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Loudest Voice in the Room
How the brilliant, bombastic Roger Ailes built Fox News – and divided a country

by Gabriel Sherman. Published by Random House

Roger Eugene Ailes is the Chairman and CEO of Fox News and the Fox Television Stations Group. He is the son of an anti-union factory maintenance foreman, from Warren, Ohio. He arrived at Ohio University (in Athens) not knowing what he wanted to study and was threatened with expulsion because of his grades. But he pulled out of it in his sophomore year after finding an interest in the university's radio station, WOUB. He was promoted to station manager, and he graduated with a degree in Fine Arts.

Ailes began his career in broadcasting as a property assistant, and soon he was organizing television presentations. By 1967 he was producing a talk-entertainment program: the Mike Douglas Show. In 1968 he worked as a media advisor on Richard Nixon's successful presidential campaign.

In 1971, at the age of 31, Ailes gave a speech to business leaders in Los Angeles. He accused Nader of spreading the notion that "all large companies were greedy monolithic monsters determined to squash the little man." Ailes said that "America has a cancer. Cancer is usually fatal, but it doesn't have to be if it is discovered and treated in time." He added that "Our national life depends on our ability to use our technical knowledge to cure the ills in our country," Gabriel Sherman paraphrases Ailes as saying that unless the country changed its attitude it might not make it out of the next thirty years. He quotes Ailes as saying,

Without these things, America will be nothing more than a history lesson in a student-run college of the twenty-first century." (p 78)

These were opinions that set him apart from many in the sixties who were studying and teaching sociology, political science or history. Ailes would consider them elitists. At Ohio University in the early sixties, according to Sherman, "The Cold War was a campus preoccupation, while civil rights were viewed skeptically." (p 11-12)

Having run Nixon's television publicity in 1968, Ailes was hired by a fledging broadcasting start-up, Television News, Inc. According to Sherman, the station was brought into being by Robert Pauley, a member of the anti-Communist John Birch Society, an enthusiastic Goldwater supporter, and the station was funded by the "ultraconservative beer magnate" Joseph Coors. Sherman writes that Coors,

... poured millions into bringing about a right-wing revival that braided the strands of Christianity, nationalism, and free market economics into a political force... TVN was central to Coors's mission to save America.

(According to Slate magazine, TVN "was less a network than a video wire service, producing and distributing segments to network – and independent – TV stations.")

Despite its right-wing bias, TVN presented to the world "an apolitical face," stating that it "had no philosophical ax to grind." On the other hand, a consultant, Bruce Herschensohn, wanted to turn TVN into a professed part of the conservative movement. Herschensohn believed that this could be done simply by being fair – that fairness in presenting the news favored the conservative point of view. Herschensohn claimed:

We are trying to create some balance within the media. That is a very noble enterprise. Few would disagree that the media needs some balance ... TVN was invented for that purpose.

TVN was not working commercially and in 1976 it folded. Late that year a 24-hour cable channel opened, CNN, owned by a wealthy atheist, Ted Turner. Ailes left what had been his foray into running a news organization and went back to managing media campaigns for politicians. In 1980 he helped Alfonse D'Amato overcome his negatives and win the senate seat in New York. In 1984 he helped Mitch McConnell get elected to the US Senate for the first time. That year, Ronald Reagan's quip during a debate with Walter Mondale about not making age a factor was an Ailes suggestion.

In 1988, Ailes helped guide George H W Bush to the US presidency against Michael Dukakis – a campaign that included the infamous Willie Horton ad. Going into the campaign, Ailes told Bush, "Jesus Christ, you look like a pansy on TV," and he had Bush copy Gary Cooper's manner. Writes Sherman:

He taught Bush to slow down his speaking style and lower his voice. He instructed him now to focus his gaze into the camera and control his wild arm movements.

In the summer of 1988, according to Sherman, Ailes "signed a contract with Big Tobacco," and his "first assignment was running a media strategy for a lobbying group called Californians Against Unfair Tax Increases." They were opposed to Proposition 99, an anti-tobacco referendum supported by the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. Ailes's ads spoke of out-of-touch elitists who wanted to fleece the little guy. It was one campaign that Ailes's lost. Proposition 99 passed 57.8 percent to 42.2.

In the fall of 1989, Ailes helped Rudy Giuliani against David Dinkins in his run for mayor of New York City. Ailes used a photo of Dinkins with blacks that Dinkins thought unflattering, and Dinkins accused Ailes of "gutter politics."

Sherman writes that in 1991 Ailes put together "a deal to launch a syndicated television show" for his friend Rush Limbaugh. In 1992, according to Sherman, "Ailes gave interviews attacking Bill Clinton as a 'saxophone player' and Ross Perot as 'loony toons.' And Ailes "orchestrated a crucial summit between Bush and Limbaugh" to shore up support for Bush. But it was to no avail. Bush, of course, lost to Clinton.

Ailes emerged from 1992 politics disappointed and interested in conservative news broadcasting as a rival to the major networks, which he described as biased. Sherman writes that Ailes spoke of the networks as anti-Republican and anti-anything that's conservative. He writes of Ailes describing Clinton as a "hippie president," of White House spokesperson George Stephanopoulos as "a sociopath," and Senator Ted Kennedy as a "scoundrel."

By now, Rupert Murdock had been moving into the cable television business, looking to compete with Ted Turner's CNN. In addition to his enterprises in Australia and Britain, in the United States Murdoch owned the supermarket tabloid Star and the New York Post. His News Corporation had acquired Twentieth Century Fox in 1985. That was the year he had become a US citizen. He had announced his intention to develop "a network of independent stations as a fourth marketing force" to compete directly with CBS, NBC, and ABC. In 1986 he founded the Fox Broadcasting Company, and in 1989 he acquired HarperCollins Publishers. In 1996, Murdoch announced that his News Corporation would launch a 24-hour news channel on cable and satellite systems in the United States – the Fox News Channel, and he asked Roger Ailes to be its Chief Executive Officer.

Sherman describes Ailes and Murdoch as,

... men of the same mind. The self-appointed elites of journalism elicited their unbridled disgust. Watergate particularly stung, and Murdoch spoke of it in Ailesian terms, long before the two met. "The American press might get their pleasure in successfully crucifying Nixon," Murdoch told a friend, "but the last laugh could be on them. See how they like it when the Commies take over the West."

In 1988, according to Sherman,

Murdock's preferred Republican was the televangelist Pat Robertson. "You can say what you like," Murdoch told Andrew Neil [a Scottish journalist] at the time, "he's right on all the issues." (p 175)

Now Ailes had his opportunity to run a news organization that would present news as he wanted it presented: without a bias against opinions such as his. He apparently believed that he could transcend his previous job of selling a point of view (to propagandize). He apparently believed he could present the news with "fairness and balance." He told his team:

I don't expect you not to be biased in your lives, you'll be too damn boring at the dinner table if you don't have opinions. But when you walk into this newsroom, recognize your position or your bias and be fair to people who don't share that position.

Ailes wrote down the Fox channel mission statement:

Fox News is committed to providing viewers with more factual information and a balanced and fair presentation. Fox believes viewers should make their own judgment on important issues based on unbiased coverage. Our motto is "we report, you decide."

With his background in organizing presentations to attract people, Ailes wanted his fair-and-balanced news to be interesting. Just trying to inform people would not do it. (It was decades after happy talk had been introduced on local television news.) One of his hosts, Bill O'Reilly, spoke of television news having become too predictable and too boring. O'Reilly said that viewers did not want television to tell them what happened in the world (one damned thing after another), that they wanted television to tell them how to think about what is happening in the world, that the news itself should be secondary. O'Reilly said, "Well, we're going to try to be different, stimulating and a bit daring, but at the same time, responsible and fair."

Drawing on his experience at TVN, Ailes said "If you come out and try to do right-wing news, your gonna die. You can't get away with it." He spoke of holding to "the brand."

It wasn't to be the kind of balance attempted by PBS's News Hour, where the point-of-view of one guest was balanced by the opposing view of another. (The FCC ruling back in 1987 had changed broadcasting by ending the Fairness Doctrine, which required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced.) Being fair-and-balanced was a challenge for Ailes. Fox News was not about to give equal time to opposing points of view. There was the matter of selecting stories, emphasis and repetition.

Fox News had been working on the Paula Jones and Clinton story when in 1998 the Lewinsky affair broke. Clinton handed Fox News a great opportunity. According to Sherman, "five producers and correspondents covered the Starr investigation full-time." Fox was accused of being scandal-obsessed. As the Clinton presidency spiraled toward its nadir, writes Sherman, Ailes and Fox News rocketed to new rating highs.

Gabriel Sherman's last chapter is titled "The Last Campaign," about Fox and the 2012 presidential election. Ailes commenting that "If Romney wins, it's good for the taxpayers, if Obama wins it's good for our ratings." Ailes wanted Chris Christie or David Petraeus as the Republican nominee. Romney's nomination and defeat angered him. Organizing was a skill that Ailes took pride in, and he complained that the Republican Party "couldn't organize a one-car funeral." It was sixteen years since he had been in charge at Fox, but the conservative network, fair-and-balanced or not, had failed as he had failed in 1992.

In 2013 the conservative Bradley Foundation exercised its ability at fairness in judgment by awarding Roger Ailes its $250,000 prize for being a "visionary of American journalism." Upon taking the stage, Ailes said that he was donating the $250,000 prize to charity, and he went on to lament the state of America's affairs. The United States had survived the Great Depression, had made it through World War II, had survived the Cold War and the threat from people like Ralph Nader. But Ailes saw another calamity on the horizon. He complained about people who wanted "to impose their culture and laws" on the US and he declared, "We are in a storm, the mast is broken, the compass is barely functioning, and there is a big damned hole in the boat!"

Gabriel Sherman ended with his summary description of Ailes:

He accommodated naive idealism about American life and history alongside profound cynicism about many Americans, from presidents on down. He justified the use of small-mouth political tactics in the service of protecting his sentimentalized notion of picket-fence America. He bullied real and perceived enemies, but played the victim when criticized. (p 393)

Here is a friendly interview of Ailes on YouTube.

Here is a less friendly portrayal of Ailes on YouTube.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.