And the winner is? Fox News. In the weeks before and days after the first Republican presidential debate, it has managed and driven the story. From its taking on to itself the role of arbiter — who would and would not be in prime time — it assumed absolute control of the show. And “show” is the right word. Roger Ailes certainly didn’t invent presidential campaigns as theater, but he has been its most effective director and stage manager. Fox specifically has benefited from the before and after publicity garnered by the show’s star attraction. It still is. No one, even those who follow politics closely, can remember what substantive policy issues were “debated” in Cleveland. It was, and continues to be, all Trump, all the time. Not inconsequentially, it has also been about Megyn Kelly a star Fox performer. If James Carville made 1992 “all about the economy, stupid”, Fox and Trump have made the start of 2016 all about ratings.
The amount of attention generated by the Fox/Trump combo makes one wonder how spontaneous the “conflict” between candidate and questioner really was? Was Kelly’s provocation purposeful and was it unexpected? Did both she and the anointed “star” know what a publicity jewel was in the wind? Was hers a softball question dressed in hardball cloths? Probably not, but the fact that I even pose those questions — have such thoughts — speaks volumes about the sad state of things as we approach 2016. All this is made possible by the undeniable fact that the American presidency is firmly built around the cult of personality. That may have been baked in from the start — the choice of a separately elected president (term-bound monarch) rather than a prime minister elected with (and a member of) parliament. But precisely what we have today must be credited to the Roosevelts, TR and Franklin, perhaps our greatest cult-of-personality practitioners. They were so good at it that their immediate successors — perhaps because they couldn’t perform or as a reflection of public fatigue — were almost anti-heroes. That didn’t last long. JFK and Reagan revived the art and now, thanks in large measure to the media, the personality cult is the norm, not the exception. Being able to project star quality seems qualification #1 for presidential aspirants. The pollsters measure it in terms of “likability”, but we all know what it means.
More than anything, candidate Donald Trump is a perfect Foxworld creature — politics as show business. Fox has been so successful that every major outlet, regardless of where it fits into the media landscape, can’t help but headline its story. That’s profound and we should all take notice. The usual take on Fox is as the voice of the right in general and the GOP in particular. That may be true, but I think misses the more important point. Ideology might drive Fox and its programing, but more important is that Ailes has been successful in guiding and fine tuning politics as entertainment. Foxworld is the new standard. MSNBC may aspire to be “the alternative” but it is a mere copycat and thus an inconsequential sideshow. Foxworld’s real impact can be seen across the broadcasting spectrum but also in such distinguished institutions as The Times, Washington Post and even to some degree The New Yorker.
Whether we call it ratings, page views or whatever is today’s equivalent of “newsstand”, Foxworld sells. It seduces and draws us in. The form, format or style may differ but the same story — these days Trump — is universally covered. Hello, I’m writing about it here and not for the first time. I challenge you to find a news oriented program, website or publication that hasn’t succumbed to not one but multiple stories about the effectual Foxworld Trump partnership. I continue to believe that the Donald won’t be accepting a nomination in Ohio next August, but for the moment he is sucking the life out of everyone else’s campaign, especially the Republicans. This season’s Bush has trouble getting more than one story a week and most of the others have all but disappeared. Of course that says something about the seventeen who are running not to mention our general ability to focus on but one story at a time. One almost has to feel sorry for them, almost.
We are certainly living in interesting, often frustrating, times. But let’s not get so caught up in the present that we think things have never been like this. They have. Rupert Murdoch didn’t invite tabloid journalism; slanted broadcast sensationalism didn’t start with Roger Ailes. Yes the degree to which these been taken to the extreme may be slightly different, but less so than we’d like to think. The parties may be more polarized than we personally remember them — or chose to remember them — but things got pretty hairy in the 1950s not to mention in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Let’s not forget that at one point the country and parties got so divided that we ended up in a civil war. That said, what really counts for most of us is where we are, not where we have been. In that regard, whether an echo of another time or something unique in ours, Foxworld is both dominant and not a pretty sight. It likely won't last forever, but so far nobody seems to be leading us in another direction.