Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Weird World of Fox News

The accusations of sexual harassment swirling around Fox News are at the same time unsurprising and, to me at least, puzzling. They are unsurprising on a surface level, given the contempt for feminism and political correctness that pours from the mouths of so many Fox personalities, and the weird way prominent Fox women all seem to look like characters in a repeating sexual fantasy. I was particularly struck by the way Ailes designed the news sets to show off his anchors' legs; he once told a woman who wore a pants suit on the set "I didn't spent all that money on glass tables for you to wear pants."

But on the other hand Fox News has made quite a few women rich and famous and given them platforms that make them players in American politics.

What is one to make of a world where intelligent, capable women who happen to be leggy blondes with a certain hardness to their looks are made into media stars, provided they can put up with their boss and colleagues propositioning them and talking about how hot they look all the time?

I have to say that I find this utterly bizarre.

For one thing these allegations confirm what I always suspected, that the women of Fox News really are a sexual fantasy. Ailes picked them personally for just that reason. The fantasy is widely enough shared that if you do an image search for Fox News female anchors, as I just did, you end up in a strange world of very soft core pornography displaying the hottest on-air personalities in what pass for suggestive poses.

Come to think of it I have an acquaintance who has a fetish for sexy weather girls.


I wonder, is there also an element of political fantasy, the old "feminists are ugly and all the really hot women want to be treated like women" thing? Are the hot blondes as much a part of the Fox News message as constantly calling Obama "divisive" and the lies about "apology tours"?

I have always found Fox News weird. An old-style news operation like the CBS and NBC I grew up with sold an aloof, god's eye view of a chaotic world, with the best sort of people telling us how we ought to feel about it all. Fox News seems to sell sham outrage. What should conservatives be angry about today? How can we twist a story about the normal sort of bureaucratic bungling (e.g., Benghazi) into a spasm of partisan outrage? I suppose I understand why people enjoy that, but don't they see how they are being manipulated? Sometimes the manipulation is so stupidly transparent that I would feel insulted. I know people who follow both the conservative and liberal/mainstream versions of the news, so they have multiple perspectives, but that doesn't seem to apply to the average Fox listener. What does that average listener want? To be manipulated into outrage? Why?

Now I can add another layer to my puzzlement: what is life like for these women?

For the past few days I have been talking about this to whoever will listen, and two people have given me pretty much the same explanation: any woman who would work for Fox News obviously has no principles and would do anything for money and power, sex included. I don't see it that way. Obviously, yes, anyone who wants to be a news anchor has a hungry ambition. But that's not the same as trading sex for promotion, and anyway that is not what most of the recent news has been about. The allegations are mostly tales of clumsy come-ons and excessive hugging, which make Ailes look as much pathetic as predatory.

As far as I understand these things, women respond very differently to being treated as sexual objects in their professional lives. Some laugh it off or even use it to advantage, and some of the women promoted by Ailes seem to be fine with the arrangement. The Times found one female Fox News employee who said
many of the women she worked with “loved Roger Ailes” and were “very grateful to him.”
And then there are those who don't like it but treat it as just another obstacle to overcome on their climb to the top:
Several former Fox News employees said that people were afraid to speak up but that many women viewed the behavior there as par for the course in the broadcasting industry, where appearance is so highly valued.

“There is a culture where, not that you accept it, you just deal with it,” one former employee said.
And then there are those who really hate it and won't stand for it, and those who are wrecked by it.

But what really goes on at Fox News? The Times found lots of complaints about harassment but hardly any actual sex – to be precise just one blowjob, said to be performed by a junior staffer. Is that right? Can there really be such a sexually charged workplace as Fox News seems to be, full of rich, powerful men and rich, sexy women, in which there is no sex, consensual or otherwise? Is everyone covering up the affairs they know to be happening around them, because they see that as unrelated to these investigations? Have we been given a sanitized version designed to protect the women who did sleep their way to the top, or had affairs that might make it look like that's what they did? Or are there really no affairs? If so, what would that mean? Would it be just another sign that climbing to the top of the contemporary meritocracy requires a near abandonment of romance and the erotic? That even a mogul like Roger Ailes gets nothing but long hugs and bare legs under glass tables?

It is important to note that the real anger, and the lawsuits, come from women who say they were fired for refusing to go along, or for speaking out against the system. The average Fox spokesman would call that sour grapes. What this says to me is that women in the categories I just mentioned – who don't mind harassment or accept it as a fact of life to be gotten around – can put up with a lot as long as they have the right to say no. The limit for them comes when somebody tries to take that right away. When they feel like their careers have been sabotaged because they refused to do things they consider beneath them, they call their lawyers.

But I mainly wanted to says how weird I find everything about this story.


David said...

On the specific point of Fox viewers and whether they want to be manipulated: I would say manipulation is in the eye of the beholder. Someone who disagrees with the basic Fox stance on the world would see manipulation. But the fans like it because it speaks to something they already think and/or feel, and gives them what they want to see. They already feel alienated from the government bureaucracy, and they like the hyping of stories like Benghazi because it affirms what they already suspect.

My impression is Ailes got his start in about 1968, as part of Nixon's drive for the presidency. Nixon loved him because Ailes was able to key into the very resentments Nixon himself was trying to play on, which he (Nixon) to a certain extent felt, and which they both found already pullulating in a large segment of American voters.

I cannot recommend enough Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, one of my favorite history books, which traces the basic red-blue cultural divide's origins in the sixties. It's packed with insights, including a remark that, for red types, the "hippie gamines" at the 1972 Democratic convention were "the wrong kind of sexy."

David said...

Two further thoughts:

1) I wonder if there's insight to be found in the contrast between these Fox women, who are obviously beautiful but, as you say, show a certain hardness and, I would say, lack of sensuality and, for example, Sharon Tate, who has virtually the same physical look but conveys a frank sexuality that seems entirely apart from what Ailes is after (not that Tate would, by anyone's standards, have made a good news presenter).

2) I think it should be remembered that to an extent the blues have created the bed of red resentment that they have to lie in. The original sixties left made it clear that anyone who disagreed with them was simply too uncool, too old, too square, too unsexy to join the fun; they simply ignored the emotions that uncool, square people might feel upon being told this. Ailes and Nixon's insight was to realize that these people vote, too, and in the nature of things, there are more uncool people than cool people. (Note that I am NOT saying there weren't other issues determining the blue-red divide, like, you know, race and the Vietnam War.)

Shadow Flutter said...

To reiterate what David said, a lot of people watch Fox News -- MSNBC, too, but more so before it changed formats -- to have their beliefs validated. You can throw tomatoes at the other side. A lot of it is role playing, not scripted, but close. The last thing a cable News station like Fox wants is an erudite, civil discussion of politics. The point is to agitate, to create conflict (and not to inform) so that your audience can vent. Anthony Weiner, before his downfall, found a home at MSNBC, a place that matched his personality, his political views, and his loud mouth. Everything Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted has arrived.