The death of former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes last week underscored what an epoch we are currently witnessing in modern newsmedia. Ailes’ creation, Fox News, sparked and facilitated a polarization in American media that is unparalleled to this day; Stephen Metcalf, writing in the New Yorker, posited that “Ailes did more to degrade the tone of public life in America than anyone since Joseph McCarthy.” Since his dismissal in July 2016, the network has been embroiled in sexual harassment and racial discrimination lawsuits as well as an ongoing FBI investigation.
More significantly, the network is in hot water with its viewership, too. After years of reigning as the #1 cable news source, in the last few weeks it lost ground to competitors CNN and MSNBC. And last week, for the first time ever, MSNBC took the top slot. MSNBC is not a perfect analogue to Fox News — MSNBC flirts with moderation, while Fox News has long left centrist debate behind — but surprisingly, under a presidential administration that aligns so closely with its interests, Fox News and conservative media are having a tough time of it.
This feels like richly deserved karma, and maybe it is — the same network that peddled backlash against immigrants, paranoid conspiracy theories, and racist revisions of recent history is now being brought down by at least some of the consequences of that rhetoric. Old media institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post have meanwhile been on a weeks-long hot streak, delivering scoop after scoop with alacrity. Last week’s news cycle should be enough, on its own, to bring down an administration. It seems like the Donald Trump machine of destruction may have finally caught up with itself.
But if this is really a recalibration towards what actually constitutes the truth, instead of what is easily narrativized by conservative operatives, it should not put the news media at ease. The story of the last four decades of conservative politics in America is a media story, where truth is subservient to narrative, and narrative is subject to the whims of the Republican insiders. Donald Trump campaigned for his presidency as if he were competing in a reality television show — and arguably, he was. The distinction between fact and fiction has proven such a slippery topic that “fake news” — a term used in an attempt to distinguish fact from fiction — has become an epithet that can be hurled from any and all sides of a debate.
The most damning examination of this is the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone,” from Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme, which paints a picture so staggeringly comprehensive of Stone that the self-described provocateur believes it to be a flattering profile. (My colleague Owen Gleiberman discusses this film further in his review.) The documentary is stomach-turning, mostly because of how shamelessly Stone touts his amorality. But in particular, the documentary reveals how easily he can twist the media and avoid the truth. “Politics is showbusiness for ugly people,” he intones, before pointing to Trump’s time on “The Apprentice” as the makings of a Hollywood-ready president, with “great hair” and a nice armchair. Stone recounts learning “the power of disinformation” in elementary school, when he told all of his classmates in the cafeteria that Nixon wanted to make kids go to school on Saturdays. In the mock election, Kennedy won by a landslide.
Tuesday night, Frontline will premiere “Bannon’s War,” an hourlong look at that other Trump adviser. And although Stone and Bannon could not be more different — Stone is a dandy obsessed with power, while Bannon is a reclusive ideologue — their methods are comparable. The hourlong report is an attempt to paint a portrait of the secretive, “bookish” adviser to the president, who in addition to being the architect behind Trump’s inauguration speech and the January 27 executive order that was an effective Muslim travel ban, is the executive chair of Breitbart, an alt-right news and opinions website. Before Bannon was either a presidential adviser or a new media pioneer, though, he was a filmmaker. “Bannon’s War” includes clips of apocalyptic documentaries Bannon made following 9/11 about the dangers of Islam. These include “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War of Word and Deed,” from 2004, and “Generation Zero,” from 2010. Bannon, unlike Stone, believes every word of what he’s suggesting — but every word is absolutist, alarmist, and discriminatory. Bannon uses images of Muslims praying to suggest a coming apocalypse of first conversion and then destruction of Judeo-Christian principles. He seems convinced a massive war is coming, and in his documentaries seems almost to revel in that expectation: Exploding and collapsing buildings, as well as imagery of bombs going off in conflagration, are given romantic and even spiritual undertones.
“Get Me Roger Stone” is much more comprehensive, high-quality, and damning than “Bannon’s War,” due to the reality of producing films at Frontline. But the corresponding narratives between the two are alarming. Add in Ailes — another Trump adviser, before his death — and it becomes clear that the Trump campaign was a multi-pronged media war, using the predictable flaws of journalistic platforms (Stone), the bully pulpit of an extant sympathetic platform (Ailes) and the appealing, psuedo-historic propaganda of nativism (Bannon) to gut the GOP and accede to the White House.
With Ailes dead, Stone out of the administration (and now publicly condemning it), and Bannon engaged in a power struggle with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, these powerful men do not have as much influence as they could. (It is an alarming footnote in the stories of all of these men that they all succeeded in running roughshod over American democracy until their own hubris or stupidity got in the way. And in the case of Stone, it’s only slightly slowed him down.) But the processes they put in place are still working. Even as the mainstream media is focused on the Trump campaign and administration’s far-reaching and troubling ties to Russia, conservative media has found a new cause celebre: the “mysterious” death of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old D.C. staffer.
As Dave Weigel breaks down in the Washington Post, a combination of right-wing outlets including Fox News and the Russian embassy in the U.K. are drumming up the theory that the Democratic National Committee had Rich killed. This dovetails with the GOP’s interests: If the DNC leak was an inside job, instead of part of a concentrated effort on the part of Russian hackers, then the lens of corruption might be shifted from Republicans to Democrats. Rich’s family has been very troubled by these rumors, and has filed a cease-and-desist letter against the original source Rod Wheeler, who has largely recanted his “findings.” But the whiff of conspiracy was all that was needed for both Sean Hannity and radio host Rush Limbaugh to jump on the case.
Hannity and Limbaugh — and Stone, and Bannon, and the rest of conservative media — ought to be taking a victory lap with this administration: With Donald Trump in the Oval Office and GOP majorities in both the House and Senate, they have achieved all of what they hoped to. But perhaps this is their downfall: They are so used to inflammatory, anti-establishment, and divisive rhetoric that when the opportunity to be constructive presents itself, they are oddly speechless. The legacy of modern conservative media is one of destruction. It does not appear to have occurred to them yet that it is time to start building.