Followers in a Time of Crisis…the Virus Crisis – III

This is the third in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

III – The Media

Social media are today’s tabloids. They tend toward the extremes at both ends of the political spectrum, generally attracting those who agree with the messages they send, generally distancing those who do not. But even in this time of tweets and trolls, old media, specifically cable television networks, play a significant role as influencers. Here too we incline to consume media that confirm – that confirm our preexisting biases. Liberals, then, gravitate toward cable networks such as MSNBC and CNN, that relentlessly diminish and demean President Donald Trump; whereas conservatives gravitate toward Fox News, a network dedicated to nothing so much as extolling Trump’s various virtues.

Fox News is, of course, the legacy of legendary media mogul, Roger Ailes. (Ailes has also come to be known for fostering at Fox News a culture of sexual harassment, which, though, is beside the point of this post.) Under Ailes’s leadership, Fox News became two things simultaneously: first, a remarkable story of unmitigated media success; second, a reliable extension of the Republican Party. Fox News became so successful a hybrid of politics and entertainment that it did not simply have viewers, it had fans. It had fans so relentlessly rabid and tirelessly dedicated that the network became a money-making juggernaut. At the same time, Ailes’s ties to the Republican Party, as well as those of Rupert Murdoch, Ailes’s empire-building boss, became stronger while proving enduring. Stronger and enduring to the point where, during the administration of Donald Trump, Fox News became, in effect, an extension of the White House.

Ailes’s ties to powerful Republican politicians went all the way back to his association with Richard Nixon. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s Ailes was a Republican Party stalwart, reliably available, eager even, to serve as media consultant and political guru so long as he deemed the association in his best interest as well as in the interest of his baby, Fox News. The connection continued to shortly before Ailes’s death. To the time of Trump, in other words, who Ailes helped to win the White House, while Trump in time on drew on Fox News to enable him to dominate the American media landscape as no other politician since Franklin Roosevelt.                

During Trump’s presidency, the success of Fox News has continued unabated. In 2019 it generated some $2.7 billion a year for its parent company, 21st Century Fox, and it remains the most watched of all cable news networks. Simultaneous to this success, has been the relationship between Fox News and Trump’s White House, which in the last three and a half years solidified into symbiosis. Fox features a fervid pro-Trump lineup in primetime, including anchors Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Sean Hannity. This has meant that when times were, are, tough – such as during the current virus crisis – Trump has been able to rely on his media cronies to continue to be his toadies. For example, when the president was proselytizing, relentlessly, for hydroxychloroquine as a possible or even probable remedy for COVID-19, Ingraham served as his Fox foil. She declared the drug a “game changer.” She booked guests willing to describe it as a “miracle turnaround.” And she charged that anyone who questioned the efficacy of the drug was in “total denial.” Ingraham backed off only after Trump himself did, when the evidence and the experts began increasingly to imply that enthusiasm was not in order, but that caution was.        

The links between Fox and the White House are not only professional, they are personal. They range from Bill Shine, the former co-president of Fox News, who went for a time to the White House to serve as director of communications and deputy chief of staff. To Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox co-host who has been for some time the steady girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr. To Fox anchor Hannity, a close friend of Trump, who former Fox star, Bill O’Reilly, recently called “the most powerful guy in the country” because Trump seems to do what Hannity effectively tells him to do.

Given the enormous reach of Fox News, the network has been a fabulous foil for Trump, a follower as force multiplier that has enabled him throughout his brief political career to exercise power and influence far beyond what he could possibly have achieved without the network in tow. There is, though, an irony here. For while Trump appears the leader and Fox the follower, Fox will defer to the president only so long as it’s in the network’s best interest. Should the president stumble – specifically, should the pandemic push him to lose his footing – Fox News will scurry in front rather than stay out back.

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