Beck and Circuses

Last night I finally got around to reading Tim Dickinson’s epic Rolling Stone profile of Fox News president Roger Ailes. It was fascinating, though I would have liked to see less of a straight chronology of his life and more analysis of why Fox works the way it does. Maybe that’s less a criticism of the profile and more a vacuum that needs to be filled independently of it. But some of the last few paragraphs offer a tantalizing glimpse of a subject which could be fertile ground for its own profile, or its own book.

But Ailes has not simply been content to shift the nature of journalism and direct the GOP’s message war. He has also turned Fox News into a political fundraising juggernaut. During her Senate race in Delaware, Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell bragged, “I’ve got Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money.” Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who tried to unseat Harry Reid in Nevada, praised Fox for letting her say on-air, “I need $25 from a million people – go to SharronAngle.com and send money.” Completing the Fox-GOP axis, Karl Rove has used his pulpit as a Fox News commentator to promote American Crossroads, a shadowy political group he founded, promising that the money it raised would be put “to good use to defeat Democrats who have supported the president’s agenda.”

But the clearest demonstration of how Ailes has seamlessly merged both money and message lies in the election of John Kasich, a longtime Fox News contributor who eked out a two-point victory over Democrat Ted Strickland last November to become governor of Ohio. While technically a Republican, Kasich might better be understood as the first candidate of the Fox News Party. “The question is no longer whether Fox News is an arm of the GOP,” says Burns, the network’s former media critic, “but whether it’s becoming the torso instead.”

It’s not just that the Republican Party has a propaganda wing unlike any other in American history. Calling Fox News a propaganda wing is just one way to look at it; it could also be that the media empire is the main event and the candidates are just tie-in products.

To me that’s the more alarming notion. But it’s also the logical extension of our cultural understanding of politics as theater. If the GOP is now an extension of Fox News, it’s because how we govern ourselves as a country is becoming little more than an extension of our thirst for entertainment. Sure, the cynic will say it was always this way. I would only say to the cynic that he lacks imagination regarding how far it has gone, and how much further it can go.

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