Upheaval at Fox, But It’s Still Rupert’s Empire

Bill O’Reilly is out after 21 years of holding the flagship position on-air at Fox News Channel, as the sexual harassment charges and settlements piled up.  But no one should seriously doubt that Rupert Murdoch remains the Palpatine of his media empire.  Indeed, the turmoil at the network even now proves it.

To be sure, people will opine that O’Reilly’s ouster represents a victory for Rupert’s sons, James and Lachlan, bolstered by senior executives at other divisions within the Murdoch empire who chafed at the seeming special treatment for the man with the falafel.  And it is nice that 21st Century Fox is being dragged into the late 20th Century.  I know people who still work there and the HR office doesn’t need to be run by Roger Sterling and Don Draper.

But what Rupert understands is money.  Not just the relatively small-to-him sums being paid out to settle claims brought against O’Reilly or former program honcho Roger Ailes, or to buy out their contracts.

Rather, he’s likely looking at the threat posed by FNC’s highest-rated show being boycotted by prestige advertisers.  FNC’s primetime has always been based on the model of talk-radio-with-pictures; Rupert undoubtedly noticed what happened to the revenues and clearance for the entire conservative talk radio sector once a similar boycott stuck to Rush Limbaugh.

But the turmoil that has gripped FNC over the past year largely has been caused by Rupert’s control over his vision for the operation, both before and after yanking O’Reilly off camera.

The general narrative has been one of Rupert fighting his sons over the direction of the network he created with Ailes many years ago.  As right-leaning talk video, it has attracted largely the same demographic as right-leaning talk radio: white seniors.

James and Lachlan would like to start the transition that will be inevitable as its core audience literally dies and is replaced by another generation that may not have the same politics as the current one.  Rupert sees the current FNC as a yuge cash cow and is loath to fuss with the formula.

While I might prefer the sons’ vision for FNC, I can’t blame Rupert for the impulse to not fix what isn’t broken, especially when you have to answer to stockholders.  That said, there is also an argument that you can stagnate and lose when you don’t take the initiative to innovate from time to time.  And it is very much a question of timing that is probably unknowable.

All of that said, consider that the departures of Ailes and O’Reilly were basically forced upon Rupert by the circumstances, not by choice.  OTOH, Rupert chose to let Megyn Kelly leave last year — and FNC’s schedule would have been far more stable had he met her asking price.

That choice was quite consciously one in the direction of a Trumpier FNC, as is yesterday’s decision to give Eric Bolling a show while moving the rest of The Five to primetime.  And it is most evident in the meteoric rise of Tucker Carlson, who has surfed the shock waves at FNC from weekends to Greta Van Susteren’s slot into O’Reilly’s chair.

Carlson is nothing if not flexible.  He has been a middle-of-the-road conservative for CNN, a provocative prankster at the Daily Caller, a libertarianish righty for MSNBC, and now a Trumpian tribune for Fox (even dropping his signature WASPy bow tie in favor of more proletarian neckwear).

As Carlson told McKay Coppins recently: “I’m not much of an economic conservative, and I’m not conservative at all on foreign policy.  If your politics don’t change when circumstances do, you’re an idiot, you’re a reactionary.”

I could write a longread deconstructing that quotation alone, but today is not that day.

Rather, the important thing now is that Carlson’s chameleon-like adaptability has provided him with an opportunity, but one that comes with its own inherent challenge — and one Rupert has imposed on FNC in general.

The challenge of boarding the Trump Train is that it doesn’t run on tracks.  You have no idea where it’s going to make stops.  Indeed, Trump has recently been making a raft of policy shifts seemingly away from populism and nationalism, and toward a far more conventional Republican approach.

Carlson’s reaction has been to do things like debate Lindsey Graham for agreeing with Pres. Trump’s new position on Syria, and to bring Ann Coulter on to chastise Trump.*

Carlson thus seems (so far) to be taking the Bannonesque position of holding Trump accountable to that segment of his core voters who were really serious about Trump’s advertised nationalism and populism.

But what if that’s not a yuge segment of Trump voters, let alone Fox News viewers?  What if Trump’s support is driven more by the tribal drums of traditional partisanship, by GOPers who voted for Trump because he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton, who like his recent turn towards more traditional Republicanism, and are just more inclined to side with the President over some griping talking head on Fox?

Carlson has changed his politics to fit what he thinks are vastly changed circumstances.  But he’ll be judged by an audience that may become less incline to cheer New Tucker at the very moment he’s received the big promotion.

And again: Rupert runs a capitalist empire; he won’t think twice about demoting Carlson if the ratings decline — or dispatching any of the people at FNC who have trimmed their sails to the Trumpian winds of months past.  In that regard, Rupert is the alpha chameleon of his empire.  It’s not easy being green, but that’s his preferred color.

*[Aside: Carlson’s inferior knowledge of the Middle East compared to Graham, much like his flailing idiocy about capitalism when trying to debate Mark Cuban, tends to prove my point that Carlson should debate tomato cans less, to keep in shape.  I reiterate this even though the New New Left’s collegiate antifa are a major symptom of what’s wrong with America these days and need to be exposed.  Carlson’s taking the big chair and will need to up his game if he wants to stay there.]

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Tucker Carlson’s Dangerous Game

Having written about Sean Hannity on Monday, I am loath to return so quickly to the well of Fox News Channel, but Tucker Carlson is playing a dangerous game.  I refer to this:

You can view a longer version of the clip, which makes clear that the “monitoring” to which he refers is really the alleged “unmasking” of individuals connected to the Donald Trump transition and campaign in intelligence reports, allegedly by former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice. (Why Fox would take Carlson slightly out of context on Twitter is anyone’s guess.)

However, the materials Carlson refers to were, as far as anyone knows, “incidental collection,” i.e., instances in which a foreign person or agent properly targeted for surveillance speaks to a U.S. person.  Indeed, when House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes initially made the unmasking claim public, he stated that “on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.”

Conflating the collection of surveillance intelligence (including incidental collection) with the subsequent analysis or dissemination of that material, as Carlson does here, misleads people into thinking the intelligence was collected improperly.

This is not hypothetical.  I have had people interpret and defend Carlson’s remarks as suggesting that Obama had intelligence agencies target foreign persons or agents in order to monitor the conversations of Trump and his team.

There is a term — or euphemism — for this charge: “reverse-targeting.”  It’s illegal.  There is currently no evidence that reverse-targeting occurred in this case.  Indeed, Nunes was specifically asked whether this material could be the result of reverse-targeting and he replied that didn’t know.

In the past, Edward Snowden has claimed that many DNI analysts at NSA engaged in reverse-targeting.  OTOH, Edward Snowden is a Russian stooge hiding from justice and thus unlikely to say much that does not advance the interests of his handlers.

In addition, Sen. Rand Paul, while doubting that Trump was targeted for surveillance, suggested that he might have been the subject of a “backdoor search,” which is not reverse-targeting, but a different form of improper usage of properly collected surveillance of foreign persons or agents.

At that time, Paul claimed that Pres. Obama had been the subject of such improper searches 1,227 times, which turns out to be a misleading reference to the number of times Obama was mentioned by others (in unmasked but obviously identifiable form) in communications.

Paul has also accused Susan Rice of having conducted the “backdoor searches” without any evidence to back his claim.  And when he got called on it, he tap-danced.

These days, cases of reverse-targeting are rare, generally inadvertent, and reported pursuant to current law.  (Such was not always necessarily the case.)  These reports also address the implementation of “minimization” (masking) procedures.

This lack of evidence of improper surveillance of Trump & Co., incidentally, is why people arguing that Obama spied on Trump resort to listing the Obama’s other bad acts involving surveillance.

In general, evidence of prior bad acts is not good evidence that the person or group involved committed a particular current bad act.  I could explain why this is generally true in law, but let’s skip right to an example politics and the court of public opinion.

I have previously noted that partisan Democrats once pursued nutty investigations of whether George H. W. Bush flew in an SR-71 Blackbird jet to Paris to interfere with the Iranian hostage negotiations, and whether he was involved in drug-running with the Contras in Nicaragua.  Those allegations are made no less nutty by the fact that there was an actual Iran-Contra scandal when George H. W. Bush was Vice-President.  And they are no less nutty because he used to run the CIA.

In the current climate, my favorite part of the “bad acts” argument is the Right’s strange new concern that the CIA allegedly spied on Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who were investigating the CIA’s handling of the torture issue during the Bush Administration.  The GOP — and most conservatives — were uninterested in this story at the time because they thought Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s investigation was a political witch hunt.  But now the Obama administration is to be blamed for defending the CIA’s attempt to fend it off on their own system.  OK.

So why is any of this a big deal?  After all, isn’t this whole subject murky and confusing?  There are at least two answers to this question.

First, at the crass political level, conflating issues of surveillance with issues of analysis or usage merely gives Democrats and the establishment media license to do the same in order to distract from the accusation that Rice engaged in improper unmasking, which is potentially quite serious (for what it’s worth, which isn’t much, Rice denies the accusation, though her general lack of credibility is not proof of culpability).

As David French notes, we really don’t know enough yet to be forming solid opinions on whether Rice acted improperly.  My quibble with French’s piece is that he uses Russia as an example and the materials at issue here ostensibly did not involve Russia. (John Schindler provides a hypothetical intelligence report that’s much simpler and likely more pertinent to the current controversy.)

Second, on a more serious level, note the point raised early on by Andrew McCarthy in considering the mere possibility of reverse-targeting.  He observed that the pre-9/11 “wall” between law enforcement and intelligence investigators made it difficult to share information and thus effectively investigate or prevent terror attacks.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board —a bipartisan panel in the executive branch that reviews the executive branch’s surveillance actions and also monitors civil liberty concerns — has found the sort of post-9/11 electronic surveillance at issue here “makes a substantial contribution to the government’s efforts to learn about the membership, goals, and activities of international terrorist organizations, and to prevent acts of terrorism from coming to fruition.”

To be sure, we should be concerned about the potential for abuse of these surveillance programs.  But we should be very careful that any reforms we make address actual abuses of civil liberties, not imagined ones, before deciding to risk losing the value these programs provide.

Carlson, and Paul for that matter, thus potentially do the public a great disservice by conflating surveillance with analysis/unmasking (and dissemination and leaking) to advance their partisan or ideological agendas.  A misinformed public may be persuaded to demand reforms of the law that not only do not address the potential problem seen so far in this controversy, but also cures that may be worse than the disease.

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Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, Revisited

Consider this an update or continuation of an earlier posting arguing that when considering the political prospects for a heterodox president like Donald Trump, one might consider other recent heterodox presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Under the Bill Clinton scenario, the president’s party and associated movement goes along (in varying degrees of reluctance) with a more centrist president, despite losses suffered by the party and a cloud of personal craziness, mostly from an aversion to the other side winning.  Under the Jimmy Carter scenario, the president’s party supports some of the heterodox positions at first, but relations with Congress ultimately deteriorate, contributing to a failed presidency and a change in the political direction of the country.

Pres. Trump has been in office for only a month, so it’s far too early to judge which type of scenario will play out here.  Nevertheless, it may be useful to mark out a starting point.

The current political environment provides a fair amount of evidence that a substantial segment of the right cares much more about what they’re against instead of what they support.  Half of Republicans see Vladmir Putin as an ally while Russia secretly deployed a new cruise missile U.S. officials say violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  This seems like a party and perhaps a movement that will have plenty of tolerance for Trump and his issues — for now, anyway.

The administration’s relationship to Congress, otoh, seems to remain dodgy.  Trump’s legislative agenda seems to lag that of his predecessors.  The administration gently grouses that Congress doesn’t want to be told what to do… until it does.  Those on the Hill suggest they initially welcomed Trump’s benign neglect, but are paralyzed by the lack of any White House guidance on tax reform, Obamacare and infrastructure spending (the last perhaps being kicked into 2018).

Meanwhile, Corey Robin has written a lengthy comparison of Trump and Carter for the lefty journal n+1.  There’s plenty of interest to agree and disagree with in the article.  For example, Robin notes the generally declining vote share for Republican presidents from 1972 through 2016 without addressing the gains of Republicans at virtually every other level of government.

Robin’s observation that the general lack of prior government experience in Trump’s cabinet may hinder his ability to deliver the change he promised, however, is worth considering, even if the administration’s goal is to greatly diminish the administrative state.  Apart from the Carter example, when Pres. Reagan picked George Schultz as Secretary of State, the latter had experience that equipped him to anticipate and fight bureaucratic resistance within Foggy Bottom.

More significantly, Robin highlights that part of Carter’s dilemma was sitting atop a party that was in transition between the remnants of the New Deal and the influx of the New Left.

Today, Trump sits atop a GOP split between its coastal donor class, a bloc of supposed True Conservatives, and perhaps the sort of nationalists Trump’s senior counselor, Stephen Bannon, would like to make the dominant faction.

How this schism gets resolved has a fair amount to do with how many of the supposed TruCons are are amenable to Trump’s populist nationalism.  This cannot be predicted with any certainty, but the Carter and Clinton examples may yet be instructive.

Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox.  The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them.  Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.

Why did Clinton and Carter fail to fundamentally reshape their party?  One big reason is that progressivism is supported by an expansive web of institutions, including grassroots activists, publications, think-tanks and other organizations, all devoted to advancing a broadly New Left agenda (and increasingly a New New Left agenda).

Carter essentially had no such institutions supporting his agenda.  Bill Clinton had a few – notably the Democratic Leadership Council – which has since gone the way of the Dodo.

Small-government conservatives may find themselves with less power during the Trump era, but can take some comfort in the fact that movement conservatism has institutional support similar to that progressivism had to sustain them during the Carter and Clinton years.   Trump’s victories caused Tucker Carlson and others to declare these institutions a failure; in fact, they were blamed for not achieving a purpose for which most of them were never designed to fulfill (excepting the activists).

The fact that the GOP nominated and elected a heterodox figure like Donald Trump does not necessarily signal that the party has undergone a realignment or that the conservative movement is dead.  The United States and Europe may have reached a more nationalist moment, but there has been much less of a foundation laid to sustain that mode of politics on this side of the Atlantic.

The real questions are more along the lines of whether Trump will get involved in more state party leadership fights (he won in Ohio after several rounds of deadlocked voting). Or whether Trump acolytes can succeed in down-ticket races without his celebrity.  Or whether Trump is interested in creating – or coopting – the infrastructure of institutions that supported Ronald Reagan and have extended his philosophical and political legacy for decades.

Trump is getting the big ovations at CPAC today.  Whether and how much more he’s willing to do beyond flying a few miles in Marine One remains to be seen.

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Are You Not Entertained?

There is a line of ridicule that Ace of Spades has been pursuing for years on Twitter.  Harsh, but not entirely unfair:

The media does love their shows.  Progressives love their shows.

But they’re not the only ones.  At least, I’m guessing that the audience for Tucker Carlson figuratively defenestrating low-level lefty competition isn’t wildly progressive.

I also don’t think many progressives voted for the former host of The Apprentice to be President of the United States.

And it wasn’t progressives who cheered Pres. Trump’s most recent press conference, or his campaign-style rally in Florida.  Someone else was cheering.  He really gave it to the media didn’t he?  And the media played their role as foil, just as though it was one of those WWE shows at which Trump was such an excellent performer.

Of course, the media had it coming, didn’t they?  They enabled an anti-democratic revolt by the Deep State that at least contributed to the firing of Trump’s national security adviser.  That’s an entirely legit complaint, even if we may not know whether it might be an exceptional case, even if righties didn’t say much about FBI leaking political intrigues surrounding the investigations of Hillary Clinton, and even if Trump has himself expressed contempt for political norms and the law on occasion.

But what about Trump’s presser on Sept. 16, 2016?  That was the event where Trump finally admitted Pres. Obama was born in the United States.  As you may recall, part of Trump’s entrée to Republican politics was an appeal to Birtherism — and it was the first time of several he would accuse his political foes of literally not being American.

But that was okay, wasn’t it?  Democrats had called Republicans un-American before.  Of course, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio aren’t Democrats, but it was okay to suggest they aren’t citizens because…why was that again?  Does it matter?  No one took that literally or seriously, amiright?   It was just Trump being outrageous.  It was very entertaining.

Anyway, after he won the nomination, the Trump campaign decided he needed to ditch the Birtherism.  Trump never likes to retreat from a position, so this was kind of a big deal.

What did Trump do?  He started the event, held at his DC hotel, with a parade of war veterans declaring they were not the “deplorables” Hillary Clinton had recently attacked.  Trump then appeared onstage to blame Clinton for starting Birtherism (which isn’t really true, though Mark Penn proposed a similar tactic in 2008) and very briefly declare Obama was born in the U.S.  Then, instead of taking questions, he tried to take the press pool on a promotional tour of his hotel.

Some might have called that breathtakingly cynical, even for Trump.

Many on the right, however, called it awesome.  They ate it up.  Wow, did you see how he trolled the media?  Granted, he did it to distract from his attempt to clean up his grubby political roots…but he trolled the media!

Of course, the media had it coming, didn’t they?  The MSM is biased.  They’re the opposition.  Trump has all the right enemies.  And gets away with being outrageous.  So entertaining.

By the way, did you hear that Milo Yiannopoulos is a featured speaker at CPAC this year?  Sure, he makes anti-Semitic remarks and is a fellow traveler of the alt-right.  And sure, his remarks about relationships between adults and young boys at a bare minimum should make your skin crawl.

But you know, Milo’s just being a provocateur, saying outrageous things to promote himself.  He has all the right enemies, doesn’t he?

Plus, CPAC isn’t representative of the right as a whole; it’s just someplace Donald Trump donated a ton of money before he got invited onto their stage.  Trump is going to be there again this year, as is Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who was the last guy to offer Milo a platform. (I recommended Bannon go to CPAC, but since he’s double-billed with WH Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, it’s virtually certain he’s not taking my advice.)

I’m guessing Trump, Bannon, and Milo will get a lot of media coverage at CPAC, because it’s bound to be a show.  The media does love their shows.  Progressives love their shows.

On this point, Ace can be pretty harsh. But not entirely unfair.

Update: CPAC disinvites Milo…

…because of the man-boy love comments.  Apparently, the anti-Semitic/alt-right sewage is still kosher with the so-called American Conservative Union.

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Tucker’s Tomato Can Television

‘Member when righties laughed at lefties who went nuts for sharing videos of the format “WATCH [Lefty TV personality] DESTROY/EVISCERATE/SLAY [Righty politician or issue]”?  I ‘member.

And yet I see righties giving the same sort of treatment to similar clips from Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight.

The most recent virality involved Carlson taking on USA Today Deputy Editorial Editor David Mastio over an editorial noting that White House counselor Stephen Bannon and the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi share a belief in a “clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.”  That’s not quite right; Bannon stated in 2014 that “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.”  But USAT drew its conclusions (correct or not) based on the totality of Bannon’s comments about Islam, as noted in the editorial.

Carlson led off his segment with Mastio by means of a pop quiz:

Like Mr. Wurtzel, I tend to think “Bannon doesn’t behead journalists” comes across as damning the man with faint praise.

Carlson, however, does behead journalists, figuratively, and he draws quite an audience.  Beyond the social sharing, his ratings are yuge.

This should surprise no one.  Carlson knows the formula.  In the long history of cable news morphing into infotainment, when Jon Stewart famously compared CNN’s Crossfire to pro wrestling, Carlson was one of his direct targets.  (Carlson has claimed he never understood Stewart’s point.)

Of course, Tucker Carlson Tonight isn’t as scripted as the WWE.  But it’s not unlike watching a favored heavyweight boxer work his way toward a title belt by sparring with a series of tomato cans.

On Crossfire, Carlson had to tangle with seasoned pros like James Carville or Paul Begala nightly.  On Fox, virtually none of Carlson’s recent foils have nearly his experience in what passes for debate on television.  And as often as not they are: C-list writers for outlets like the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, and Teen Vogue; generally unknown writers like Mastio or Fortune’s Mathew Ingram; writers with, um, colorful histories like Kurt Eichenwald; and the occasional businessman, college student, or random crank.

Even against inexperienced guests with weak-to-outlandish arguments, Carlson resorted to a straw man argument versus Mastio, and guilt-by association with Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca.

Carlson’s obviously a smart guy and just as obviously talented on camera.  But he risks re-enacting the moment in Gladiator where Maximus, after swiftly dispatching his vastly inferior opponents, bellows to the audience, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?”  Because they clearly were not.

And even if the crowd remains entertained, you might ask how lefties giggling over the Stewarts, Colberts, Olivers, and Bees worked out for them.  I can tell you from experience that junk food is tasty, but makes you flabby in excess.

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