By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) On Thursday morning, Roger Ailes died. Those who say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead are either stupid or revisionists.
The creator of Fox News, Ailes was one of the worst Americans to ever smear his scat across the cultural landscape. He was a serial sexual predator and profiteer in bigotry who made the workplace nightmarish for myriad media employees who were women and/or people of color, on top of maybe committing mail or wire fraud.
That the monstrous man is no more feels good in the short term, but Ailes will live on forever for how he almost singlehandedly warped media as the centuries shifted. We’re amid an almost irreparable fever swamp of TV, radio and internet media soaked toxically in fearmongering and cognitive dissonance.
As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi eulogized:
We are a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online, and we’re that way in large part because of the hyper-divisive media environment he discovered.
Ailes was the Christopher Columbus of hate. When the former daytime TV executive and political strategist looked across the American continent, he saw money laying around in giant piles. He knew all that was needed to pick it up was a) the total abandonment of any sense of decency or civic duty in the news business and b) the factory-like production of news stories that spoke to Americans’ worst fantasies about each other.
As trash as Ailes was and as permanent the radiation of his thumbprint, it’s collective America who feeds such beasts. Fox News preys largely on the elderly and racist, but its business model was so successful, gained so many eyes, ears and clicks that other networks couldn’t help but crib from it. This includes sports media.
“Embrace debate”-style talking headery is the progeny of Ailes’ work. It taps into our fascination with potential conflict coupled with our increasingly shorter attention spans. If it can’t be forcefully spoken in 15 seconds or typed in a few hundred words with buzzy headline, it’s not worth it. Half the people who clicked on this column have probably already abandoned it this far.
ESPN became the sports Zeus of this style of programming and hot-take cooking, but its competitors soon tried to follow because consumers eventually knew no other way to deal with sports discussion. For the most part, money hasn’t been put into genuinely intelligent sports non-game programming for a while now. Grantland was too well done for fans on barstools. Outside the Lines is hidden at lunchtime. Stephen A. Smith makes more than $3 million annually. Skip Bayless makes more than that for a show nobody watches.
Bayless has no business being employed in the fashion he is at the price he garners in a rational world, yet here we are. And why? Because the average American sports fan — an awful subspecies of human — treats TV sports talk and the possibility of NASCAR crash conflict between two or more talkers, guests, etc. as the same erotic asphyxiation conservative talk radio tapped into long ago and Ailes capitalized on with Fox News’ launch in 1996.
While Bayless continues to fail in his move to Fox Sports from ESPN, his new employer sees potential because of the new template established and fixed into sports media. It’s why FS1 also hired Colin Cowherd at a huge price and also pays Jason Whitlock and Clay Travis. While Fox Sports had forever been indifferent to its news cousin, those three all operate in the mold of insultingly “fair and balanced” coverage of sports.
Besides being laughably wrong (and super coded) about Wizards star John Wall for … well … ever, Cowherd was canned by ESPN for racism yet is still expensively employable. Whitlock peddles in respectability politics as token person of color criticizing sports figures of color and other marginalized peoples. This is the tweet pinned at the top of Whitlock’s page since September of last year:
I mean, good lord. Greg Howard’s eviscerations of him for Deadspin (here, here and here) will never grow stale so long at Whitlock is paid by someone to talk. And it’s interesting that Fox doesn’t allow Whitlock — a writer by trade — to write for them, as he clearly has hot takes and Deadspin PTSD. Maybe it’s because their target demo doesn’t like to read.
Sure, it clicks on Travis’ versions of Bart Simpson discussing Libya, but that’s not exactly reading. Travis is also the author of Man: The Book, which is like if Tucker Max humped a Stuff magazine and the paper cuts bled on 176 Skoal wrappers. Have a gander at the brilliance that checks all the boxes of a guy who will swear he isn’t a misogynist or bigot, despite penning columns defending Donald Sterling’s racism, extolling the virtues of flying the Confederate flag (which is just a MadLibs of the Sterling piece) and demonizing college athletes protesting their unfair situations.
But you’ll never hear anyone tell those individuals to “stick to sports” because anyone who sincerely uses that phrase directs it at those who stick up for the oppressed and examine the truly unjust. The biggest heads on FS1 don’t do that. Katie Nolan did, but her status at the network isn’t quite clear after her great show had already been put in an obscure late night corner.
Cowherd, Whitlock and Travis represent the noble antithesis of the “liberal conspiracy” that the fever swampers with one foot submerged in Fox News programming say of most sports media like ESPN. The myth that ESPN’s recent layoffs were due to fewer people watching the supposed agenda has been thoroughly disproven, but facts don’t matter in the post-truth world we live in, including sports consumption but cultivated years ago on a certain cable news channel by a man who realized actual news and the integrity of Murrow and Cronkite and Schaap and McKay didn’t matter to get attention.
Fear and awe did. And as the sports media world has absorbed that understanding, we’re graced with someone like LaVar Ball, father of soon-to-be high NBA draft pick Lonzo and the manifestation of every intersectional sports nightmare. LaVar himself is no dummy, wrapping the media world around his finger the past few months, and he’s already profiting greatly from his basketball sons and outlandish personality that perfectly fits 2017 television that doesn’t respect the intelligence of the audience — nay, it directly mocks it.
Ball’s most recent controversy ironically occurred on Cowherd’s show this week. Besides Cowherd hardly defending teammate Whitlock when Ball mocked Whitlock’s weight, many have taken issue with Ball’s treatment of co-host Kristine Leahy during the appearance.
Furthering the irony, though, is that FS1 is directly responsible for creating the sideshow that is LaVar Ball. “They’ve given him eight TV appearances and five podcast/Periscope appearances in just over two months and tweeting about him at least 105 times (from the official FS1 account and the official accounts of three of their shows),” per Awful Announcing.
What hath you wrought, Fox?
Exactly the type of uncerebral showcase for the media Thunderdome that Roger Ailes bore over two decades ago. And as Ailes went gentle into that good night, he would love to have known that his legacy will long be media — sports and otherwise – -that knows no other way than to cater to the lobotomized and the terrified longing to gape from afar at the “war zone” of Chicago and employing climate change deniers or advanced stats rejectionists and Deflategate and speculation about a player on steroids and downplaying head injuries and telling you to hate the player that puts money and wellbeing ahead of your entertainment.
Until nothing intelligent matters anymore, and we’re left with … well …
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.