Selling Your Soul

As the old saying goes, "What Price Glory?" Or in this case, ratings.

Selling Your Soul
Peacefully waiting for more sightseers and their cheerful selfies.

What would you be willing to do to become rich? It's a standard game we all play with each other, usually over a drink, and we often casually say, well, anything. Rob a bank, cheat someone, or even do someone harm. When it's all hypothetical, it’s harmless. But what about when it’s not?

I first faced this issue personally back around 1983. I was the first News Director of a small operation at a TV station in Houston. I anchored and did the noon talk show. I had married the lovely Karen the previous year and was making a pretty modest salary. And then I met Walker Merryman.

Hey, it's a living. 

Merryman was a former TV News Director, the son of a doctor; survived a heart attack that forced him to quit smoking and, oh yes, a shill for the tobacco industry. Merryman was head of communications for something called The Tobacco Institute. It was essentially a trade organization designed to fight back against the increasingly bad publicity cigarettes had gotten since the Surgeon General’s Report in 1964.

If you saw the film “Thank you for Smoking” written by Christopher Buckley, you saw a brilliant and hilarious version of the work Merryman did for real as a public advocate for big tobacco. He was smooth, had his arguments down pat and recited them like Sean Hannity’s mental index cards full of anti-lib talking points.

I had him on the KRIV noon show and we spent a solid hour playing verbal tennis. The guy was good but I had done a lot of research leading to the interview and it was pretty lively. When it ended, and the studio lights went down, we sat on the set and talked. He apparently thought I might be a great fit for his operation and offered me roughly 3 times what I was making to come to work for him and battle guys like me in local television for a living. He gave me his card and said to think about it.

Invite me on, and let's argue for an hour. 

That night, I did. Karen and I talked and had to agree the money was tempting. But if I was absolutely honest with myself, I simply couldn’t do it. I told Karen that, as much as we wanted to move out of our townhouse and into a real one, I had to be able to look at myself in the mirror as I shaved each morning, knowing what I was hawking. So, I turned him down.

The next time was when I worked for Dan Patrick in Houston radio and as swimmingly as it started between us, I was increasingly the odd man out, being a determined political moderate. Dan told me as much. Even though he had told a local business magazine that the biggest mistakes the Hobby family made in their ownership of KPRC was firing Anita Martini, a great sportscaster, and letting him hire me away.

Yeah, there we are. 

But the radio industry had become increasingly Limbaugh-ized and there apparently was no room for someone who thought both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were pretty good Presidents. So he offered a choice. Toe the line or look elsewhere. But, at the risk of incredible chutzpah in quoting Lillian Hellman during the red scare, I couldn’t cut my conscience to fit today’s fashions.

Which brings us to Fox, and to a lesser extent, other cable operations. My complaints about CNN and MSNBC are ones of bias and point of view. But I haven’t caught either one in a lie, but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t lean left...a lot left. Now, they all have made mistakes, but if you’ve caught Rachel Maddow in a lie or an uncorrected mistake, I’d like to hear it.

However, thanks to the Dominion Voting Machine Company and their $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit, we can’t make that statement about the Fox News Channel. The process of discovery in the lawsuit has produced a treasure trove of documents, and especially emails, outlining the extent of the duplicity in their coverage of the 2020 election, and now, the Tucker Carlson rewrite of January 6th.

The network promoted, on-air and in front of God and everyone, the stolen election fiction. This involved everyone in the primetime lineup and all other opinion hosts.

Brett Baier

And now we know, the supposedly “straight news” crew, particularly Brett Baier, were concerned about the blowback should they actually report the election night results accurately.

You see, the Fox election night news team had actually scooped everyone. They called the all important swing state of Arizona for Joe Biden before any of the competition on network or cable. That’s the kind of feather in your cap in this business that you brag about. You make promos for the network trumpeting your place as the channel to watch if you want it first and more importantly, right.

But the emails show it wasn’t right enough as both the management, anchors, talk show hosts and Rupert Murdoch himself were worried that the election night call wouldn’t sit well with the viewers, including the one viewer who really mattered, Donald Trump. The man in charge of their data analysis, Chris Stirewalt, was fired for essentially doing his job too well.

"Wait, what? For getting it right?"

And this came, as the emails show, when they all knew the truth. The Dominion voting machine hacking story was a lie, the stolen election was a lie, the people promoting it like Rudy Giuliani were lying.  Stirewalt and his team were right. And everyone was in a panic because that wasn’t what their viewers wanted to hear. Giving the viewers what they want to hear isn't supposed to be what it's about. You give them what they need to hear. If Donald Trump or Joe Biden screw up; if Hunter Biden hires another hooker or Donald Junior shoots the last living white rhino, it shouldn't matter. You report it all.

Which brings us to the last Fox "personality" on my list, and one I've talked about before. The Swanson Foods heir and a host who makes Hannity look reserved, Tucker Carlson. Despite what we know about his real feelings about the election, the voting machine nonsense and Donald Trump's veracity, on Monday night, he again said the election was stolen. I have to admit, a certain admiration for huevos large enough to dispute what you already said and everyone already knows. And he tans them as well, by the way. Here is the quote...

“The protesters were angry: They believed the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted, and they were right,” Carlson said. “In retrospect, it is clear the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy.”

Yes, and he did it with the first installment of his super-cut of the January 6th riot assembled from the 14,000 hours of footage House Speaker Kevin McCarthy kindly lent him, and only him. And to no one's surprise, the edit consisted of mainly footage from when things had calmed down, rioters were leaving, or Capitol Police, badly outnumbered, were trying to keep things calm.

He called the rioters, and with as straight a face as he is capable of,  "sightseers" taking "cheerful selfies." This as they caused nearly $3-million in damage to the capitol he said they "revered."

"Everyone hold still for a cheerful selfie."

No need to quote the Tuesday morning reviews from almost everyone in Congress, Democrat or Republican, on his performance. Everyone from Mitch McConnell on down was appalled. So, why do it?

He did it for the same reason I told you about Walker Merryman. He did it for money. He did it for ratings. He did it because, however farfetched and just plain wrong, it's what a lot of folks want to hear and want to believe. And apparently, he has no problem with that shaving mirror in the morning.

It's like William Holden told a Mexican member of his gang in The Wild Bunch when he worried if the guns they were running would be used to hurt his family's village. “Angel, ten thousand dollars cuts a lot of family ties.”

Roger Gray has toiled at the journalism trade since 1970 and his first radio news job at KTRH in Houston. Over those woefully misspent years, he has worked in radio, TV and written for magazines. He was twice elected President of the Texas Automobile Writers Association and was elected to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. He covered the first Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Oslo Accords in Israel and peace talks in Ireland. He interviewed writers, actors, politicians and every President from Ford to George W, and none of them remember him.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.