When David Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, I didn’t think much of him. His most memorable phrase–the “axis of evil”–fed into the bipolar worldview of W’s administration, and was distinctly unhelpful.
Since he left politics for journalism, however, he has been nothing short of admirable.
Frum has joined the small but growing group of frustrated Republicans like Bruce Bartlett, Norman Ornstein and Andrew Sullivan who have been willing to say aloud the things that so many of my own companions from a long-gone GOP share privately. He has been willing, as the saying goes, to speak Truth to Power.
Frum notes the research showing that Fox viewers know less than people who don’t watch any news at all, but he says that criticizing Fox for its manifest inaccuracies is to miss the point. Fox isn’t in the news business.
Before Fox, news programmers had struggled with the question of what their product was. Did it include health information, and if so, how much? Weather? Financial information? Human interest? Political opinion? Ailes built his new channel upon a very different question: who is my product for?
The largest generation in American history, the baby boomers, were reaching deep middle age by the mid-1990s. They were beginning to share an experience familiar to all who pass age 50: living in a country very different from the one they had been born into.
Fox offered them a new virtual environment in which they could feel more at home than they did in the outside world. Fox was carefully designed to look like a TV show from the 1970s: no holograms, no urban hipster studios, lots of primary colors.
In other respects too, Fox offered a path back to a vanishing past. Here was a place in which men were firmly in charge, and in which women were valued most for their physical attractiveness. Here was a place in which ethnic minorities appeared only in secondary roles — and then, with brave exceptions, only to affirm the rightness of the opinions of the white males in the primary roles.
Fox, Frum tells us, is intentionally geared to the anxiety-filled old white men who are having great difficulty dealing with the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world–a world where they no longer enjoy unquestioned privileged status.
Like talk radio before it, but even more intensely, Fox offered information programmed not as a stream of randomly connected facts, but as a means of self-definition and a refuge from a hostile external reality. Fox is a news medium that functions as a social medium.
Ailes began by identifying his target audience, and shaping his “news” to their tastes. As a business strategy, it was brilliant. Unfortunately, the collateral damage has been extensive–both to the American political system, and more recently (and ironically) to the Republican party.
What’s that old story about riding the tiger?