Weekend Reader: ‘The Loudest Voice In The Room: How The Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — And Divided A Country’
Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News–And Divided a Country, the new controversial biography of the Fox News mogul by New York magazine contributing editor Gabriel Sherman. The Loudest Voice in the Room is the result of years of interviews and research into the backstory, inner workings, and dynamics of Fox News and the man who created it.
You can purchase the book here.
For Ailes, Obama’s meteoric ascent onto the national stage was yet another triumph of the counterculture and the liberal news media. “People need to be reminded,” Ailes told Fox News executives around the time Obama declared his candidacy, “this guy never had a job. He’s a community organizer.” A few days after Obama’s historic election, Ailes remarked during his morning editorial meeting, “There’s no reason to have a civil rights movement anymore, since there is a black man in the White House.” Obama’s victory changed the mission of Fox News. “When he started the channel, it was a campaign against CNN. But it is now less about the competition and more about the administration,” a former senior Fox producer said. “He honestly thinks Obama has set back the country forever. He feels like he is the only one out there who can save the republic. He has said it.”
Ailes’s battle did not end when he left the office. At his weekend estate in Putnam County, some forty miles north of New York City, Ailes bought the local newspaper and used it to advance his agenda. He complained to neighbors that Obama refused to call Muslims “terrorists.” He told them that Obama was using the stimulus as a “political tool” in order to buy his reelection in 2012. Obama pushed green energy, when in fact climate change was a “worldwide conspiracy” spun by “foreign nations” to gain control of America’s resources.
Ailes even told his advisers that if Obama were reelected, he could be prosecuted and jailed, like a political prisoner. During a forty-five-minute meeting at Bill Clinton’s foundation in Harlem, Ailes told the former president that he might emigrate to Ireland, and had explored acquiring an Irish passport.
And yet, in the halls of the White House, Ailes kept these feelings to himself. As he walked up to Obama to shake his hand and pose for a photo, he faced a very different politician than the one he’d first met in the summer of 2008. At the time, Obama was a candidate who believed in his ability to overcome the grievance politics of the past through the force of his personal narrative. He told his aides he thought he could win over Fox’s audience—and even Ailes himself—by reasoning with them. Now, nearly three years into his first term, Obama had learned—often the hard way—that his vision of harmony was a pipe dream.
On the rope line, Obama greeted Ailes and his son.
“I see the most powerful man in the world is here,” Obama said. Ailes grinned. “Don’t believe what you read, Mr. President. I started those rumors myself.”
Whatever President Obama intended to convey, there is no denying an essential truth in the remark. Roger Ailes has the power, more than any single person in American public life, to define the president. For many Americans—admittedly and patently not the ones that voted for him— the Obama they know, the one they are raging against, is the one Ailes has played a large role creating.
All of Obama’s efforts as a conciliator cannot change the fact that conflict is intrinsically more interesting than consensus. And political conflict has never been more compelling than on Ailes’s Fox News. His channel is a self-contained universe, with distinctive laws—“fair and balanced”—and sometimes its own facts. Though marketed as an antidote to the epistemic closure of the mainstream media, Fox News is as closed off as the media world it proposes to balance—Ailes’s audience seldom watches anything else. They have been conditioned by Fox’s pundits to see the broadcast networks, CNN, and MSNBC as opponents in a grand partisan struggle.
On Fox News, the tedious personages of workaday politics are reborn as heroes and villains with triumphs and reverses—never-ending story lines. And the beauty of it is that Ailes’s viewers—the voters—are the protagonists, victims of socialist overlords, or rebels coming to take the government back. The viewers, on their couches, are flattered as the most important participants, the foot soldiers in Ailes’s army.
In the early years of Fox News, Ailes kept a healthy distance between his own worldview and the product that ultimately ended up on the air. The network’s original blueprint was more tabloid and populist than baldly conservative. When the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch hired Ailes in 1996 to launch Fox News, the media establishment wrote the effort off as a joke. Ailes, never one to heed criticism, turned the channel into a powerhouse that would earn more money than any other division in Murdoch’s News Corp. In 2002, Fox passed CNN as the number-one-rated cable news network; within seven years, its audience more than doubled that of CNN and MSNBC, and its profits were believed to exceed those of its cable news rivals and the broadcast evening newscasts combined. In 2012, a Wall Street analyst valued Fox News at $12.4 billion. With numbers like that came privileges, and Ailes wasn’t afraid to press his advantage. “No one could rein Ailes in,” said a former News Corp executive.
Even Rupert Murdoch. It did not matter that Murdoch’s romance with Ailes, which had burned hot at the beginning of their collaboration, had begun to cool after a decade. “He’s paranoid,” Murdoch told Ailes’s friend Liz Smith, the gossip columnist. For all his right-wing bona fides, Rupert Murdoch himself was a pragmatist whose political commitments changed according to the needs of his business. In 2008, Murdoch even contemplated supporting Obama in the pages of the New York Post instead of the Republican, John McCain. When Ailes caught wind of the possible endorsement, he threatened to quit. It was a game of brinkmanship that Ailes won. Murdoch promised Ailes complete editorial independence and gave him a new five-year contract to stay at News Corp. In September, the Post endorsed McCain.
At times, Murdoch even sided with Ailes against his children. In 2005, Murdoch’s older son, Lachlan, left the company after clashing with Ailes, among others, over management decisions. In 2010, Murdoch cut off contact with Matthew Freud, the husband of his daughter Elisabeth, after Freud told The New York Times, “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to.” In 2011, during the height of the phone hacking scandal at News Corp’s London tabloids, James, the younger of Rupert’s sons and no fan of Fox News, saw his chances to succeed his father implode. “He’s a fucking dope,” Ailes told a friend over dinner.
The more the hacking crisis engulfed the company, the more Murdoch relied on Ailes’s profits. “They all hate me, I make them a lot of money and they go and spend the money,” Ailes said to Bill Shine, Fox’s head of programming. Ailes took a certain pleasure in watching News Corp executives face lawsuits and criminal prosecution over the scandal. “He was delighted it was happening,” an executive recalled. “He said, ‘It’s nice to not be the only bad guy in the company.’ ”
Ailes’s ego and temper, of the sort that sidelined lesser players, were tolerated. He openly bad-mouthed News Corp board member John Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs, who suggested programming ideas to him. “I’m not going to have some fucking liberal tell me how to program my network,” Ailes told Bill Shine.
But Ailes’s true interest was national, not corporate, politics. “I want to elect the next president,” he told Fox executives in a meeting in 2010. If there was anyone in America who could deliver on such a boast, it was Ailes. At Fox News, he had positioned himself as the closest thing to a party boss the country had. In the spring of 2011, Fox employed five prospective Republican presidential candidates, and no serious Republican could run for president without at least seeking Ailes’s blessing. “Every single candidate has consulted with Roger,” one top Republican said. The challenge was that the field of candidates Ailes had assembled in the Fox studios, excellent entertainers though many of them were, were not deemed up to the job of a successful White House run. Although Ailes told one Fox contributor that even his security guard would make a better president than Obama, Ailes did not see any winners among his pundits. “He finds flaws in everyone,” said a confidant. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich was a prick; former senator Rick Santorum was a nobody; former governor Mike Huckabee couldn’t raise a nickel; former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was an idiot. And the two adults in the room, unaffiliated with Fox, former governors Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, were less than impressive.
In a meeting at Fox News, Ailes flatly told Huntsman, “You’re not of our orthodoxy,” citing his stance on climate change. (“To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy,” Huntsman had tweeted.) After finishing third in the New Hampshire primary, Huntsman dropped out of the race. Over the course of his candidacy, he had only banked four hours and thirty-two minutes of Fox face time. By comparison, pizza mogul Herman Cain, who was a candidate for a similar length of time, notched eleven hours and six minutes.
To win the White House, Ailes would have to harness the circus he’d created to a candidate with crossover appeal, and he worked assiduously to recruit one. Ailes twice encouraged the brash New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, to run. Ailes also sent an emissary to Kabul, Afghanistan, urging General David Petraeus to jump into the primary. Both decided to sit out the race.
So Ailes dealt with reality. From the start, he’d been lukewarm on the front-runner and eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. “Romney came for a meeting at Fox during the primaries and did his speech in the second-floor conference room,” a person in the room said. “What was most telling was that Roger himself didn’t ask too many questions. Roger never liked Romney.” Ailes told Romney once over dinner, “You ought to be looser on the air.” In another conversation, he told him, “Be more real. Look the camera in the eye. Stop being a preppy.” Behind his back, he had sharper words. He told one Fox host that Romney was “like Chinese food— twenty minutes after you eat it, you can’t remember what you had.” In a conversation at his Fox office with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, Ailes questioned Romney’s spine. “Romney’s gotta rip Obama’s face off,” Ailes said. “It’s really hard to do.”
If Romney would not rip Obama’s face off, Fox would. “Roger was running a political campaign,” a person close to Ailes said. “He felt, ‘We’re going to have to do a lot of things to get this guy elected.’ Instead of propping up Romney, it was more, ‘Let’s go after Obama.’ ” Ailes personally directed and stage-managed his channel’s campaign, using entertainment techniques to shape a political narrative that was presented as unbiased news, a hybrid that makes Ailes a unique American auteur.
On the morning of May 30, 2012, the day after Romney clinched the GOP nomination, Fox unofficially launched Romney’s general election campaign with a Fox & Friends segment. “What sort of change have we really seen over the last four years from the Obama administration?” host Steve Doocy asked.
“Let’s take a look back,” his co-host Gretchen Carlson chirped.
A four-minute video began to play. After several seconds of inspiring images of Obama’s victory night speech in Grant Park, an ominous orchestral score, as if from a horror film, drowned out the cheers of Obama’s supporters. Throughout the segment, the voices of news anchors broad- casted dire headlines. Dissonant alarm sirens blared. An animated money bag made a mockery of the mounting national debt. Unemployment numbers ticked up on the screen like a doomsday clock in reverse. A cartoon image of farm animals on a spinning circular platform illustrated the rising cost of food. At the end, Obama was given the last word: “That’s the power of hope. That’s the change we seek. That’s the change we can stand for.”
The video was Ailes’s brainchild. According to an executive with firsthand knowledge, Ailes “gave the overview” of the segment in a meeting with Bill Shine. Shine then handed off the instructions to Fox & Friends executive producer Lauren Petterson, who tasked associate producer Chris White with the project. Before it was televised, Shine played the clip for Ailes.
Not surprisingly, the segment sparked a media firestorm. A news channel had produced and aired what could only be classified as a political attack ad. Ailes, in classic fashion, took no responsibility. Fox pulled the clip off its website and released a statement with Shine’s name attached that assigned blame to a junior staffer. “Roger was not aware of the video,” a Fox spokeswoman told The New York Times.
Obama’s camp was not persuaded. Senior adviser David Axelrod emailed Ailes that day. “I see you’re back in the spot business,” he wrote, alluding to the infamous attack ads Ailes produced in the 1980s.
As the campaign unfolded, Fox would serve as a crucial plank in Romney’s media strategy. “Fox is watched by the true believers,” Romney told guests at a private fundraiser in Florida. Romney, for the most part, shunned the Big Three networks and CNN in favor of Ailes’s channel.
In the year after he announced he was running for president, Romney gave twenty-one separate interviews to Fox & Friends. The appearances gave Romney a pulpit to stoke his base’s passions. So when Gretchen Carlson asked, “Would you go as far as Rush Limbaugh did yesterday in saying this is the first president in modern time who’s going to run a campaign against capitalism?” Romney played along. “Well, it certainly sounds like that’s what he’s doing.”
In August, when Romney introduced his vice presidential pick, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly giddily compared Ryan to Ronald Reagan. On her program, a montage of video clips showed Ryan and the Gipper inveighing against government spending with similar language. Kelly then welcomed Reagan’s son Michael to make the comparison himself on camera.
Behind the scenes, Ailes helped prep Ryan for the race. “Ryan met with Roger,” a person close to Ailes said. Ailes told Ryan he needed to work on his television skills and referred him to speech coach Jon Kraushar, who had worked at his consulting company Ailes Communications in the 1980s and coauthored with Ailes the book You Are the Message. “I know a guy who can teach you to read off a prompter,” Ailes said.
That a news executive was essentially running the Republican Party was a remarkable development in American politics. But it was an outcome Ailes foretold. After the 1968 campaign, Ailes spoke of a time when television would replace the political party, that other mass organizer of the twentieth century. With Fox News, that reality was arguably established.
Ailes owes his power to a long tradition. The media mobilizers of an earlier era—Father Charles Coughlin, Walter Winchell—paved the way for Fox News, building followings that, in their time, vectored the country toward their goals. But these firebrands were limited by the reach of their own voices. At Fox News, Ailes commands a whole platoon of fire- brands, multiplying his force.
Ailes built Fox into an entire political universe. But ultimately, it’s the expression of one man, with all his obsessions and idiosyncrasies, every- thing he’d absorbed. “Roger is Fox News, without him you don’t have it,” Christopher Ruddy, the editor in chief of Newsmax, the conservative monthly, said. Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s campaign director and Fox News contributor, agreed. “Every single element of the network is his design,” he explained. “He’s not just an executive, he understands how to drive a message.”
Not long before the 2012 election, Ailes told a reporter, “If Richard Nixon was alive today, he’d be on the couch with Oprah, talking about how he was poor, his brother died, his mother didn’t love him, and his father beat the shit out of him. And everybody would say, Oh, poor guy, he’s doing the best he can. See, every human being has stuff—stuff they have to carry around, stuff they have to deal with. And Richard Nixon had a lot of stuff. He did the best he could with it, but it got him in the end.”
Ailes’s own stuff is what has transformed Fox News from a news channel into a national phenomenon. “I built this channel from my life experience,” he told an interviewer. And it was true. At his daily 8:00 a.m. editorial meeting, Ailes regularly lectures his closest advisers, about a dozen men and women, on his experience of American postwar history, which they use to program the channel. As the producer of The Mike Douglas Show, he had soaked up the chatty commercialism of 1960s daytime television, learning countless techniques to hold viewers’ attention. As a consultant to Nixon, he adopted a sense of political victimhood, and a paranoia about enemies that has marked his career ever since. In the 1970s, he honed his theatrical instincts as a Broadway producer and ran a fledgling conservative television news service bankrolled by the right-wing beer magnate Joseph Coors—in essence, a dry run for Fox News. And in the 1980s, Ailes mastered the dark art of attack politics as a mercenary campaign strategist, skills he would soon put to use in turning a television news network into an unprecedented political force. At Fox, Ailes speaks frequently of his father, a factory foreman who lived a frustrated life. Fox News launched on October 7, 1996, but it truly began a half century earlier, out of a small frame house on a shady street in Warren, Ohio.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
Excerpted from The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – And Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman Copyright © 2014 by Gabriel Sherman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.