Roger Ailes: Off Camera, by Zev Chafets (Sentinel, 272 pp., $26.95)
In Roger Ailes: Off Camera, author Zev Chafets tells of a reunion he’s arranged between the master builder of Fox News and a long-lost friend from his childhood in blue-collar Warren, Ohio: Austin Pendleton, the veteran actor and director, who, among many other credits, played Motel the tailor in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. As kids, Pendleton and Ailes slept at one another’s homes; in junior high, Ailes belonged to a theater company young Pendleton founded. Both live in New York but hadn’t seen each other in years.
In an unexpectedly touching scene, when they get together over lunch in a private Fox dining room, the decades fall away. “Sometimes I can close my eyes and see my family after church,” observes Ailes at one point, “my grandfather saying a prayer before Sunday dinner. It’s like that Kris Kristofferson song, the one Janis Joplin recorded. ‘I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday.’” In parting, embracing the actor, he offers simply, “I’ve missed you, old friend.”
Why has this meeting been so long delayed? “I imagine his friends think I’m the devil,” Ailes bluntly put it when the idea was first broached. “I wouldn’t want to embarrass him by getting in touch.”
It’s a given that few liberals will read this book; leftist partisans deride Fox as Faux News or Fixed News and cast its creator as a blight on everything good and decent. He runs neck and neck with his pal Rush Limbaugh as liberals’ bete noir in chief. But those who share Ailes’s worldview will find this insider account more than occasionally bracing. For where many on the right shrink in the face of liberal scorn, and go defensive, Ailes returns it in kind, and then some. Indeed, like Limbaugh, he takes it as proof that he’s doing the job right.
Granted unparalleled access to his subject’s private and professional realms, Chafets doubtless glosses over some of Ailes’s faults, but his presentation of a man who’s succeeded by adhering to a set of beliefs and values almost unheard of in his field—and increasingly endangered in America at large—is persuasive. Possessed of a fierce work ethic and wry humor, Ailes is a no-nonsense, no-excuses, two-fisted kind of guy, never leaving anyone in doubt where he stands. Though he takes an almost paternal interest in many members of the Fox team, he makes no allowances for incompetence or especially—as a number of former Fox employees have learned to their sorrow—disloyalty. Above all, in a business dominated by insecurity and safety-in-the-pack, and in a social milieu where every cocktail party is an exercise in Being Important Together, Ailes is a proud loner, at ease with himself and sure of his maverick instincts.
He was this way even before he was overtly ideological. Starting in TV as a segment producer with The Mike Douglas Show, by 25 Ailes was running the most successful daytime program in the country. Famously, it was a chance off-camera conversation with guest Richard Nixon, then adrift in the political wilderness, that led to a second career in political consulting. (The show had booked an exotic dancer with a boa constrictor on the same day as Nixon, and Ailes took care to put them in different green rooms. “I didn’t want to scare Nixon,” he says, “or the snake.”) Ailes quickly rose to the top in this new field as well. Among other notable coups, he helped transform Ronald Reagan’s advanced age from a liability into an asset in 1984, by prearranging the Gipper’s legendary debate quip about refusing to exploit his “opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
But it was partnering with Rupert Murdoch on a billion-dollar gamble to create a news alternative to the dominant TV networks that has made him, at 73, the media titan that he is today. Fox’s numbers have dwarfed those of its cable rivals for over a decade. It says much about the mentality of Fox’s competitors that at the outset, most in the mainstream media were dismissive of the idea of a network that aimed to respect the more traditionalist worldview of fully half the nation. “The idea, some suggested, was to give Mr. Ailes a toy to play with,” sneered the New York Times before the network’s launch in 1996, “though given the state of Fox News as described by some insiders, it may be less a toy than an imaginary friend.”
As the network caught up with and then passed its rivals, the dismissiveness vanished, but the contempt remained. The mere recital of the phrase “Fair and Balanced” is often enough to set detractors off. I vividly recall a heated back-and-forth I had at a 2002 Poynter Institute conference with Howell Raines, then the Gray Lady’s reigning editor, on the issue of bias. When I dared suggest that Fox News was less the problem than the antidote, Raines became apoplectic, his face going red and a neck vein starting to pulsate. He shouted that only dupes and boobs believed such “crap,” and that the whole Fox enterprise was an exercise in cynical manipulation, not journalism.
Needless to say, that has been the Times’s position, and that of mainstream journalists and liberals everywhere, ever since. Few of them actually watch Fox, so they fail to make the crucial distinction between the network’s news reporting and its personality-driven commentary—or even, when focusing obsessively on the latter, between, say, Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer. Obviously, in its story selection—and what it chooses to emphasize in stories that everyone covers—Fox leans right. But what its critics refuse to acknowledge is that in exactly the same way, Fox’s competitors lean left. Dupes and boobs? Try and find a regular Fox viewer who hasn’t known from the get-go all about Benghazi or Kermit Gosnell or Barack Obama’s onetime radical associates. Then try to find a New York Times reader who has.
In fact, Fox has more liberal contributors on its airwaves—easily one for every Fox blonde—than the other cable news outlets have conservatives, and few double as punching bags. The biggest problem faced by commentators like Joe Trippi, Evan Bayh, Kirsten Powers, and Jehmu Green seems to be the fury and incomprehension of their liberal friends. “At one point,” reports outspoken former Mondale campaign manager Bob Beckel, one of the hosts of The Five, “some of them actually staged an intervention.”
For his part, Ailes often goes after his media adversaries with both barrels. There was, for instance, his characterization of star Times columnist Paul Krugman, a persistent and especially nasty critic: “He’s a dope but nobody wants to say it because he’s won awards.” Not that he’s afraid to fess up to some mistakes. He later said that he regretted calling the Times “a cesspool of bias” and its reporters “lying scum.” Then there was his “apology” to NPR after the firing of Juan Williams for confessing (to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly) to nervousness when he spots Muslims on airplanes. Calling NPR higher-ups “the left-wing of Nazism” was going too far, he conceded; a better characterization would have been “nasty, inflexible, bigot[s].”
There is another book on Fox and Ailes in the works, breathlessly billed as an insider account by a liberal former employee. It’s hard to imagine how surprising any of its revelations could be, though. Like the network he created in his image, Roger Ailes is who he is—occasionally, reluctantly, ready to admit error, but wholly without apology for smashing the mold.