal trial. (All of this would be up to Rupert Murdoch, of course.) Even if Ailes did step down, his replacement would likely be highly sympathetic to him.

Should Ailes go to trial, Fox might simply go into stonewall denial mode, and essentially refuse to cover the story. But that's not really their style. There's a real chance that Fox would respond to an indictment of Ailes with an all-out offensive by some or all of its on-air personalities. I can easily imagine some of the major players, like O'Reilly and Beck, being given the green light to say whatever they like on the topic. And it's not impossible that Fox's management could simply give marching orders to the whole network, telling them to beat the drum for Roger and make defending him a priority.

They already have the required narrative firmly in place. They've been building it for years: liberals are out to get conservatives, and the biased mainstream media distorts the truth. They're trying to silence Fox News! A trial of Roger Ailes would not only fit neatly into that narrative, but it would serve as confirmation of that narrative. Fox has been telling its viewers that there's a conspiracy against the truth and they would be able to offer a prosecution of Ailes as "proof" of the conspiracy. He doesn't make a very plausible martyr from a third-party perspective, but it will sound plausible to Fox viewers because Fox has spent years predicting that it will happen.

There's a small chance, but a real one, that Fox could go all in and make the martyrdom of Roger Ailes a central talking point. It only sounds crazy because it is. But that hasn't stopped them before. And it's crazy in precisely the way that bonds Fox's loyal viewers to the network: it creates a sense of shared viewpoint and shared persecution. Ailes on trial would actually increase Fox's value: it would make them the sole source of news its viewers can trust and it would make the whole conspiracy theory about Fox News itself. It would be a golden opportunity.

There's also a small but real chance that an Ailes trial, backed with the alleged hard evidence of audiotape, would push Fox into its final journalistic break from reality. If they've committed hard enough to Ailes's martyrdom (and since they seem to think a few news cycles at a time, they could do that without worrying about their endgame) and Ailes is being convicted on hard evidence, they might feel the temptation to just declare that evidence faked. And then we would have a major news outlet explicitly committed to paranoia.

Should any of this happen, we'd see a few things. First we would find out how much Fox can steer other conservative outlets' agendas. If they're beating the drum for Roger, does Limbaugh pick it up the beat? Do the right-wing blogs? Can they get respectable conservatives in mainstream publications to equivocate?

More interesting is the question of whether Fox could make Ailes's martyrdom a central article of conservative faith for the true believers, just in time for the presidential primaries. If we get to the point where primary hopefuls feel the pressure to take a public stand for Ailes, we'll know whether Fox is an arm of the Republican Party or the other way around.

cross-posted at Dagblog

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