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“With Television You Just Sit—Watch—Listen. The Thinking Is Done For You.”

Memo Pad Politics

“With Television You Just Sit—Watch—Listen. The Thinking Is Done For You.”


Sometimes the archives disgorge clear and convincing documentation proving what everyone already knows: in the latest case, a series of official memos revealed how media strategist Roger Ailes conspired with top Nixon White House officials to create a television enterprise that would directly promote Republican politicians and ideology — something very similar to what Fox News Channel became when he founded it a quarter century later. The 1970 memoranda, which even bear handwritten notes from Ailes to Nixon aides such as Watergate scandal convict H.R. Haldeman, were written long before the advent of cable and the arrival of Rupert Murdoch could at last make his dream real.

Straightforwardly titled “A Plan For Putting the GOP on TV News,” the memo lacks both a specific date and the names of any authors, but the context indicates that a Republican Party official wrote it during the summer of 1970. It belongs to a “318-page cache of documents detailing Ailes’ work for both the Nixon and George H.W. Bush administrations” discovered in their respective presidential libraries by John Cook, a reporter for the Gawker website, which first reported their revelations.

“Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication,” Ailes wrote at the time. “The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.”

It is no secret, of course, that the founding genius of Fox News spent most of his career as an exceptionally effective media consultant, public relations director and adman for the GOP. His earliest achievements as a partisan propagandist, chronicled by journalist Joe McGinniss in his classic book, The Selling of the President, involved remaking Nixon for the 1968 presidential campaign (which he won). And it is also no secret that long before he started Fox News with Murdoch, Ailes attempted to mount a similar enterprise with Joseph Coors, the beer magnate and lavish funder of ultra-conservative institutions.

Both the Nixon news channel, which never launched, and the Coors news channel, which operated briefly before folding in 1975, were designed to promote coverage with a right-wing slant on local TV stations. By providing free, prepackaged video “realities” to station managers who needed programming – and might well be hospitable to GOP propaganda – Ailes hoped to bypass the gatekeepers of news at the three national networks, whom he and Nixon both perceived as irredeemably liberal.

Having successfully marketed a “new Nixon” to America, Ailes was eager to find new and better ways to sell him and his party again four years later. The memo that he deemed “excellent” now seems quaint, with its specially designed editing truck and its emphasis on “news of importance to localities” that would also promote Republican politicians. But Ailes believed that he could make the scheme work, even if the liberals complained about “news management” by the White House, and pitched Haldeman for the job.

Ailes and Nixon never launched the GOP TV channel, perhaps because their relationship with Nixon suffered a rift after the publication of the McGinniss book. But the memos also show that the White House wanted to keep Ailes in their tent – which may explain why Coors paid him to work on the Television News Incorporated, as the short-lived right-wing network was known.

Cook also found evidence that Ailes was at least marginally involved in dirty tricks for the Nixon reelection campaign – in particular, a memo he wrote urging that sources be planted in the George Wallace camp if the former Alabama governor decided to launch a second independent candidacy in 1972. Other amusing tidbits from the archives show Ailes pushing for tougher regulation of campaign commercials, micromanaging Nixon’s lighting of the White House Christmas tree for maximum heart-tugging, and even urging Nixon to promise in a “major address” that “poverty, air and water pollution will be eliminated in America totally by 1980.”

Of course, that was back when Republicans – even Nixon Republicans – were actually concerned with reducing poverty and protecting the environment. Their party has changed radically for the worse, and so has their reigning media mastermind.

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers. Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003). Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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