If I were to ask you — you being the average, massively well-informed TAS reader — to identify the greatest living entrepreneur of the 21st century, whose name would spring to mind?
You might think first of Bill Gates. But no, he was one of the greatest entrepreneurs of the 20th century. And after he stepped down at Microsoft in 2000, much of his wealth was created by the two CEOs who followed him.
Or you might think of Steve Jobs of Apple. But no, he died five years ago.
If you are a heavy and undisciplined consumer of news media, you might think of Elon Musk. But no, for all its publicity, Tesla Motors lost more than $800 million in its most recently reported year. (Question: where can you find investors willing to lose hundreds of millions a year on a start-up? Answer: you can’t — the basic appeal of crony capitalism is that it covers losses from unwilling investors.)
Or, in your best guess yet, you might think of Jeff Bezos. Starting in 1994, Bezos built Amazon from the ground up, growing it exponentially to the point where this year it reported net income of more than one billion dollars. Let’s be clear here. Jeff Bezos’ work at Amazon represents a monumental achievement in the history of business enterprise.
But suppose I were to tell you that there’s an entrepreneur out there who has financially outperformed Bezos, an entrepreneur who started his business later and turned in a billion-dollar profit sooner? Actually, there is such a man. His name is Roger Ailes.
Last July, Ailes had an experience, a frisson really, that comes to very few people. He got the chance to read his own obituaries. Those stories, many of them dripping with schadenfreude, reported that Ailes had been fired from his job at Fox News, perp-walked out of the company he created, and then publicly shamed. In the contemporary form of ostracism, his hometown of Garrison, New York turned back a $500,000 charitable contribution from Ailes and his wife, lest the greater Garrison metro area be dragged into disrepute.
What readers of those stories learned about Roger Ailes was two things and two things only. First, that he was a sexual harasser. And second, that he had created the rightwing spin machine known as Fox News. (In some blue precincts, there may have been ideological argument as to which was misdemeanor and which was felony.) In the scores of stories about his ouster, most made no mention whatsoever of Ailes’ remarkable business accomplishment. A few stories threw away a line or two before returning to the established narrative.
This was disproportionate journalism, of a piece with the school of historiography that insists the only two things worth knowing about Thomas Jefferson is that he owned slaves and slept with at least one of them. Anybody who doubts the magnitude of Ailes’ accomplishment needs only to watch the flow of media power over the next two years as his hand-crafted TV stars begin to fade or wander off course. Fox News will change, and soon. And when it does, the national conversation may veer off in a different direction, followed soon thereafter by a torrent of ratings-sensitive revenue: Ailes’ departure could be worth billions of dollars to CNN and MSNBC. The dismissal of Roger Ailes was, as will be seen soon enough, an inflection point in both American politics and American business.
A word of disclosure might be appropriate here. I don’t know Roger Ailes beyond shaking his hand a couple of times at industry events. But I competed against him for 24 years in the TV production business and it would be fair to say that he beat me soundly in each of those 24 years, a record I would be more embarrassed about but for the fact that he beat everybody else, too. In Bernard Malamud’s fine novel, The Natural, the lead character, a supremely talented baseball player, is asked how he wants to be remembered and he replies dreamily, “They’ll say of me when I walk down the street, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs — the best there ever was in this game.’” Roger Ailes was Roy Hobbs. He was that good.
Now about the sexual harassment. Obviously, we don’t have the full picture yet, but some of it can be sketched from public reports. Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit, recently settled, alleged that Ailes made sexual advances toward her, was rebuffed, and then took revenge by damaging her career. That is a serious allegation. It’s not an allegation of rape or perjury or betraying the public trust for private gain or even fishing in the intern pond, but it’s a serious allegation and the settlement itself suggests there was substance to it. I was not the only observer creeped by reports that, to gather evidence against him, Carlson had been secretly taping her boss for years, but if the allegations are accurate, Ailes was deeply in the wrong.
Details of other episodes in Ailes’ long career will be revealed in books, articles, and legal proceedings to come. For Ailes it will doubtless be a toxic mix — bad behavior, media-savvy professionals seeking payback, and a partisan press keeping score. One would hope that minds will remain open until the day, perhaps as early as next year, when Ailes will have his own say in a book-length response. Probably not.
One other part of the media coverage, however, must be accosted now. To bolster the Carlson case against Ailes, reports of “other women” being demeaned by Ailes or his associates were leaked from the in-house investigation of the harassment charges. These women (at least some of them, one assumes from context, seeking jobs or promotions at Fox News) were reported to be embarrassed by comments made by Ailes about their physical appearance. In the killer quote, one of the anonymous women said she was asked to “twirl” so as to allow Fox News executives to see her from behind. At this point in the story, one can almost hear a municipal gasp from the prim readership of the New York Times.
This was incomplete journalism. It was at this same point in the story that readers should have been informed that there is no anchor in the country, from the young woman at Good Morning, Altoona to the middle-aged man at Good Night, Albuquerque, whose physical appearance has not been examined — and critiqued — from every conceivable angle. Lighting and camera placement must be designed to frame the talent. And, if your female anchor is to be seated behind a Lucite desk, you damn-well better know what her legs look like before you go live.
There is a reason that TV anchors spend more time on hair and makeup, and on fitness and wardrobe, than they spend reporting on camera. Television is a visual medium and it has been proven beyond a second guess that more attractive anchors build an audience better than less attractive anchors. In this respect, TV life is egregiously unfair and every anchor-wannabe knows it long before flying off to New York with a demo reel.
The Ailes story is already long and sad and bent out of shape. I guess it was too much to ask that the coverage of it be fair and balanced.