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One Nation Under Fox

Earnest politics makes for bad TV—which is why the scrappy, outsider, underdog approach championed by Fox News has made it the new psychic heart of the Republican Party.

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If modern politics is about message, about media opportunities, about controlling the news cycle, then what’s the effect of having the fastest-growing news organization in the nation on your side?

But before exploring the reaches of Fox’s power and influence, let’s analyze, at the other end of the sensibility spectrum, The West Wing, which, like the Democrats, fell apart this autumn.

Here’s the question: Did The West Wing fall apart because the liberals were falling apart, or vice versa?

The show’s premise has been that restless, passionate single people in the White House—more or less reflecting a version of the Clinton White House, or, really, a George Stephanopoulos White House—were something that a good part of the country (demonstrably single, and arguably restless and passionate) could identify with.

So have we stopped identifying—as ratings suggest we have—because of a change in national circumstances? Has being single, for instance, gone from being a semi-heroic condition to being just a depressing one? Is it that one person’s problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world?

Or are the Republicans in power and The West Wing sinking because of bad writing on the part of liberals?

Surely it has occurred to many people that The West Wing may have lost a certain jazz because creator Aaron Sorkin went into rehab and now, on the straight and narrow, is grasping at a sober and virtuous literalness (which might support the Fox view that liberalism works only for the morally lax).

Early this season, there was an incident in the show—habit keeps me watching—in which the single young people in the Bartlet White House got all restless and passionate about going to a Rock the Vote party. C.J., the press secretary, normally intense and ironic, was suddenly in would-be youth garb, on a stage exhorting the young and faithful to make their vote count. Oy.

Many people in rehab, and in defeat, get religion—great earnestness meets saccharine beliefs. (I’m on seemingly hundreds of liberal mailing lists—it’s a tsunami of tedious virtue.) And many people think the Democrats need even more religion. “We need to be partisans!” President Bartlet exhorted the West Wing faithful on a recent episode.

This is neither good politics nor good writing. Actually, let me formulate here a new principle of politics: Good politics is about good writing.

Of course, the Republicans used to have their own problems with religion and with literalness (and, not least of all, dedicated humorlessness). But they were saved from themselves, I believe, by Fox News, which has become the new psychic heart of the Republican Party—taking over from the Christian Right.

Here’s the biggest problem politics has today: All but an exceptional few politicians suck at making, or understanding, media. This is a surprise, because the only thing politicians want to do is get on TV. That’s their basic job. But they’re talentless. They’re zeros. The media consultants they hire to help them are mostly hacks and rejects, too. Political ads? Sheesh. It’s a form that has not advanced in twenty years. Of course, professional Republicans and right-wing people are usually no more capable than the Democrats and sappy liberals of creating a compelling and credible story line.

But then there’s Roger Ailes.

There’s something incredibly creepy about Ailes. He looks the way you imagine the man behind the curtain looking: That is, he doesn’t care about how he looks (which is, as it happens, gray and corpulent). He understands it’s all manipulation.

When he got found out giving the president ex parte advice on handling the war, he didn’t for a second whinge or show remorse. Let others pretend—he’s too old and too good at his job to start making believe the world works any other way than the way it works. The rap on Ailes is, of course, that he’s a hopeless partisan, a true believer, a Republican agent. But that deeply misses the point. Ailes is a television guy. He’s been doing television practically as long as anyone. His digressions into politics (for Nixon and for Reagan) have always been more about television craft than about Republican craft. His is the singular obsession of any television guy: to stay on the air.

Fox really isn’t in the service of the Republicans. Ailes can say this baldly and confidently. (The Republicans, more and more, follow the Fox line.) Fox isn’t in any conventional sense ideological media. It’s just that being anti-Democrat, anti-Clinton, anti-yuppie, anti-wonk turns out to be great television. Great ratings make for convenient ideology.


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