Frighten and titillate. Frighten and titillate. Those are the orientating words a new employee, Kayla Pospisil played by Margot Robbie, gets from a more experienced reporter at Fox News about what constitutes a Fox story in the film Bombshell. Kayla, an ‘evangelical millennial’, seems to understand Fox’s notion of ‘fair and balanced.’ The news reportage is fair, the opinion shows balance the ‘liberal bias’ of American media.
Megyn Kelly, a one-time Fox News anchor and one of the main characters in Bombshell, wrote in her book Settle for More, that she too was asked about whether she understood what ‘fair and balanced’ meant, yet she doesn’t give us her take on it. However, she does say America has become a ‘cupcake nation, trying to eliminate offensive or even differing viewpoints and, with them, our grit and resilience’. In the book she goes on to defend people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who is known for her anti-Muslim rhetoric and Pamela Geller who organised a ‘draw Muhammad’ contest.
Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes was renowned for his ability to read people, in fact Kelly notes in her autobiography he practically wrote the book on it. But Ailes sure got it wrong when it came to women. In 2016 Ailes was accused by at least 20 women of sexual harassment. A Showtime TV show and Hollywood film production later, the wider public is coming to know the man, and by extension the machinations of Fox News.
Showtime’s The Loudest Voice (2019) and this year’s film Bombshell (2020) both give us insights into the ethos of Fox News and Ailes. They both revolve around the downfall of Ailes following the sexual harassment claims. While the film centres more around Megyn Kelly’s row with Donald Trump, the TV show gives us a multi-faceted representation of Ailes—a representation beyond one of sexual predator: a father and a husband with a staunchly supportive wife, but also as a paranoid obsessed with leftists and America being overtaken by socialism.
The Loudest Voice correspondingly gives us a taste of Ailes’s racism which the film neglects. In one scene when Ailes (Russel Crowe) is introduced to the second biggest shareholder in Fox, Saudi prince Al Waleed who flew in from Riyadh, Ailes says ‘I am just glad you didn’t hit any buildings on your way in’. In another scene when a Fox pundit, Glenn Beck, calls Obama a racist, Ailes simply responds by saying Beck’s a ‘funny guy’. The whole ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ episode was the brainchild of Ailes. The Fox News CEO wanted ‘that Muslim out of the White House’.
In the opening narration of Bombshell, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) gives credit to Ailes’s ingenuity. Ailes saw broadcast as a ‘nostalgia machine for a lost America’ she says. That lost America is the one Donald Trump based his campaign on, an exceptional America where unquestioning patriotism to the flag reigns supreme. Ailes saw in Trump both a good story and a political ally in that lost America and made the American flag an indispensable feature of Fox’s programming. But also, sex. There are numerous moments in both productions when Ailes directs the visual showcasing of women’s legs with wide camera shots and transparent tables.
Ailes understood the power, or ‘miracle’, of broadcast, he spoke about it a fair bit in his book You are the Message. The four things people won’t forgive he wrote is not being ‘prepared, comfortable, committed and interesting’. And if you want to be the best, likeability was the ‘magic bullet’ to becoming a ‘master communicator’. He undoubtedly had a good ear for a story. In his book Ailes relays his points and perspectives with stories, such as the time when he stared down Charles Manson or when he advised Ronald Reagan to go on the offense in debates rather than be on defence. Being on defence, was according to him, the weakest position to be arguing from. And that philosophy shines through in the Bill O’Reilly type figures at Fox.
When Fox News was being set up in 1995 it was Ailes who saw cable TV news as a vehicle to cater to a niche demographic, namely conservatives. In his estimation, conservatives had not been given a voice by the so-called left-wing media in America—the thinking was that the current news media outlets can fight over the leftist orientated market and Fox will ‘own’ the other half.
The notion that the American media has a liberal bias or left wing bent is however a myth. American mass media has generally operated under what Chomsky and Herman call the ‘propaganda model’. This is especially apparent when coverage includes or involves questions of foreign policy and American military intervention abroad. In their book Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky lay out that model and its constituents, such as how media portrays victims as ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ depending on American political interests or how quick the mass media uncritically accepts the government line.
A prime example of that is the Iraq war in 2003. By and large ‘liberal’ media outlets favoured or supported the war uncritically. As Chomsky and Herman put it ‘the Iraq invasion was a case in which available information, international law, public opinion and the public interest should have made the media skeptical and critical from the very start’.
Fear and patriotism were used to mobilise support for the Bush Administration’s adventurism. And Fox News is an expert at exploiting fear and galvanising patriotism bordering on jingoism. That’s where its success lies. ‘We don’t follow the news. We make the news’ Ailes says in The Loudest Voice. There is ‘no road to power without throwing a few punches’.
The film however, in its narrow focus on sexual harassment, a serious issue no doubt, fails to hold the pundits and journalists to account for the hate and fear that they espoused. That biggest fail is in the representation of Megyn Kelly who in Bombshell comes across as admirable, principled and a champion of women’s rights even though she rejects being labelled a feminist.
Yet her record at Fox paints to a more interesting picture. Bargo Marcetic writing for Jacobin in 2017 described Kelly’s journalism as ‘one-two punch of bug eyed, right-wing outrage and contemptuous sarcastic dismissal’ and went on to catalogue her record on race such as the slightly trivial ‘Santa is white’ statement to the laughable ‘Jesus is white’ statement. Marcetic also points out Kelly’s opposition to maternity leave and disapproval of female sexual empowerment as well as a host of alt-right ‘cranks’ given a platform on her show.
And it’s not just Bombshell that fails to hold Kelly to account. Kirsten Power in a piece for USA Today wrote Kelly’s ‘history of racist comments was quite literally whitewashed from fawning profiles in Women’s magazines and other mainstream publications by white journalists.’ The elephant in the room, which no one seems to be talking about, in both the TV series and film is Rupert Murdoch who is arguably also let off the hook by downplaying his direct influence on Fox’s ideological crusade.
It is that ideology, weather executive or pseudo journalistic in nature, that remains unchallenged in both the film and TV series. Gabriel Sherman, the journalist who wrote the book The Loudest Voice which inspired the TV series, stated that Murdoch built a ‘kingdom—a virtual state on to itself’, wielding more political influence than the politicians and using ‘his media to promote allies and punish enemies’. Sherman points out how Murdoch’s media provided crucial support to Thatcher in the UK, cashiered Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in Australia and helped elect mayor Ed Koch in New York.
Dramatisation does have its limits but the Fox effect has changed an industry of news broadcasting arguably for the worse, where fact and fiction routinely are conflated, the ethics of journalism are relegated as anachronisms and the alt-right has become a radical protest against the establishment—a fantasy that perpetuates uninformed ideologies and manipulates xenophobic fears for political ends, and at its extreme American exceptionalism and power. Whilst the ‘left wing’ mass media is to some extent complicit in all of this, Fox News has made it apparent, acceptable and financially rewarding such that its style of journalism is being emulated as ‘edgy’ or ‘patriotic’.
Ailes understood that effective communication was about engaging emotions and fears not facts. That’s how you build brand loyalty and Fox has that in spades. ‘If your audience likes you, they’ll forgive just about everything you do wrong’ he wrote in You are the Message. In other words, people will look beyond your casual racism, unfounded conspiracies and political hyperbole if you present yourself as some kind of an anti-establishment, straight talking David battling the Goliath of intellectual dogmatism plaguing the masses. Having the right anchors and pundits could sway audiences politically and morally, it can win elections and it’s not about what they say but how they say it, its about their likeability radar and marketable personality not their journalistic ethics.
Even Kelly concedes that Fox stories often are padded. In Settle for More she talks about one of her most satisfying interviews on Fox’s The Kelly File, where she interviewed Bill Ayers an anti-Vietnam war protester and founder of the Weather Underground. Ayers later went on to became a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. In the broadcast segment she introduced Ayers as a domestic terrorist. Fox ran with the story that Ayers launched the political career of Obama. Yet in her book she acknowledges that ‘was a little inflated’.
Both Ailes and Kelly understood that people only stop watching what you’re selling when there isn’t a conflict. It would be simplistic to suggest that Fox programming was merely about retaining eyeballs without addressing the zeitgeist of Fox and naturally that of Ailes and Murdoch. The Loudest Voice does a better job of it than Bombshell. It gives audiences a more rounded view of Ailes’s character—his politics, his obsessions, his sexism and his racism. It also gives more air time to Murdoch’s character, but nonetheless a rather subdued and politically mild version. Yet both productions fail to hold demagoguery and the reactionary ideologues that advocate it to account and both features end as though exposing sexual harassment alters Fox’s brand, and that somehow Fox News has undergone a renaissance with the removal of Ailes. It hasn’t. The Fox effect lives on just as Ailes, Murdoch and their ilk had initially envisioned it. Only now the CEO of Fox News is a woman.