Roger Ailes: Off Camera
By Zev Chafets
(Sentinel, 258 pages, $26.95)
DURING THE LAST CAMPAIGN, there was a widely circulated photo taken in a diner of Joe Biden, wearing a strange sly smirk and squeezing a biker’s woman. She looks uncomfortable, and her biker looks hostilely bemused, perhaps thinking of how this would play out if it weren’t the vice president of the United States but some other old turkey doing the squeezing.
In March of this year, there Biden was again, arriving in Rome for the installation of Pope Francis, captured standing slightly on his toes, his arms outspread, gazing upward (toward Heaven, one assumes), smiling beatifically, as if he really believed that his presence there, or anywhere for that matter, meant anything to anyone at all.
And most recently, at a White House signing ceremony, there’s Joe Biden, captured in a photograph run by Politico. He’s the focal point of the photo, standing directly behind the seated president, his face set oddly, a far-away look in his eyes, lips parted, as if he’s about to burst into song. As Politico put it, President Obama is being “Biden-ed.”
How to explain it? Here’s Roger Ailes: “‘I have a soft spot for Joe Biden. I like him. But he’s dumb as an ashtray.’”
And that’s it, isn’t it? Exactly right, with no elaboration required. And anyone with a grain of common sense, no matter the political affiliation or ideological bent, knows exactly what he means.
It’s this sort of straightforward observation, offered without cant or any hint of pandering, that makes this book so readable. And it’s to the credit of Zev Chafets that within the narrative frame of Roger Ailes’ life and career he skillfully and economically constructs, he recognizes that his work shows best when he stands back and lets his subject talk.
There are the much-cited observations on President Obama’s work habits, prompted by Democratic operative Hilary Rosen’s assertion that Ann Romney, who raised five children, had never worked a day in her life. Says Ailes: “Obama’s the one who never worked a day in his life. He never earned a penny that wasn’t public money. How many fund-raisers does he attend every week? How often does he play basketball and golf? I wish I had that kind of time. He’s lazy, but the media won’t report that.”
“I didn’t come up with that. Obama said that, to Barbara Walters.” (Chafets elaborates: “What Obama did say was that he feels a laziness in himself that he attributes to his laid-back upbringing in Hawaii.”)
There was an early encounter with Obama during the 2008 campaign when the candidate believed that Fox, unlike the other networks, failed to show him the proper deference. “A sit-down was arranged with Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes to get Fox’s mind right.” As Ailes recalls, the meeting took place in a private room at the Waldorf Astoria. (Chafets tells us that Jay Carney, the current White House spokesman, declined to discuss the president’s version of events.)
Obama, accompanied by Robert Gibbs, said that he “was concerned about the way he was being portrayed on Fox,” especially by Sean Hannity. Ailes told him not to worry about it. “Nobody who watches Sean’s going to vote for you anyway,” he said.
Ailes said that he had his own concerns about Obama’s positions on national security issues, as reflected in his statements about unilaterally cutting weapons systems. Obama told him that wasn’t the case:
“He said this looking me right in the eyes,” says Ailes. “He never dropped his gaze, which is the usual tell. It was as good a lie as anyone ever told me. I said, ‘Senator, I just watched someone say exactly that on my computer screen before coming over here. Maybe it wasn’t you, but it sure looked like you and sounded like you. I think it was you.’”
At that, Gibbs announced the meeting was over.
After winning the nomination and then the election, Obama operatives like David Axelrod and Anita Dunn went to war with Fox, attempting to discredit it as a legitimate news-gathering organization, and sparking an exchange between White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Jake Tapper, then the ABC White House correspondent, who asked how Fox differed from other networks: “I’m not talking about their opinion programs….I’m talking about saying that thousands of individuals who work for a media organization do not work for a news organization. Why is that appropriate for the White House to say?”
Eventually, realizing it was an unwinnable war, the administration called off the hostilities. “As Ailes predicted he would,” writes Chafets, “Obama caved. He needed the Fox audience.” And like the good politician he is, Obama then implicitly recognized Fox’s legitimacy by inviting Ailes to the White House media Christmas party.
Ailes was reluctant to go, writes Chafets. But it was an opportunity to introduce his son Zac, of whom he’s very proud, to the President of the United States. On the receiving line, Obama said, “Here comes the most powerful man in America”—a reference to a title bestowed on Ailes by a magazine article. As they shook hands, Ailes leaned in and said, “Don’t believe that bull—-, Mr. President. I started the rumor myself.”
ACCORDING TO any accepted definition, Roger Ailes is a conservative—in fact, as he points out, too conservative to ever think seriously about running for office. He’s not a movement conservative, not a programmatic conservative, but an American conservative in the sense that members of Nixon’s Silent Majority or Reagan Democrats were conservative, and he never forgets his blue-collar roots.
Thus, his ideas don’t always jibe with approved ideological positions. On immigration, for instance, his views, as Chafets points out, are decidedly heterodox. He believes in border security: “Every country has to be able to enforce its borders. Otherwise there is no sovereignty. If I was president I’d do what’s necessary, including putting Navy SEALs on the border with orders to shoot to kill drug dealers who are trying to infiltrate the country.” And he believes illegal immigrants “who have committed crimes should be rounded up and punished.” But he also believes “a lot of conservative views on immigration are reactionary. Immigrants from Mexico are cultural conservatives and we should be encouraging them to come legally.”
Heterodox or not, Ailes has dedicated his career to giving conservative views a voice, whether advising Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George H.W. Bush, which he did with great success, or creating Fox News, the first and only alternative national outlet free from the lock-step sclerotic bias that has long infected our major networks.
Ailes dismisses liberal complaints of one-sidedness. Until Fox was created, he points out, liberal control of the media was monolithic, denying coverage to alternative points of view. “The first rule of media bias is selection….Most of the media bull—- you about who they are. We don’t. We’re not programming to conservatives, we’re just not eliminating their point of view.”
Ailes tells a story involving a man he met at a Manhattan cocktail party who complained about Fox News’ coverage. Ailes asked if he was satisfied with the coverage provided by CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and PBS, and the man said yes. Ailes retorted: “Well if they all have the same take and we have a different take, why does that bother you? The last two guys who succeeded in lining up the media on one side were Hitler and Stalin.”
Ailes’ basic views and attitudes were formed growing up in Ohio, and although as a hemophiliac he had to accept consequent limitations on physical activities, Chafets writes that he never backed down from a fight, initiated many himself with bigger kids, and persuaded his parents to let him go out for football. It was a solid Midwestern upbringing, although not idyllic. His father, a factory superintendent, could dole out harsh punishment. And his mother, it turned out, was waiting for Roger to leave home for college before leaving home herself for good.
What came to distinguish him most during his college and early working years was a relentless drive to succeed, the nerve of a Mexican bandit, and a willingness to take chances. These qualities would carry him from the campus radio station at Ohio University to Cleveland and then Philadelphia as the 25-year-old producer of the newly launched The Mike Douglas Show, which would become the most successful afternoon program in television history.
“Ailes came out of Ohio with Middle American tastes,” writes Chafets, and it showed in the choice of guests he most enjoyed booking—among them Judy Garland, Pearl Bailey, and Jack Benny. Also appearing were James Brown, Dick Gregory, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Aretha Franklin. Bill Cosby appeared on the show, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., several times. He brought on Barbra Streisand early in her career, and persuaded Barbara Walters, a rising star on The Today Show, not only to appear, but “to perform gymnastics…with a Swedish tumbling team,” a performance which apparently alarmed her network bosses.
“Roger Ailes was a legend at a very young age,” says Marvin Kalb, who was a reporter at CBS News at the time. “His success at the Douglas Show struck a chord. He was talked about in the seventies in New York, in television circles.”
With the talk came opportunities. Chafets walks us through the stages in Ailes’ career, from the Douglas show, which he calls his “alma mater,” and the memories of which he clearly cherishes, to CNBC, where he served as president, then America’s Talking, the forerunner of MSNBC (he warned against calling it that, pointing out that MS is a disease). When NBC sold America’s Talking and CNBC’s current affairs talk shows to Microsoft to create the new channel, they proposed that Ailes stay at the helm but report to NBC executive Andrew Lack, “a big man with a bigger ego,” so Ailes put in his papers and walked.
“Ailes left Fort Lee [where CNBC was headquartered], but he wasn’t homeless. Rupert Murdoch was waiting for him on the other side of the Hudson.”
Murdoch, writes Chafets, wanted to get into the cable news business. “He had an intuition that a large portion of the public was unhappy with the tone of mainstream TV news and would respond to a more patriotic, socially conservative, and less parochial sort of information.”
They met, Murdoch asked Ailes if he could create such a network from scratch, and when Ailes told him he could, but that it had to be on the air within six months to beat NBC to the punch:
“How much will it cost me?” Murdoch asked.
“Nine hundred million to a billion,” Ailes responded. “And you could lose it all.”
“Can you do it?”
“Yes,” said Ailes.
“Then go ahead and do it.”
When news of the deal got out, writes Chafets, “media sophisticates laughed as they had, fifteen years earlier, at Ted Turner.” Especially scornful, predictably enough, was the New York Times, mocking “the promised channel” as little more than a scheme giving “Mr. Ailes a new toy to play with, though given the current state of Fox News as described by some insiders, it may be less a toy that an imaginary friend.”
Typically, those “insiders” are not identified, and some critics of the Times might even describe them as “imaginary sources,” upon with the Times often seems to depend, not wanting to get its hands dirty when slinging mud.
But no matter. Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, the parent company of NBC, knew that it was no game, and that the network had made a costly mistake. “‘I told them they would rue the day they let Roger team up with Rupert….You put a creative genius together with a guy with the guts and wallet of Rupert Murdoch and you have an unbeatable combination.”
That’s exactly what happened. And as a result, the Silent Majority found its voice.