Capable of Honor: Fox at 15 - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Capable of Honor: Fox at 15

July 14, 1964.

The Cow Palace, San Francisco.

It is a warm California night, the political temperature inside the old arena holding the Republican National Convention rapidly approaching the boiling point.

On the surface, the events in the Cow Palace — the six acre arena’s name derived from its original purpose as a home for livestock exposition — are standard fare for a political convention. There is a front runner and a challenger. There is a platform to be decided. Speeches to be given by party luminaries. Roll call votes to be taken.

This being 1964, sixteen full years after the first serious commercial introduction of television in America, three television networks — from oldest to youngest they were NBC, CBS, and ABC — have assigned their “news divisions” to cover the convention. Surrounding the upper rim of the Cow Palace in glassed-in booths, the “anchors” peer out over the teeming crowd of delegates below. Their colleagues in print and radio watch from the regular press galleries, closer to the action.

To the eye, all seems normal — or as normal as a traditional American political convention can be.

But there is, in fact, something remarkably different about this convention night. Out of the heat and jostling and high emotion, political shock waves were about to be generated that would permanently change the shape of America. Shock waves that would forever alter the dynamic between the men and women in those glass walled television anchor booths, their non-television colleagues in the press galleries — and the rapidly increasing mass media audience of millions of Americans.

Shock waves that would eventually lead to the creation and stunning success of Fox News.

For months now the Republican Establishment has been under siege from a growing number of Republicans who felt the party had been, in Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s words, “embracing the welfare staters and implementing programs more representative of the New Deal-Fair Deal than Republican principles.” Goldwater had addressed the Republican Convention of 1960 to tell the swelling ranks of his followers: “Let’s grow up, conservatives. If we want to take this party back, and I think we can some day, let’s go to work.”

And so they did.

For the next four years, led by Goldwater, the GOP Establishment found itself unexpectedly fighting for its life — its life defined as the routine dominance of the Republican Party in the name of what Goldwater openly scorned as the “dime store New Deal.” By which he meant progressive, socialistic big government policies except less so by a dime here and there. Almost twenty years after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the implementation of the New Deal, with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs already surging through Congress, the growing significance of the role of government in everyday life — and its rising cost in both dollars and freedom — was a growing political chasm within the larger nation as a whole as well as the GOP. The conservative objective, in contrast to Republican liberals, was a return to the party’s first principles. Or, in Goldwater’s words: “to preserve and extend freedom.”

By the primary season of 1964, this struggle had become an existential one for Republicans, deeply personalized in the battle for the nomination between Goldwater and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The two men, — personally, politically and culturally — could not be more different. Goldwater the jut-jawed Arizonan who represented the growing economic and political power of the population shifts to the American West and South and the demands for freedom associated with it, Rockefeller the scion of Eastern Establishment old wealth, his last name and personal ancestry the very symbol of the buttoned-down political and cultural liberal. When Goldwater defeated Rockefeller in the California GOP primary, the last-minute Establishment stand-in, Pennsylvania Governor William W. Scranton, took up the banner. The two competing forces and their lieutenants (one of Scranton’s was Michigan Governor George Romney, father of Mitt; one of Goldwater’s, actor Ronald Reagan) were this night engaged in open political combat for the nomination, the balloting a mere 24 hours distant. Goldwater and his conservative forces were on the cusp of winning.

Yet Scranton and his Establishment backers had something going for them as the clock for this convention session began to tick. And the Goldwater conservatives on the floor that night knew exactly what that something was.

The American media.

The men (and they were mostly men in the day) in those glassed-in sky booths and their brethren in the press galleries. Men who, contrary to the lofty self-image insistently sold to the public, were anything but impartial — honorable — observers in the battle that was ratcheting up between newly invigorated conservatives and the left.

For months now Goldwater had been routinely assailed as an extremist by the Establishment media. As the Arizonan had methodically piled up delegates and inched closer and closer and closer to clinching the nomination, the leading lights of the American media had jumped into the fray with a startling ferocity, swinging viciously at Goldwater and his conservative followers.

Only weeks earlier, an alarmed John S. Knight, then president and editor of the Detroit Free Press and no Goldwater supporter, had seen enough of this vividly non-journalistic lack of honor to publish an editorial on the subject, saying pointedly of his media colleagues:

Their deep concern for the GOP’s future would be more persuasive if any considerable number of them had ever voted for a Republican nominee — of the syndicated columnists I can think of only a few who are not savagely cutting down Senator Goldwater day after day.

Some of the television commentators discuss Goldwater with evident disdain and contempt. Editorial cartoonists portray him as belonging to the Neanderthal age or as a relic of the nineteenth century. It is the fashion of editorial writers to persuade themselves Goldwater’s followers are either kooks or Birchers. This simply isn’t so. The Goldwater movement represents a mass protest by conservatively-minded people against foreign aid, excessive welfare, high taxes, foreign policy, and the concentration of power in the federal government.”

Walter Lippmann, the premiere columnist of his day (as well as once serving as an aide to the progressive President Woodrow Wilson and co-founding the liberal New Republic magazine) was regarded as a journalistic Zeus by his media colleagues, thus signaling the appropriate tone that was to be adopted by the media on Goldwater. Goldwater himself later noted acerbically that any word from Lippmann was enough to launch a journalistic echo chamber with “all sharing a common philosophical viewpoint, (where all) play follow-the-leader in order to maintain their membership group.” 

And what was the word on conservatives and their leader handed down from this media chieftain up there on his journalistic Mount Olympus?

“We cannot afford,” Lippmann wrote shortly after Goldwater had defeated Rockefeller in the California primary, “to have a politician running for president who makes it his vocation to sharpen and to embitter the sectional, racial, class, ideological issues that we must learn to live with and to outlive. Nor can we afford the tom-toms and the flagpole sitting which he (Goldwater) substitutes for serious consideration of the terrible issues of peace and war.” 

A clearer, more deliberate, misrepresentation of conservatism would be hard to find in the moment. Nor was this presented as partisan opinion. On the contrary, Lippmann, the ex-Wilson aide, the co-founder of a liberal magazine, was presented to the American people by his media allies as some sort of God of Objective Journalism.

As the weeks towards the convention shortened and Goldwater gained in strength, Lippmann stepped up his criticisms, now moving from loud to shrill. Goldwater wanted to “divide the country” and remake the GOP into his “kind of party.” And what kind of party would that be? Warned a hysterical Lippmann: “It is impossible to doubt that Senator Goldwater intends to make his candidacy the rallying point of the white resistance.”

Barry Goldwater? The rallying point for white resistance? The man who put an end to segregation in his family department stores? The man who, during his tenure on the Phoenix City Council and in the Arizona National Guard, helped desegregate all Phoenix schools, restaurants, and the state’s National Guard itself? The man who had had the temerity to say of Lyndon Johnson’s record on civil rights that he was a “faker”? The man who noted — accurately — that LBJ “opposed civil rights until this year (1964). Let them (Democrats) make an issue of it. I’ll recite the thousands of words he has spoken down the years against abolishing the poll tax and FEPC (Fair Employment Practices Commission). He’s the phoniest individual who ever came around (on Civil Rights).” That Barry Goldwater?

Not a word on these curious facts from journalist Lippmann. Why? Because Goldwater had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights bill not because he supported segregation but because of concern over individual rights with respect to renting property. Goldwater voted for the 1957 Civil Rights Act — which Johnson, with whom he disagreed, had watered down for segregation purposes. Goldwater had also supported the 1960 Civil Rights bill. Was this to be mentioned by Lippmann and his media acolytes? Not a prayer. Liberal media elites, led by Lippmann, had a stake in portraying Goldwater as pro-segregationist. No major news outlet was going to challenge Lippmann.

Lippmann’s liberal media collaborator over at the New York Times, James “Scotty” Reston, joined in with this character assassination masked as “journalism.” This was no small moment because the anchors and producers of the network evening news shows had already slipped into the habit of using whatever they found in the liberal Times as a starting point in shaping their broadcasts. In fact, Reston cut to the chase of the left’s fears about conservatives, revealing what really made liberals furious. The Goldwater/conservative challenge, Reston wrote angrily, was really all about a “counterrevolution against the trend of social, economic, and foreign policies of the last generation.” And that challenge to a status quo many Americans increasingly considered to be both economically fatuous if not, in foreign policy terms, appeasement — that challenge was unacceptable to its liberal defenders.

All of this, as John S. Knight had indicated, came against a media backdrop where Goldwater and his supporters were routinely and dishonestly assailed by Lippmann’s media camp followers as Nazis, racists, primitives, and crazies.

SO IT WAS THIS JULY NIGHT that a media earthquake began. A media earthquake that would launch a chain of events resulting eventually in the creation of Fox News. Touched off by the unlikely person of a decidedly moderate Republican: former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The moment, in prime time television, would become the first open schism between audience and journalists that would ultimately produce the success story of Fox News. It shook the rafters of the San Francisco Cow Palace — and began to harden the perception by millions of average Americans about the credibility of every media outlet from the national television networks to radio and their local newspapers.

Stepping to the podium to deliver what many expected to be a routine, even dull Eisenhower speech, the former President unexpectedly let loose with an attack on the full blossoming of American liberalism, beginning with the judiciary. Said Ike, already on record that his appointment of liberal Republican California Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was “the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made”:

“Let us not be guilty of maudlin sympathy for the criminal, who, roaming the streets with switchblade knife and illegal firearms seeking helpless prey suddenly becomes upon apprehension a poor, underprivileged person who counts upon the compassion of our society and the laxness of too many courts to forgive his offense.”

Conservatives throughout the hall — many of whom detested Warren — heard the words — and, pricking up their ears at the words from the man who appointed Earl Warren, began to cheer. Even the moderate Eisenhower was finally understanding their beliefs. And precisely because he was an honorable man — he was implicitly admitting a major mistake. But the delegates weren’t prepared for the drama of what followed next, as the ex-president glanced down at his prepared text — where he had personally penciled in some new words. Unknown to the American public — and certainly to the media — the old man was fed up with what he saw happening to the media.

And honorable man that he was, he was damned well going to say so. 

Looking out over the now alert and boisterous crowd, every television camera in the hall fixed on the old hero, Eisenhower threw down the gauntlet. And attacked the heretofore unmentionable: the leftward tilt of the American media.

The delegates, he said, should “particularly scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation seeking columnists and commentators, because… these are people who couldn’t care less about the good of our party.”

In the blink of an eye, the political earthquake that was shaking the Republican political establishment rippled, then raced, outward. Towards the media.

Delegates shot to their feet, shouting furiously, their applause thunderous. Many jumped up on their chairs in decidedly un-choreographed and quite spontaneous rage turning to face their media antagonists, literally shaking their fists at what Goldwater biographer Lee Edwards would describe as “startled anchormen in the glassed-in television booths high above the convention floor.”

For week upon week now, just as John S. Knight had warned, conservative Americans had been depicted in the news media as, in Edwards’ words, “extremists, right-wing radicals, and neo-Nazis.” (The identical assault made against the Tea Party decades later.) Now, now, their pent up fury at the sophisticated nonsense, the revolting elitism of liberals with television cameras, microphones and notebooks masquerading as neutral journalists, presenting themselves as all wise and knowing observers of events — burst. Wrote historian and presidential chronicler Theodore H. White of the moment in his bestselling The Making of the President 1964, “the Convention exploded in applause, shouts, boos, catcalls, horns, klaxons and glory…. On the floor one delegate from North Dakota, jumping up and down, was heard yelling: ‘Down with Walter Lippmann! Down with Walter Lippmann!'”

It was, notes Edwards, “the first public expression of the people’s deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the mass media in a national setting.”

The future audience of Fox News was making itself heard. 

Two years later, in the midst of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and what would eventually be seen as the high water mark for the American left, a bestselling novel of the day captured the growing — seething — resentment for a media that pretended to objectivity when it was anything but.

Former journalist Allen Drury — himself conservative and a onetime New York Times reporter who had covered Washington and the U.S. Senate — was by 1966 already the bestselling author of the father of today’s political novels. Advise and Consent, the tale of a fierce Senate confirmation battle over a liberal president’s liberal nominee for Secretary of State that won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, was so successful it had been made into one of the hit movies of the Kennedy-era. Starring, among others, JFK’s actor brother-in-law Peter Lawford and a cast of Hollywood luminaries of the day.

In 1966 Drury released a second sequel, Capable of Honor. This time, however, there was a notable difference — and there would be no big time Hollywood movie. The central character of the book, like its predecessor an instant bestseller, was not a politician but a Walter Lippmann-style columnist named “Walter Dobius.” In a not so subtle dig at another famous “Walter” of the day — CBS anchor Walter Cronkite — Drury titled Walter Dobius’s column as “The Way It Is” — the trademark words with which Walter Cronkite signed off his daily broadcasts of the CBS Evening News (“And that’s the way it is…” ). The tale of Walter Dobius was in reality a vividly pointed, dipped-in-acid portrait of a community of American journalists. Journalists slavishly following “a famous Washington columnist whose views and prejudices have great influence on his colleagues of the communications media.”

The book sold like hotcakes. Like the birth of a star, the audience that would watch Fox News was exploding and expanding into public view.

The herd of journalists who lived in and breathed deeply of liberal dogma was mocked by Drury as “The World of Walter Wonderful.” Walter Dobius was sarcastically presented as the “statesman-philosopher of the press before whom we (journalists) all fall down and worship…. As broad as the oceans, as high as the sky, ran the writ of Walter Dobius to tell humanity what it should do.” And in Drury’s not-so-fictional fiction, Dobius, a fictional Lippmann/Cronkite, never hesitated to direct the rest of humanity, beginning with Americans.

Wrote Drury of Dobius:

Regularly his solemnly portentous, more than a little pompous countenance stared out upon his countrymen from the head of his column, as if to say, “Who are you, and what makes you think you know what’s going on? Much better you should listen to me, peasants. I really know What It’s All About.”

Of the book, Drury’s publisher noted:

Mr. Drury describes the way that men like Walter Dobius gain international fame and use it in attempts to sway both the domestic and foreign policies of the United States.

Mr. Drury poses one of the most fundamental questions facing America today: how justifiably — or irresponsibly — do American press, television and radio attempt to interfere with, and control, the political process and the foreign policy of the nation?

AS CAPABLE OF HONOR and its head-on literary assault on the liberal media was exploding onto the American bestseller lists, Rupert Murdoch was learning his journalism skills as the 35-year-old publisher of the Adelaide News in the far precincts of Australia. His main project: fighting day and night to keep a new national paper, The Australian, alive and profitable. Roger Ailes was learning television as a 26-year-old fledgling television producer for The Mike Douglas Show in Cleveland, Ohio. Bill O’Reilly was a 17-year-old high school student on Long Island. Sean Hannity was five, Shepherd Smith two, Greta Van Susteren a 12-year-old in Appleton, Wisconsin, Neil Cavuto learning about nickles and dimes as an eight-year-old in Connecticut.

Forty-seven years and two months after that night in the San Francisco Cow Palace when delegates spontaneously jumped to their feet and shook their fists at television anchors in the Cow Palace sky booths, 45 years after the appearance of the bestselling Capable of Honor focused its hot, literary spotlight on the idea of a liberal takeover of American journalism, Fox News is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary.

Created by Murdoch and Ailes, bursting onto the scene in 1996 with all the subtlety of a journalistic punch to the liberal media gut, Fox News is the left’s worst nightmare made reality — and was right from the first seconds it flickered to life on cable-ready screens across America. It was — and remains — the sophisticated answer to the heart of the yearnings expressed so viscerally that July night in the San Francisco Cow Palace. Professional journalists reporting the whole story — not devoting themselves to serving as liberalism’s stenographer. Fox News is a decades-later response to the prescient warnings of veteran journalist John S. Knight. A real life counterweight to what had become a veritable flood of Walter Dobius’s. 

For Fox News, its creators and its stars — the greeting from the figurative journalistic and political descendants of those whom Knight cited in 1964 has been every bit as vitriolic as it was for Goldwater and his supporters almost fifty years ago. Except more so. (Hannity illustrates the mindset perfectly in condensed form with his radio show’s “Hate Hannity Hotline” — in which the American left with unerring instinct displays on audio tape the rage behind the more sophisticated of today’s Walter Dobius-types. For the “sophisticated” version of today’s real life Walter Dobius’s on video Hannity delivers a weekly “Media Mash” segment with the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell, while Bernard Goldberg happily dissects the real-life Dobius mindset over on The O’Reilly Factor.)

Entire forests have been stripped naked to write with what Knight in 1964 was already calling “evident disdain and contempt” — this time not disdain and contempt for rank-and-file Americans but the infinitely more serious existential threat to liberalism that is Fox News. Every tactic known to leftist political man has been tried to assault Fox News, its creators, its stars, its staff. Tactics designed to disrupt it, harass it, humiliate it, or divide it. In an irony that is a source of satisfied amusement for conservatives the New York Times, a major Fox critic and once the home to liberal journalist Reston, is itself flailing, losing both audience and money. Vanity Fair appears to use stories attacking Murdoch and Ailes as failing athletes use steroids, hoping for that extra circulation pump from angry liberal readers. Time after time after time these liberal media fusillades have failed to penetrate the real armor of Fox News, which is the same as it is for any successful media organization: having a seriously major mass audience. An audience that watches because it trusts the information it gets and the people who deliver that information.

Recently Rolling Stone gave attacking Fox News the latest old college try with what presumably was supposed to be a lacerating attack on founder Roger Ailes. Amusingly, the magazine currently features — on the cover no less — the 1960s band Pink Floyd, the inside story of its three 65-and-over over remaining members. Rolling Stone is famously published by 65-year-old Jann Wenner. Yet Wenner hilariously hopes that he can have his magazine lash out at Fox because “the network’s viewers are old, with a median age of 65.” Really! The magazine also fumed of Fox that the network’s “audience is also almost exclusively white” — in typical liberal fashion not mentioning that, oh by the way, the readership of Rolling Stone, by the magazine’s own admission is…wait for it… 75% white.

One can only imagine the stories deliberately not covered in the moment by the news media before the existence of Fox News. From John F. Kennedy’s relationship with a Mafia godfather’s mistress to the infamous Birmingham, Alabama’s Police Commissioner Bull Connor (of civil rights fire hose and police dog fame) membership on the Democratic National Committee. From LBJ’s curious acquisition of wealth that coincided with his political career to the fact, noted long after LBJ was gone, that, in the words of CBS correspondent George Herman (as noted in the Edwards book), Johnson had shown up on the 1964 campaign trail “as drunk as can be in a campaign that was centered around (nuclear) responsibility. But none of us reported it.” Nor were Jimmy Carter’s ties with a prominent segregationist in his successful 1970 race for governor of Georgia a big deal in Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. All the way up to the “it’s no big deal” coverage of 1992 candidate Bill Clinton’s interesting relationships with women other than Hillary, one story after another that was seen by liberal journalists of the day as potentially damaging to the liberal cause went unreported.

IN 1988, EIGHT YEARS BEFORE the founding of Fox News, Roger Ailes co-wrote a book (with Jon Kraushar) titled You Are The Message: Getting What You Want By Being What You Are.

What fascinates in re-reading today is the irony of how, surely unknowingly, liberal journalists set themselves up for a fall at the expense of Ailes and Fox News — by precisely following the advice Ailes himself had written up in his book.

In Chapter 6, Ailes listed “The Four Essentials of a Great Communicator” needed to successfully communicate a message. In an eerie fashion, his future media enemies were already following Ailes advice and had been for decades. What were Roger Ailes’ Four Essentials that have helped the mainstream media to communicate their real message?

Be Prepared: Liberal journalists were prepared to tie as many news stories as possible to a liberal slant — and did so routinely. Those who opposed abortion were extremist zealots. Those who wanted a tough line against the Soviet Union were warmongers. Those who believed in tax cuts were greedy. And so on. There was not a political or cultural issue to be had in which the dominant liberal media was not thoroughly prepared to follow some variation of the liberal line.

Make Others Comfortable: In the case of the liberal media, Ailes’ guideline on making “others comfortable” meant a specific set of others — those others being the ideological buddies of those in the liberal media. Other liberals on the Washington or New York cocktail circuit. It was critical, as Goldwater had noted years earlier — for liberal journalists to write or televise stories in such a way as to “maintain their membership in the group.” And that group, of course, was to liberal journalists the most important group of all: each other.

Be Committed: One would never be able to fault liberal journalists for their commitment. Walter Cronkite marinated himself and his viewers in the Vietnam War before he took to the airwaves to pronounce that it was time for America to go. When a young, unknown John Kerry testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the sum and substance of American policy as conducted by Richard Nixon was war atrocities committed by Kerry’s fellow servicemen, there was no lack of commitment in the liberal media to seeing that every bit of Kerry’s views were covered extensively, quite knowingly launching Kerry’s liberal political career. The story could change — from Civil Rights to Vietnam to Watergate to Jimmy Carter to the economy and the energy crisis to Ronald Reagan and on and on. But the mainstream media commitment to delivering any and every story through the liberal looking glass never, ever wavered.

Be Interesting: Once again, the liberal media intentionally if unintentionally followed this cue from Ailes to a tee. The Vietnam War was summed up by dramatic television shots of the Viet Cong invading Saigon in the Tet offensive. The Civil Rights era was summed up by dramatic pictures of black men and women on the receiving end of fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama. But examine whether the Tet offensive was actually a failure? That Police Commissioner Bull Connor — who had launched the hoses and dogs — was actually a member of the Democratic National Committee? And that the Democratic Party had an abysmal history of mixing its liberalism with racism dating all the way back to support for slavery? Which in turn accounted for all manner of Democratic election victories that produced the careers of Bull Connor and countless others? Nary a mention. The interesting pictures, selectively chosen, were all that counted.

Taken together, as Ailes had written, these Four Essentials would successfully deliver a message. A decidedly liberal message, in the case of the American media that had been actually following Ailes Four Essentials for years. And as those years flew by from that night at the San Francisco Cow Palace in 1964 to the launch of Fox News in 1996 — that liberal message irreversibly linking liberalism to the “mainstream” American media got through to the American television viewing audience.

Big time.

That message? That the anchors, the reporters, the producers, the editors of mainstream television news, and their friends in radio and print– were liberals. And if you wanted to know what was in the news, you had to accept the liberal narrative of the day. Period. The End.

Message received.

Roger Ailes got the message. Rupert Murdoch got the message. Millions of Americans got the message.

And in that collective, in 1996 another message was sent in reply.

Fox News.

Within a mere fifteen years of its startup, Fox News is the most profitable unit of Murdoch’s News Corporation. As Rolling Stone and its 65-year-old owner carefully and furiously admit, Fox News reaches almost 100 million households. And by producing daily newscasts that regularly feature both sides of a debate on a given issue, by deliberately setting out to have professional journalists be fair and balanced, by showcasing commentary shows run by conservatives and unleashed from the restrictions of the liberal world view, among other things, “Fox News reaped an estimated profit of $816 million last year” — almost a fifth of the profit of Murdoch’s entire News Corporation. And not co-incidentally, Fox News has “more viewers than all other cable-news networks combined.” Say again: more viewers than all other cable-news networks combined. 

What conclusion can one draw from the fifteen-year success of Fox News?

That it is the leading news organization in America.

Why is this so?

The late Allen Drury would know the answer.

Fox News is Capable of Honor.

Jeffrey Lord
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Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
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