Friday, August 7, 2015

The FOX News primary

Brett Baier, left, seen cross-examining poll-leader Donald Trump
at FOX News' August 6th GOP Debate; 
Today, as Roger Ailes basks in the glory of last night's GOP debate, the rest of America is left to contemplate their place in American politics. For the non-FOX media and the political operators that make up the "Washington Cartel" decried by Ted Cruz, this means yet another reappraisal of how much control a divided GOP has lost over itself. And for the general American public, it's with some combination of glee, schadenfreude and despair that they realize they are in for an entire season of debates and presidential election coverage precisely engineered to satiate the hunger and whims of the Republican Party and the conservative consumer.

This coverage is unlike any we have seen before. It is motivated not simply by increased ratings and creating exciting programming, but by a desire to shape the race and be seen as an undeniable force within the GOP and American politics. The setting of the debate inside a sports stadium is a hint as to the new heights the network and its leader mean to achieve. As the show got underway, it became clear that this grandiose vision extends not just to production values, but an aim to be seen as playing the decisive role in the 2016 election.

The New York Times is right when it notes that the three hosts of last night's program were not indifferent to the candidates, but it fails to note that their aggression was not blind. Roger Ailes did not assemble ten candidates on stage simply to host a televised mass-shaming of politicians. Rather, last night was the unveiling of a remarkably ambitious plan to influence the GOP nomination. It was already clear that he intends to shape the pace at which the GOP field is winnowed in order to maximize drama and entertainment. Yet the moderators' act showed that he has higher aims- to elevate some candidates and suppress others, no matter how heavy-handed this requires FOX News to be.

As the Times notes, Ailes gave a firm kill order on Donald Trump. This was obvious even to the uninitiated, not just with the first question asking if he is secretly planning to give the election to Hillary Clinton, but by the ammunition they brought on his history of misogynistic comments and the prosecutorial vigor with which they cross-examined his claim that he had "bought" politicians. For his part, Trump did as well as could be expected under those conditions- far better than Jeb Bush in response to his critical (yet less-pointed) questions.

But FOX lent a helping hand to others. Carly Fiorina was promoted before the start of the debate as having "opened a can" of whoop-ass; later, she was mentioned during the debate not just by the moderators but with the only video clip of the earlier "second-tier" debate. And although he was largely unable to capitalize on the opportunities, John Kasich was lobbed softballs down the middle. An initial question about his expansion of Medicaid was unavoidable, but Megyn Kelly was kind enough to mention his use of faith in explaining his position. Later, Chris Wallace asked him a question about how he would fare in a general election against Hillary Clinton- a question emphasizing Kasich's main strength in the nomination contest:

It's not just that this question gave Kasich an opportunity to highlight his electability (a mark he largely missed) or that Wallace's careful wording underlined the fact that he was picturing- and asking others to picture- Kasich as the nominee  But he also teed Kasich up to effectively score points off of conservatives' hatred of Clinton. He not just gave Kasich an opportunity, but offered a template for the way to profit from this anger in how the way he referred to Clinton. "SHE will come after the nominee", "SHE" will say this and she will lie about that. By offering examples for him to echo, Wallace gave Kasich the chance to stir the ugliest element of Clinton-opposition without opening himself to accusations of sexism. Another favorable question went to Kasich later on in the night, when hosts asked him how he would respond to his child being gay, asking him to explain a kinder, gentler conservatism.

There were other moments where Ailes' pushed the nomination contest along. The pairing of Chris Christie and Rand Paul on the civil liberties question, for example, led to a predictably cutthroat exchange as these two men, starved for attention and airtime, tried to outdo one another. Christie punctured the crusader image Paul cultivated with his filibuster of the Patriot Act, tossing it aside as "hot air," to the chuckles of the audience. Paul reminded people of Christie's hug of President Obama. Roger Ailes couldn't have known exactly what would happen when he had Megyn Kelly kick the knife into the gladiator's arena, but there was certainly the potential of severe damage being inflicted upon one or both candidates- and it's easy to understand why that would be desirable.

The field must necessarily be parred down from sixteen to one and it's in FOX News' interest to wring every drop of entertainment out of each candidate before the nomination is decided. The more lead changes there are, the more exciting the race is. The more upsets to the conventional wisdom- failures by Bush and Paul and other candidates that have been seen as leading contenders since last fall- the more exciting the race. But excitement and ratings isn't enough- Ailes and FOX have a personal and professional quest to be seen as the force driving this party primary. When recently speaking of his embattled position inside the larger media empire, Roger Ailes explained why he would never be fired: "Rupert needs me to elect the next president". For him, this contest is the culmination of almost two-decades of wildly successful work to combine politics and entertainment through FOX News. For Roger Ailes, this is legacy building.

Understanding these dual aims explains much of what happened in last night's debate. Its why, outside of the already-tarnished Jeb Bush, moderators sidestepped the front-runners. The party hasn't reached a consensus about their preference between Rubio, Cruz and Walker. If FOX put its weight behind or against one of these candidates and was repudiated by the party it would destroy the narrative Roger Ailes hopes to build about the 2016 election: that it was a wild, dramatic race that FOX News won for the Republicans.

But while part of the performance was reading the tea-leaves and enacting the party's wishes on television, another was putting the FOX stamp on the primary battle- generating twists in the race that have an undeniable origin to moments on FOX News. The imposition of a population bottleneck on the field via poll-based selection criteria (which will be duplicated and intensified in the next debate as well). The promotion of Carly Fiorina to the top tier. The first spotlight on John Kasich (whose lead over Rick Perry in the 10th spot was enhanced by a last-minute change by FOX of the polls used to calculate its rankings.).

This will be a long process and last night was only the first episode. We know how Ailes intends the show to end- with a Republican president he and FOX News is credited with installing. The middle will be a series of ups and downs- and with the party divided, there is more opportunity for FOX to be the impetus of these shifts.

The invisible primary is over. The FOX News primary has begun.