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How did Abe Foxman get all Foxed in with Roger and Glenn?

It’s an interview in the Daily Beast with Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who says about NPR, “THEY ARE, OF COURSE, NAZIS.”

Of course.

I think you’d agree even the most casual observer of Nazi history can’t help but notice the eerie parallels between Adolf Hitler and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” But the biggest takeaway I got from the interview with Mr Ailes is that Fox News, as out there as it may be, is the neutered version of Mr. Ailes’ true self.

– 

Jon Stewart

[Beck’s] program, which aired Tuesday and Wednesday, was a symphony of anti-Semitic dog-whistles. Nothing like it has ever been on American television before.

Glenn Beck’s three-part exposé about George Soros last November (last year!) energized a whole lot of critics, and not just the usual suspects from the Left — one of the smartest critiques is on reason.com, home of the hard-headed libertarian. But Beck’s incoherent sprawl tends to defeat sober criticism and reduce it to outrage. Even Michelle Goldberg’s piece, with that great line about the “symphony of anti-Semitic dog-whistles,” gets a little lost in its outrage (no doubt I’ll follow suit). As usual Jon Stewart is a standout — with Beck, satire is probably the best and most cogent criticism (there’s a follow up, too, where Stewart puts on the glasses).

With this kind of high-profile media-celebrity-driven controversy, the follow-up sideshows can be at least as meaty as the main event. The one that I like is a kind of family sitcom starring Fox News chairman Roger Ailes as Dad and Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman as Mom. It’s great comic pairing. Ailes is the tough-talking corporate bigwig — an epic bullshitter who cuts himself infinite slack when he needs to cover his ass. Foxman is the soul of propriety. Glenn Beck is their wacky step-son — he may get out of hand sometimes, but like Papa Ailes says, at heart he’s “so intelligent and basically sensitive.” And then there’s filthy rich Uncle Rupert, but he doesn’t make an appearance in this episode.

We meet Ailes at the Daily Beast, being interviewed by Howard Kurtz. Obama comes up right away, of course (“Sipping coffee from a ‘Fair & Balanced’ mug, Ailes insists that his channel lives up to the logo in its treatment of the administration”). And there’s no avoiding Rupert Murdoch, whose $1 million donations to the Republican Governors Association and the Chamber of Commerce were, Ailes acknowledges, bad public relations, but also “his right” — “I don’t think anyone can tell him what to do with his money.” Probably Ailes would acknowledge that it’s also George Soros’ right to give $1 million to Media Matters so they can dog Fox News. All we learn from Kurtz is that Ailes is “still fuming” about it. He fumes about Jon Stewart, too, in the second installment, because Stewart “hates conservatives” and “makes a living by attacking [them] and stirring up a liberal base against it.” For Ailes, it turns out, the political is a personal insult, when it comes from the other side. [1]

But we’re really here to find out about Glenn Beck, and Ailes doesn’t disappoint. For one thing, he’s got a handy excuse for Beck’s “inflammatory outbursts, such as calling Obama a racist” — “everyone who ad libs for a living makes mistakes.” But he does “admit[] to asking Beck to watch his tone.”

“He and I have had conversations and lunches where I say, ‘What the hell are you doing, man?’…Beck trashes Republicans every night. I’ve said to him, ‘Where the hell are you going to get your audience if you keep this up? You’re trashing everyone.’”

It’s funny, because when Ailes was talking about living up to “Fair & Balanced,” he bragged, “We are interested in the truth. We’re interested in two points of view; most networks aren’t.” So, those two points of view must be right (aka Republican) and wrong — that way you always know which one to trash. Any more than two and things would be too confusing. It’s a great system, though as I’ve browsed the shows I have yet to find Beck actually trashing Republicans.

Ailes waves off most of the criticism of Beck’s assault on Soros, except for the criticism from Foxman and the ADL, which he takes credit for softening. His little outburst about the Nazis at NPR brings in Foxman, too. In fact, softening Foxman’s criticism of Beck and apologizing for his own indiscretion ended up dovetailing very nicely. [2]

The ADL, which has singled Beck out a few times before [3], came down pretty hard on Beck after the second show in his series. Foxman wrote:

Glenn Beck’s description of George Soros’ actions during the Holocaust is completely inappropriate, offensive and over the top. For a political commentator or entertainer to have the audacity to say – inaccurately – that there’s a Jewish boy sending Jews to death camps, as part of a broader assault on Mr. Soros, that’s horrific.

A day after that statement was published, Beck produced a letter he’d received from the ADL a few weeks earlier. In it, Foxman thanks him for being “a friend of the Jewish people, and a friend of Israel.” Salon.com checked with Foxman and he said he still felt that way. It’s just that “there are certain things [Beck] doesn’t understand, which have led him to make insensitive remarks.” Reporter Justin Elliott explains, “The dynamic here is a tension between the ADL’s dual identities as a civil rights organization and a pro-Israel advocacy organization.” Actually, the ADL seems to be quite a bit more complex than that, and the identity that’s played off against pro-Israel advocacy in this case is Holocaust awareness, where the issue isn’t civil rights, it’s accuracy and propriety.

That’s the tension that runs the Fox & Foxman family dynamic, for sure, and in the mid-November episode, it leads to a lot of apologizing. The first apology, in fact, is in that letter thanking Beck for his friendship to Israel. A mass mailing from the ADL had “inadvertently identified [Beck] on a list of celebrities who had made anti-Semitic statements over the past year.” It was “clearly a mistake,” and really the work of “an independent, third-party contractor”, but Foxman hoped that Beck would accept his “personal apologies.”

About a week later, it was Ailes’ turn to write a letter and apologize. He was going to write anyway, since “[he] wanted to follow up on the Glenn Beck situation with regards to George Soros.” But he also needed to clear the air about that unfortunate crack he’d made about the Nazis at NPR (this exchange of letters was reported by Michael Calderone for Yahoo News, and he didn’t just quote them, he posted scans).

This morning you might be receiving calls because I used the word “Nazi attitudes” to describe the NPR officials who fired Juan Williams. I was of course ad-libbing and should not have chosen that word, but I was angry at the time because of NPR’s willingness to censor Juan Williams for not being liberal enough.

First of all, Ailes didn’t just use the “word” “Nazi attitudes.” He fired off a triple: “They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism.” But like Beck he was just ad-libbing, and any reasonable person knows that words like “Nazi” or “racist” are bound to slip out now and then when you’re ad-libbing (or, as some people like to say, “speaking”).

Is it really possible, though, for a broadcast executive to be confused about the difference between firing and censoring? I doubt Ailes has any trouble keeping them straight when he’s the one doing the firing. Things might get ugly if he ever fires Beck or Hannity, though, since they suffer from the same opportunistic confusion as their boss.

Near the end Ailes gets around to saying he’s sorry.

I’m writing this just to let you know some background but also to apologize for using “Nazi” when in my now considered opinion “nasty, inflexible bigot” would have worked better.

Strictly speaking, between noting that he’s not just apologizing and sanitizing his insult, the main event takes about five words — “[I] apologize for using ‘Nazi’.” Foxman’s response, in a personal letter that was adapted for a press release, couldn’t have been more gracious, though.

I welcome Roger Ailes apology, which is as sincere as it is heartfelt. Nazi comparisons of this nature are clearly inappropriate and offensive. While I wish Roger had never invoked that terminology, I appreciate his efforts to immediately reach out and to retract his words before they did any further harm.

It’s sweet the way they kiss and make up, but as public displays of affection go it’s pretty nauseating. I mean, seriously — as sincere as it is heartfelt? Most of Ailes’ letter — when he isn’t chit-chatting about Rupert or flattering Foxman for his “heroic” judgment — is disingenuous grumbling about the abuse he and his suffered at the hands of a couple of rabbis. For all I know, it’s true that the rabbis “used [Fox News] in an unscrupulous manner.” But Ailes fudges a number of details in his favor. Or leaves them out, like the reason his people had to have a “cordial conversation” with the rabbis about the “sensitivity of the Jewish people.” It wasn’t “the use of the word Holocaust,” as Ailes implies, it was Beck’s on-air comment that Rabbi Simon Greer was engaging in “exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany.” [4]

And what does it mean that Ailes “retract[ed] his words before they did any further harm”? What kind of harm, and to whom? Clearly not to the executives of NPR — they’re irrelevant to this little transaction, other than the offhand re-insulting. I suppose that if being called out as Nazis did some harm to them, they don’t have anyone but themselves to blame. After all, NPR didn’t live up to its high-minded, taxpayer-funded ideals, and they victimized Ailes’ friend Juan Williams in the process. Fox, at least, has the guts to put its ideals up on a pedestal and mock the living daylights out of them — they don’t mince around pretending to be all objective.

In his letter to Ailes, Foxman explains that the problem with “Nazi comparisons” is that they “denigrate the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.” So I guess it’s supposed to be those memories that are saved from further harm by the retraction. In theory I guess that’s fine. But Ailes isn’t worried that he’s denigrated any memories any more than he’s worried that he hurt the feelings of those weasels at NPR. He’s worried that Foxman “might be receiving calls.” And Foxman writes back that, yes indeed, he was getting “many calls this morning from those offended and disturbed by your use of the expression ‘Nazi attitudes’ in reference to officials at National Public Radio.”

So, that’s that. Everything’s straightened out and it’s time to roll the credits. Sure, Ailes is a bull in a china shop pointing at everyone else when stuff gets broken, and he never really figured out what he was apologizing for. But there’s nothing more endearing in a sitcom marriage than overlooking your partner’s peccadillos.

~   ~   ~

The denigration of memories was a driving concern in the larger controversy about Beck and Soros, and not just to the ADL and Foxman. “Glenn Beck may have thought he had an easy target in the controversial financier George Soros,” James Besser explained in The Jewish Week, “but he didn’t reckon with Jews who care about Holocaust remembrance and don’t take kindly to reckless charges being thrown into the political maelstrom.” The article concentrates on Foxman’s statement (quoted above) about how “inappropriate, offensive and over the top” Beck was when he mischaracterized Soros’ actions as a teen trying to survive the Holocaust. But Besser gets the same sentiment from other Jewish leaders, too, including Beck’s left-wing nemesis Simon Greer, and also from the Christian president of the Interfaith Alliance.

It’s natural that the outcry would concentrate on the claim that really hit a nerve. I certainly agree that the claim is reprehensible and deeply ignorant. But according to Foxman, it was “horrific” for Beck to make it “as part of a broader assault on Mr. Soros.” So what about the “broader assault”? It’s hard to imagine that such outrageous character assassination wouldn’t be serving some very questionable purpose. In practice, though, the horror and impropriety of Holocaust denigration overshadowed any concerns about Beck’s larger message (sadly, this is what righteous sensitivities tend to do — short-circuit debate and criticism, or else turn it into an argument about “political correctness”).

Near the end of his editorial, Greer does get around to the way Beck “evokes anti-Semitic stereotypes from the ‘devaluer of many currencies’ to ‘advocate for one world government’ from ‘anti-American’ to ‘thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us.’” But it was Michelle Goldberg who developed the bigger picture. What she found was “a symphony of anti-Semitic dog whistles” signaling an ideology that “tells a story about the world. It’s a story about almost occult Jewish power, about cabals that manipulate world events for their own gain.” Even Beck’s title — “The Puppet Master” — is faithful to Nazi propaganda, which, as Goldberg points out, depicted Jews as “drahtzieher — wire-pullers.”

It’s not that Foxman isn’t attuned to these classic anti-Semitic narratives — of course he is. A little over a month before Beck’s Soros series, CNN anchor Rick Sanchez flamed out with a public display of bigotry. For Foxman it was a teachable moment, and he responded with an editorial about the resiliency of age-old stereotypes and conspiracy theories. Outbursts like Sanchez’s are easy to “shrug off” as aberrations in climate of tolerance, he writes, but they “do speak to what is unique about anti-Semitism and what urges all of us not to be complacent about the subject.”

Anti-Semitism shares with other forms of hatred a number of well-documented elements such as stereotyping, discrimination and fear of difference.

What has been the special characteristic of anti-Semitism and what goes a long way to explain why it has lasted so long, why it has been so lethal and why it exists in so many contradictory settings is the idea that Jews are not what they appear to be, that they are, in fact, secretive, poisonous, all-powerful and acting as a cabal.

As a result, since according to this view, reality is not what it seems to be, Jews can be and frequently are conjured up for all kinds of ills of mankind.

Here is George Soros’ five-step plan for taking over our country, from Beck’s first “Puppet Master” episode.

Let me go back to what I told you in the beginning. George Soros is creating a new structure through a Shadow Party. He infiltrates politics. He pulls the same play book out every single time. Ukraine, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Georgia and Slovakia. The same thing. Here it is step by step.

Step one, you form a shadow government. […]

Step two, you control the airwaves. Has he done that? Fund existing radio and television outlets or start your own outlets? We showed you this chalkboard yesterday. This is his media empire. NPR, FreePress, it’s all here.

Step three, you destabilize the state. […]

Step four, provoke an election crisis…. […]

Step five, stage massive demonstrations and you accuse opponents of voter fraud through radio and tv stations that you control.

So, let’s see. Secretive? A shadow party that “infiltrates politics” sounds pretty secretive. Poisonous? Maybe it’s not the best term for destabilizing the state and provoking an election crisis, but it’s not far off. All-powerful? Well, “you control the airwaves,” don’t you? Acting as a cabal? Yes, the whole scenario is massively conspiratorial. Overall, not a bad match with what anti-Semites believe the Jews are really up to, according to Foxman. Goldberg and Greer point out the same kind of thing (there’s a full rundown of Beck’s anti-Semitic stereotypes at Media Matters).

What Sanchez plugged into was “the age-old conspiracy theory about Jewish control of the news media.” And here’s Soros with “his media empire.” I have to admit that there’s a problem at this point — as media empires go, it’s kind of pathetic (but go to about 4:30 in the video at the top of the post — there’s more stuff on the chalkboard). So maybe it’s hard to take Beck seriously as a Jewish media empire conspiracy theorist, but I don’t get the sense that we’re supposed to judge anti-Semitic rants based on their credibility.

Here’s the real issue that separates Sanchez from Beck: “Anti-Semites never see[] Jews as individuals but rather as a coordinated group to serve Jewish interests against the interests of others.” Beck certainly treats Soros as an individual, and more importantly, as a person acting not for but against Jewish interests — unlike Beck, who can and does point to his consistent, vociferous support for Israel.

Goldberg acknowledges that it’s hard to read Beck’s intent as anti-Semitic. A prominent Jewish columnist she spoke with said he “wasn’t convinced that Beck meant to attack Jews. Nevertheless, he described the show as ‘as close as I’ve heard on mainstream television to fascism.’” She wonders if Beck “waded into anti-Semitic waters inadvertently [and] picked up toxic ideas from his right-wing demimonde without realizing their anti-Jewish provenance.” After reading Mark Lilla’s thoughtful perspective on Beck, I’m inclined to say that “the most gifted demagogue America has produced since Father Coughlin” wouldn’t just stumble into those waters, he’d be irresistibly drawn to them. Anyway, in general, Beck is not bothered by incoherence, and I don’t think it’s a big stretch for him to wallow in what Goldberg calls “the conspiratorial mind-set of classic anti-Semitism” and at the same time be a big supporter of Israel and the Jews.

I have a hard time accepting the idea that Rick Sanchez’s stupid, self-pitying rant on satellite radio is, for Foxman, a firing offense but Beck’s hours of prime-time conspiracy mongering isn’t worth a second thought. He still trades on the image of a nefarious and all-powerful Jewish financier. It seems to me that his efforts to portray Soros as the anti-Semitic son of an anti-Semitic mother just add a new level of monstrosity to the stereotype. It’s true that his variations on the theme don’t target the Jews as a body, they target one Jew who has set himself decisively apart from the tribe. For the rest of the cast — the dark mass of co-conspirators — Beck has “progressives,” “radicals,” “socialists,” etc. instead of Jews. It’s an easy transposition. If the issue is unadulterated hatred for the Jews, then I guess Beck gets a pass. He certainly doesn’t get one, though, if the issue is bigotry, intolerance, and extremism.

I suspect that a broader critique of Beck would be a hard for an organization like the ADL to pull off, though. The one blogger I found who argued against Goldberg, for instance, saw nothing in her article but an accusation of anti-Semitism. He’s not exactly wrong, because the accusation is hovering throughout and she never disavows it, but still, he completely misses her point (no surprise there — he was deeply uninterested in getting it in the first place). Is it possible to make a broadly convincing case that a person who doesn’t mind Jews is nonetheless trading in vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes? Maybe not, or not without generating a lot of confusion and ill-will.

So, given the range of things that the ADL is supposed to care about, I don’t think it’s obvious what Foxman should do or say about Glenn Beck. But from what I’ve seen it looks like the role he’s settled into, sensitivity trainer for the Fox boys, is an awfully cosy arrangement — I’m not sure that he cast himself very well. But as Beck said, “no one is a bigger defender of Jews and Israel than me.” If you’ve got that, how bad can a little dog whistling be?


NOTES

  1. ^ Ailes is especially offended by the sanctimony of Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity — satire is fine, “but don’t give me a social speech on the steps of the Washington Monument” (that’s Beck’s job). But I bet the real issue is that “Jon Stewart and his merry band of TIVO-ing staffers” watch Ailes’ network too damn closely. They tend to catch the mistakes, whether they’re committed while ad-libbing or editing tape.

  2. ^ Actually, it’s not clear what part Ailes would have played in getting Foxman to soften his criticism. The ADL press release is dated Nov. 11. The next morning Beck’s people posted their letter from the ADL thanking Beck for his support. It seems like that’s what generated the softening, which was confirmed by salon.com before noon on Nov. 12 (according to the timestamp on the article).

  3. ^ Searching the ADL website for “Beck,” this is what I came up with:

    • In May 2007, Foxman wrote, “Glenn Beck’s linkage of Hitler’s plan to round up and exterminate Jews with Al Gore’s efforts to raise awareness of global warming is outrageous, insensitive and deeply offensive.” It was in response to this claim:

      Al Gore’s not going to be rounding up Jews and exterminating them. It is the same tactic, however. The goal is different. The goal is globalization. The goal is global carbon tax. The goal is the United Nations running the world.

    • In May 2009, in a civil rights post entitled “Pundits, Bloggers Blame Immigration for Swine Flu”, an ADL analyst wrote that Beck “used airtime during his April 27, 2009 radio broadcast to discuss the alleged propensity of ‘dying’ Mexicans to ‘flood [the] border.’”

    • The Nov. 2009 special report “Rage Grows in America: Anti?Government Conspiracies” singled Beck out as “fearmonger-in-chief.”

      Though much of the impetus for anti-government sentiment has come from a variety of grass-roots and extremist groups, segments of the mainstream media have played a surprisingly active role in generating such segment. Though a number of media figures and commentators have taken part, the media personality who has played the most active role has been radio and television host Glenn Beck, who along with many of his guests have made a habit of demonizing the Obama administration and promoting conspiracy theories about it. Beck has acted as a “fearmonger-in-chief,” raising anxiety about and distrust towards the government.

    • In July 2010, the ADL expressed concern that Beck was indulging in the anti-Semitic canard that the Jews killed Jesus.

      The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) welcomed a clarification from Glenn Beck for remarks on his July 13 broadcast on Fox News Channel where he made reference to the death of Jesus, including the comment that, “Jesus didn’t come back from the dead and make the Jews pay for what they did.”

  4. ^ The primary reporting on this meeting and dispute between Fox News and Rabbis Simon Greer and Steve Gutow is again by Michael Calderone, who got ahold of “an email Greer sent to key supporters and allies of his organization.” Perhaps that’s the “cheap press release” that Ailes complains about.

    The first stage of the controversy (summarized by Media Matters) started in mid-April — Greer wrote an editorial attacking Beck as a “con man.” Near the end of May, Beck shot back, saying that Greer was engaging in “exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany.” Greer responded right away to call Beck on his ignorance. Soon after that, Gutow sent a letter to Rupert Murdoch and a meeting was set up between some rabbis (3, actually) and Fox News executives. Both sides, it seems, thought that the meeting was cordial and productive. Greer eventually got a letter from Beck that wasn’t an apology but it “felt like a peace offering.”

    When Greer talked to Calderone, “he said that Ailes and Cheatwood agreed ‘that the use did cross a line’” (use, I guess, of the Holocaust). This seems to be the part the pissed Ailes off. It’s the clearest point of dispute, anyway. Fox News senior vice president Joel Cheatwood told a reporter that “he and Ailes did not agree that Beck crossed the line with his ‘death camps’ comment. ‘We absolutely stood behind Glenn Beck 1000%,’ he said” (yes, that’s the way it was reported — one thousand percent).

    Presumably, if Greer had “quietly work[ed] with us to solve the problem internally,” as Ailes commented in his letter to Foxman, nobody would have had to know how many percent they stood behind Beck.

    Greer’s reaction to the Soros series was an editorial entitled “Glenn Beck reneges on promise to rabbis”.

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  1. […] too powerful to feel persecuted when feeling persecuted is in your ideological DNA. Roger Ailes, supposedly apologizing for calling NPR execs Nazis — not apologizing to NPR, of course, but instead to his buddy Abe Foxman at the Anti-Defamation […]