Ailes Biographer Sherman Discusses How The Fox News Chief Is "One Of The Great American Hucksters"
Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP
Despite Fox News' best efforts to hamper it, Gabriel Sherman's new biography of Fox News chief Roger Ailes has been the focus of widespread media attention this week.
Sherman's The Loudest Voice In The Room paints an in-depth look at Ailes as someone who operates Fox News more as a political entity than a journalistic one.
In a wide-raging interview Tuesday with Media Matters, Sherman discussed his quest to "show all sides" of Ailes; how Fox News has morphed into "Ailes' personal megaphone"; how the network has "become damaging to the Republican brand"; the "political campaign" Fox has waged to distract people from the book; and the Fox chief's place in history as "one of the great American hucksters."
Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
You said on Reliable Sources that Fox News is a political operation that employs journalists. I think that's an interesting description. How have you seen that hurt its credibility, and can it really operate that way?
Well I think that over time things have changed. In the early years of Fox, the blueprint was more tabloid and populist than baldly conservative but as Ailes has amassed more power, the true nature of the organization he was building has come into clearer view and it's become harder and harder for the network to maintain the fiction of "fair and balanced." And the model, the idea for Fox was always to have the culture of a political campaign. Ailes runs it like a political campaign. There's a secret organization, a secret group of executives inside the network called the G8, which is a riff off of the G6, which was from the George H.W. Bush campaign. So you see how Ailes has brought the culture of a political campaign into the news business. And now, in the Obama years, the last -- since 2008, we've seen Fox has sort of come into full bloom. And it's revealed itself for what it is, which is that it's Roger Ailes' personal megaphone.
And did that hurt its efforts to complete its mission, or did that not really affect it for the people that watch Fox?
Well the audience is very -- it's still the most dominant cable network. The audience is loyal. There's been some dips, especially after the 2012 election. I think one of the most important developments is that as Fox has fully evolved and emerged as Ailes' megaphone, it has hurt Fox's ability to win national elections. From 2000 til 2008, Fox was able to really cheerlead and be a platform for the Bush White House. But as the network has become more extreme, it's become harder and harder to resonate -- it's become damaging to the Republican brand. And that's where you see the limits of Ailes' power. 2012 was a very revealing moment of that.
The Republican Party has leadership problems. Aside from Chris Christie, just in general, losing the last two presidential elections and the other Republican Party problems, how much do they hurt Ailes and Fox, and their effectiveness? Or how much did Ailes and Fox hurt the Republican Party and its efforts, as you said, to win elections?
I would put the responsibility on Ailes and the network he runs because what makes the best television is the most conflict, some of the most extreme voices are the ones that break through on Fox and as his network has effectively become the brand of the Republican Party, you know I said that it has surpassed the Republican Party. So the brand of Fox has become the brand of the Republican Party and that has hurt the party on issues from immigration, on issues of marriage equality, on issues of climate change, and spending.
The idea that in one meeting Ailes said that Obama hates capitalism. Now you could have a lot of -- there can be a debate about the economic policy of this administration, but the notion that they hate capitalism just doesn't -- it's just not supported by the observable reality. I mean Obama has sort of governed as a pretty conventional Democrat, down the middle Democrat with some liberal views. But the idea that he is -- if you believe that Obama, that Ailes defines, is this extreme, statist, you know, radical politician, and that brand is too extreme for the Republican Party to win national majorities.
And you mentioned in the book Ailes agreed with Glenn Beck that Obama had a "deep-seated hatred of white people"
Yeah one of the details I think my book reveals is this idea that Roger Ailes is not a moderate who likes to put on extreme right-wing voices on Fox News. He is a true believer. His politics and Glenn Beck are very much in synch. You know, the difference is that Glenn Beck is transparent. There's more intellectual integrity to Glenn Beck's position. He is an opinion pundit who now runs his own media company, but he is what he is. Roger Ailes is the quintessential man behind the curtain, and throughout Ailes' political career, he has worked mainly for GOP moderates, whether it's Mitch McConnell, whom he helped get elected to the Senate, George H.W. Bush in 1988. The two candidates that Ailes wanted to back in 2012, Chris Christie and Gen. David Petraeus, are both considered sort of GOP moderates. So Ailes, although he's very extreme in his own views, he likes to harness those views to a conventional candidate. And so my book reveals -- finally for readers -- there's been a debate about "what is Fox News?" A cynical programming ploy? Is it what Ailes believes? Is it some of both? And I think what the book clearly demonstrates is that Roger Ailes is a committed right-wing conservative. And we're a free country, and that's one of the amazing things about America, where we have freedom of speech. But I hope my book just makes clear to Fox's viewers and to my readers who Roger Ailes is.
And it seems like, you said, there's a personal view that's very hardline conservative, but he's backing these moderates and he's also bringing on the sort of extreme voices to Fox News. How do you think he balances his personal views with trying to make Fox News and his political consulting successful in elections when they're sort of divergent views?
Well I think that gets to one of the central conflicts at the heart of Ailes that was revealed in the 2012 election. There's a scene in the book that describes a confrontation between Karl Rove and Ailes where Rove, who's the grand Republican establishment operative -- and it's telling that he works for Ailes -- but there's a scene in which Rove confronts Ailes and he says, "Why are you putting Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell on television and giving these people such a platform? They're going to ruin the Republican Party" essentially. And there you see Ailes kind of at war with himself, where politically Ailes knows that Rove has a point and that the Republican Party needs to appeal to moderate voters and win that kind of Reagan Democrat. But these extreme Tea Party candidates is what keeps his audience tuned in day after day. So there's a conflict there. And what happened in 2012 is that the extreme side of Roger Ailes won out and he wasn't able to sublimate his own personal views for the greater good of his party. He let these voices dominate the conversation. And so then Mitt Romney was forced to go out there and Mitt Romney is a Massachusetts moderate Republican, but he had to appeal to a party that had been defined by Fox News.
Now where do you think Fox goes from here? Do you think Ailes is willing to change the approach because it's had so many problems, because the Republican Party has had so many problems, or does he keep going down the same bombastic and loudmouth approach?
I think it's interesting that this isn't a new problem for him. We saw this most famously when he gave an interview to Howard Kurtz after Glenn Beck departed the network and he said that Fox News needs a course correction, I think was the famous phrase that Ailes used. And what we saw was that was a strategic PR strategy. That wasn't about substance. Fox News' programming did not diverge much after that interview. There was really no course correction. He was trying to strategically position -- by giving that interview he was strategically positioning Fox closer to the middle. But it wasn't supported by the programming, and so I think we'll see if these problems persist. The past does not indicate that he's willing to radically alter the vision for his network, and ultimately because this is what the audience has come to expect. His audience is getting older. They're sort of the core of the Nixon silent majority. These are the conservative, blue collar, mostly white voters who are now kind of conditioned by Fox to expect this kind of far-right programming. So I guess it's an open question whether he would or even could dramatically alter the blueprint of what Fox is.
Now how do you think Fox has dealt with the Chris Christie scandal. You reported that Ailes made some snide comments the night of Obama's loss. He was sort of critical of Christie for befriending Obama.
Listen, listen, listen. There's no love lost between Ailes and Chris Christie. That said, Ailes knows that Fox is, the way he speaks of Fox's role is that it's a check on the rest of the media, which this is now a national scandal. It's been covered wall-to-wall on cable news and the papers. So this is a classic example of where Ailes will position Fox even to counterprogram the media so the coverage on Fox, and the lower volume that it's giving to the Christie story is reflective of the fact that Ailes looks out at the way the media is covering stories and will strategically drive Fox in a different direction. And I think that is where you see again another example of how Ailes reveals the political nature of Fox and that it's a political organization at its heart and not a journalistic one. Because if you are guiding your network to either cover a story or stay away from a story because of how the other media are playing it, and how it affects your side, your party's fortunes, that is a political decision. That's not a journalistic one. And I think one classic example that I report in the book is the coverage of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, where Ailes, through his news deputy John Moody -- specifically directed Fox producers to kind of stop putting those graphic images on the screen. That their audience had seen enough and in Ailes' view, and his senior executives' views, the rest of the media was overplaying that story. So that story was bad for the Bush White House and if Ailes felt the media was overplaying it, he was going to underplay it, and so those are political decisions. Those aren't necessarily journalistic ones.
Another thing that came up, you wrote about The Cable Game, the defunct blog that you reported was started by Ailes. It was ended I think in late 2011 or '12. Do you think the disappearance of the blog coincided with you starting to ask about it?
I wouldn't speculate, but I think the fact that I was doing exhaustive reporting and making hundreds of phone calls and trying to speak to anyone and everyone who had worked at Fox clearly let Ailes and his inner circle know that I was trying to document the full picture of what he's built at Fox, and I think it's very telling, although I have no first-hand knowledge or direct sourcing that it was taken down because of my reporting, I think it's very telling of the timing. And I think it's a very interesting coincidence.
You've also detailed several instances in which Ailes appears to have created his own mythology downplaying the extent to which he really wanted to work for Nixon when they met. To what extent do you think Ailes worked to fabricate his past, and how did that affect your reporting?
Roger Ailes is a self-made man. And the self-mythology is at the heart of what makes Roger Ailes so powerful. He's been spinning his life story from his very early rise as a producer on The Mike Douglas Show to present day, the highest corridors of power. I think it's essential to understanding who Roger Ailes is and what Fox News is. And the ability to weave narratives into compelling stories, whether or not they're directly supported by facts is at the heart of what makes Roger Ailes such a brilliant political communicator.
And I interviewed people who knew Ailes on the college radio station, and his early days on The Mike Douglas Show, and they talked about how Ailes was really a mystery, they couldn't really puncture who he really was as a person, although he was this charismatic larger than life character. And so I think the self-mythology of Ailes is really one of the defining aspects of his character, and what I feel puts him in the long tradition of the great American hucksters. And we're a country that loves to fall for entertaining and charismatic storytellers. And Ailes is right up there with the best of them.
Now there's a couple of things early in his career, one that's been talked about - where he offered an employee a salary increase in exchange for sex, he called a rival executive an anti-Jewish slur, but he survived all of those. Is that just a sign of the times then, there wasn't as much Twitter and email to get things out, or how did he come back from those? Or was he in such a high level of power anyway, that he could survive those kind of very personal, offensive moments?
Well I think two things. Roger Ailes, he's of the Mad Men generation. He's in a certain way. Imagine if Don Draper and his colleagues just got older and older and you know those guys are Republicans and they -- this is that generation where men -- you could behave badly and there wasn't repercussions. That said, by Roger Ailes' own admission, he told NBC executives during that Zaslav episode that he had survived many trainwrecks in his own career. So Roger Ailes is a survivor, and he does it because he's willing to play tougher and never back down when others would give in to pressure. And he makes the stakes to fight so high that most people just throw up their hands and say "you know what, like, okay Roger, truce, we'll walk away." Catherine Crier, who worked for Ailes, was an anchor at Fox, told me, "you pull a .45 on Roger, he'll have a bazooka trained between your eyes." And she said that as a compliment. Roger Ailes is the toughest fighter in the politics and news business, and that is what has made him so successful in part.
And you also wrote, and we'll talk about ourselves here, you wrote that he was obsessed with Media Matters' book, The Fox Effect. That he couldn't do anything until it was published and he also reportedly helped Zev Chafets with his book to counter yours last year. What do you think this says about his approach to the network and to the effect Media Matters might have on Fox and his view of us?
Well listen, Roger Ailes, he needs an enemy. Ken Auletta famously wrote in The New Yorker that Roger Ailes needs enemies like a tank needs fuel. And, it's part of Ailes' world view that he's persecuted and has enemies out to get him and Media Matters became one of them. He talks about how there's a far left-wing conspiracy run by George Soros out to destroy him and his network. So this is part of the ethos at Fox, that they're persecuted. And in my reporting I had many sources who spoke to me as if I was part of this conspiracy and I think there's this way to kind of lump me in with these anti-Fox forces. I'm a reporter, my job is to cover stories. I've covered the New York Times, the Washington Post, the major networks -- I'm a media reporter and Fox is the biggest media story there is. So I'm in no way out to get Ailes and in fact the book gives him a -- shows in a large part how successful he is and really gives him his due as this American visionary. But I think it's revealing what --to your question -- it's revealing of how Ailes feels or speaks as if he feels persecuted and finds enemies that can rally his people to get them fired up.
It seems as if you did show some sympathetic elements: his hemophilia as a child, having to deal with that --
He's a human being. Roger Ailes is a human being and I really wanted this book -- for the first time -- I really wanted to show, try to show Ailes as a human being and because there's so much heat around him and Fox, that I thought if I could just go out and do the reporting and tell the story that that would be of service to illuminate the secretive world that has -- for seventeen plus years that the network has been around -- in large part has been shrouded in mystery. Some details that I love are the secret email address that he uses, the fact that you can't say his name around the building, when he wants to push a message the word that comes down is "the second floor says, the second floor wants." The second floor is where his office is. One executive referred to him as The Man from Miami, which is one of the characters out of The Godfather. You can't ever really say his name, you know Roger Ailes is the Man from Fox News. And so I think that reporting is very valuable and hopefully will allow people who are interested in Fox to draw their own conclusions.
For the last two weeks during the roll-out for your book, ads have run in the New York Times, we wrote about this, I think some others did, pushing the Zev Chafets book --
They were placed by Dilenschneider Group. The book's publisher won't say if they paid for the ads, Dilenschneider won't say where they came from, do you have any insight into who is behind them? Or do you think Ailes is, as some have speculated?
The Dilenschneider Group is Roger Ailes' personal PR consultant as I report in the book. So, the fact that they placed the ad is a very interesting coincidence. I don't have reporting that Ailes personally asked Dilenschneider to place them, but I think it's in keeping with Ailes' effort throughout the entire three years that I've been working on this book to create a counter-narrative. And that ties into the Chafets book itself. That ties into how his surrogates attacked me on Twitter, people from Karl Rove to Sean Hannity to Andrea Tantaros, the relentless crusade against me on Breitbart, which wrote more than 9,000 words about me, attacking me as some far-leftist, which is completely not supported by my journalism. And so these ads, whether or not Ailes paid for them or not are part of this effort to create essentially a political campaign designed to distract people from my book. It's a political campaign and so at the end of the day it doesn't matter whether Ailes personally paid for them or not, or if his friends paid for them, they fit into this pattern of trying to distract people from my journalism.
It's seems like on Fox, though, they've gone silent on the book as it's been rolling out. Do you think that's true, or is it a surprise?
I haven't seen any direct mentions of the book on the network, or even any of the hosts on Twitter. And I think that's interesting how Ailes is perhaps thinking about his strategy. My book is rigorously endnoted. I interviewed more than six hundred people. It's very nuanced and as you said a sympathetic account, so if he attacks me, the book - readers are now reading the book and they're going to see it's not in any way reflective of the distorted picture that all of these right-wing attacks have sort of presented it as. They attacked me before the book came out, but now that the book is here, readers can judge for themselves.
Does the book give more of a positive view of Ailes, certain elements or sympathetic views than maybe he expected, or you expected?
If you buy the Breitbart and right-wing attacks that I was being paid by George Soros to destroy Roger Ailes, anything has to be more sympathetic than that because that's completely absurd. I had one source say that inside Fox the word was that I was literally being paid by George Soros to write this book and I've never met Mr. Soros to my knowledge, so this idea that it's a conspiracy - I'm a reporter so if that's your starting point for what the book would be, the actual book has to be more sympathetic. And of course it is because the book shows the full side of Roger, it shows the intense loyalty that his staffers feel. I mean Shepard Smith, who's not a right-winger, he's a newsman, has described Ailes as something like a second father figure to him. So I show all sides of it and that's really what is new about this book, is that the readers can finally see what Ailes has built and how he's changed the country and draw their own conclusions.
What was the biggest surprise you found in your research, either of him or his past?
Two things: The self-mythologizing. How unreliable of a narrator Roger Ailes is. I read -- made an effort to read almost every interview -- every major interview that Ailes has given in his more than four decades in public life, thousands of pages of interviews and transcripts and newspaper accounts. And when I was doing all of this reporting and talking to all of these people I just thought so many contradictions between the way Ailes would describe an event and the way either a memo or document would or other sources would. And so that showed me that Ailes was spinning his own narrative that wasn't supported by the historical record. So, that was just such a revelation to me that not only is Ailes a master mythmaker for his own political candidates and the news he programs on Fox, he applies that to his own life.
And what does that say maybe about how he applies it to Fox News?
Well I think it tells you a lot, the man who created this institution, is one of the great American hucksters.
What do you think is the biggest misconception of Ailes? That people think is true?
I think people get often times very hung up on the politics and they let that blind themselves to how visionary he is, and how he should be regarded as an American icon. And yet you can have a debate about his politics, but this amazing sales job that he did, the idea that Fox has a seat, a prime seat in the White House briefing room, that they are treated like a mainstream American news organization and it's run by this man who has created an institution with the DNA of a political organization -- that's an amazing story. This is the biggest media story in the last 50 years, that this man created a political operation that employs journalists. And so I think people need to see how brilliant and talented somebody has to be to pull that off, to pull off that sales job on the American people is -- what a visionary he is to have done that. So that's - in this way I'm in awe of his power and how he's been able to achieve that.
What is the future for him and for Fox News? Keep going higher and higher or are they hitting the end of the road in terms of growth, or success?
Two answers to that question, I think financially the future is bright. The network makes a billion dollars of profit, the distribution is secure -- the cable audience is aging, but that's going to take a long time to decline. Politically, the future doesn't look so bright because if you -- going back to 2012 we saw that Fox -- Ailes successfully programmed his network to get his base fired up, but it effectively tarnished the brand of his party. So you know he's reached the limits of his ability to divide and conquer audiences through wedge issues and sort of the extreme voices that he gives airtime to on Fox.