The "Dark Genius" of Fox News

Biographer Kerwin Swint explains how news honcho Roger Ailes has pushed the country to the right for the past four decades.

Published June 17, 2008 10:52AM (EDT)

When Richard Nixon ran for the presidency in 1968, eight years after his pasty, glowering visage in four televised debates with John Kennedy had, arguably, cost him the White House, he knew he needed a makeover. He hired a young producer from "The Mike Douglas Show" to repackage him for mass consumption. Roger Ailes sold Nixon to the American public, and became a sought-after Republican political consultant. Between 1968 and 1989, he advised everybody from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to Rudy Giuliani. Americans know Ailes best, however, as the founding father and guiding hand of the "fair and balanced" Fox News network, the favorite cable news source of conservatives and the bête noir of liberals.

In "Dark Genius: The Influential Career of Legendary Political Operative and Fox News Founder Roger Ailes," Kerwin Swint details Ailes' role in the 40-year ascent of conservatism, and in the development of a new kind of "news." Salon spoke to Swint recently by phone.

Why a book about Roger Ailes?

I couldn't believe that no one had written a book on him yet. He's been such a central figure for so long. And you see biographies and analyses of other figures in media and politics but not on him. So I said, it was past time to look at his career. I just thought he'd make a great character study.

One of your central arguments about Ailes is that "he is not so much a newsman as he is a showman." But couldn't you also say "he is not so much a newsman as he is a politician."

I don't mean to underestimate his political abilities. What I really meant to say in the book was that he is really a communications expert and one of the foremost people who know how to use television, whether it's for a political candidate like Nixon or Bush, or for a TV news program. I do think that he's been very political for the last four decades beginning with Nixon. This is a guy who has been at the center, really, of this huge effort to push the country to the right wing for 40 years. He says he's not, he makes all these claims that he's objective, but when you look at the record, there's just no way.

By now it's not exactly controversial to charge that there is a slant to the Fox network's news coverage. And the numbers show that Fox's viewership skews heavily Republican. In 2004, for example, Fox viewers voted for Bush over Kerry by something like 88 to 7 percent. What if Rupert Murdoch and Ailes just dropped the "fair and balanced" motto? Why not come out and proclaim overt allegiance to the GOP?

They're really good at marketing for one thing. Ailes and Murdoch have been marketing geniuses at identifying a niche for a product. That's what Murdoch does, that's his specialty. He looks for niches, a way to fill those product needs, and that's what Fox News does. They would be cutting off their nose if they admitted it wasn't what they had been saying it had been. And also, communications 101 is, "Say it loud and long and often and they'll believe it."

As you point out in the book, many people are unaware of what Roger Ailes was doing before he launched Fox News.

There was the political consulting work for Republican candidates from Richard Nixon to George H.W. Bush. There was also a sort of early, failed forerunner to Fox News. From 1974 to 1975, Ailes worked for Television News Inc., a conservative television network funded by the Coors family. TVN produced conservative video content that it shopped around to stations and networks, and it was intended as a counter to the supposed liberal bias of the news media.

What did Ailes learn from the TVN experience?

To me, that's the smoking gun if you're looking for evidence that Fox News is as much a partisan political machine as a news organization. I think TVN is a great piece of evidence in that whole puzzle. And Joe Coors played the role of Rupert Murdoch in that. Basically, Ailes learned how to run a national news service. He learned how to get stories to deadline, he learned how journalists work the news, but most importantly, he learned from Coors and his associates, people like Jack Wilson, how to try and manipulate the news product. Because the Coors people, they wanted a conservative news service, they were frustrated they couldn't get that because it turned out the reporters they hired were too professional. Like Charlie Gibson got his start there. But they tried and they tried hard and I think that one thing that Ailes took away as a lesson was how to push your news staff in a certain direction.

There was TVN and then in 2003 and 2004, there were the Moody memos, in which Fox News V.P. John Moody instructed Fox News employees to frame the news in a way that was favorable to the Bush administration. How can Ailes deny charges that he's pressing a political agenda?

Well, he doesn't want to talk about TVN at all. He just avoids the whole subject. His attitude is, "Don't be ridiculous, of course we're objective." You'll see candidates do that. You'll see McCain or Clinton or a lot of candidates say, "Well, that's just ridiculous, I'm not even going to talk about that." Ailes really doesn't want to talk about TVN. You read that part about the interview with [CSPAN's] Brian Lamb [where Lamb questioned Ailes about his time at TVN], and Ailes kept trying to change the subject. That's very telling, I think.

Do you put any credence in the claims, which you bring up frequently in the book, that journalists are generally liberal and that Fox News is just a corrective to this tendency?

I do say that, by and large, many journalists do have Democratic tendencies personally, but I do not think that Fox News is helping to balance that out because those journalists, even though they may vote Democrat, are working for news organizations that, by and large, don't try and push an ideology into their news the way Fox News does. And that's the difference really. It's fine to be a liberal or a conservative, everybody is a human being. But Fox News and Rupert Murdoch, their organizations, implicitly, intentionally push an ideology.

How much does Ailes influence the ideological content on Fox News on a day-to-day basis?

I think he has a great deal of input. He and John Moody are ideologically two peas in a pod, I think, and they exert a great deal of influence, and I believe it starts with who they hire. I think they hire a little differently than NBC or the New York Times or the mainstream organizations.

Jessica Yellin, who is now a CNN correspondent, was at MSNBC during the run-up to the Iraq war. She said recently that she felt pressure from senior producers at MSNBC to report favorably on the war. As Salon's Glenn Greenwald wrote recently, Yellin is not alone in this admission. Numerous journalists, including Katie Couric and Phil Donahue, have stated they felt the same kind of pressure. Are Ailes' attempts to control content at Fox really that different from the methods being practiced elsewhere in the news industry?

I think they are different because they're systemic. They're at the root of who they hire, they're at the root of their whole philosophy. And I think that's different from what Jessica Yellin was talking about. I think what she is saying is that news personnel in general want to be careful that they're not seen as antiwar or anti-American. So they were trying to be gentle in how they criticized the war. And it turns out, too gentle. They soft-pedaled it too much.

You make the interesting assertion in the book that Ailes treated the political candidates he advised like they were television characters.

Absolutely. Yes, he does believe that political candidates can be trained just like TV personalities. I guess that was the most obvious with Nixon. They were just re-creating the guy's complete and total image to fit TV -- or fit TV around his strengths. There's a certain hypocrisy to it, there's a certain shallowness to it, a certain salesmanship involved. And you can say the same thing about George Herbert Walker Bush. He was not a good media performer, but working with Ailes, he got a lot better and learned how to talk better and use television. The common thread throughout all of Ailes' career is performance: from "The Mike Douglas Show"all the way to his corporate clients and political guys.

Clearly you have a great deal of respect for his abilities, especially in terms of how well he understands TV as a medium.

He's one of the first people to understand how to communicate on TV. I think he learned it early on. I do respect his abilities. First of all, he's a very smart guy; he's got a lot of talent and ability. And he is one of the people over the last several decades who has understood better than anybody what TV is about. And he's proven it in politics, he's proven it at Fox News. He knows how to get the best performance out of his people. And also, just the technical aspects. People who worked with him at CNBC were amazed that for somebody with no formal journalistic training or broadcast training, he knew every piece of equipment, he knew every angle to work out of at a TV studio. He just knows his stuff.

Does Ailes believe in the positions advanced on Fox News or is it something he does for the bottom line?

I think he does believe it. He makes a big deal out of saying, "You don't even know what my political views are," and you'll hear some people say that he's really a businessman, and I think there's some truth to that. But, he might not have started out in the 1960s as a conservative ideologue, but the people he has worked with, and the people he has come into close contact with, he's bought into it. He's well ensconced in the conservative movement and, in my opinion, a leader of the conservative movement. I think that he's more conservative than some people might be willing to admit and certainly more conservative than he's willing to admit.

Yet you suggest in the book that he's well liked by other people in his profession, and by people who might not necessarily agree with his politics.

People [think] he's just a damn nice guy. And a funny guy. Joe McGinniss is a friend of his; they've known each other a long time. [McGinniss is the author of the "The Selling of the President," a behind-the-scenes look at the packaging of candidate Richard Nixon in 1968 by a team including Ailes and Pat Buchanan.] McGinniss says, "I wish for almost 40 years, Roger would have put his brilliance in the service of humanity, not its oppressors." Roger is fun to be with, he's a sharp wit, he'll even joke about himself.

Despite your admiration for his skills, you state that Ailes has an incredibly pessimistic view of the general public. You write that "the biggest problem with Roger Ailes is that he takes us all for fools."

He's good at what he does, he knows that Fox News is not objective, he knows there's a political agenda there, and the thing is, much of Fox's audience knows it too, but they're willing participants. It's not necessarily that they're being fooled, it's that Fox News draws a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives who like the kind of news they provide. There's a willingness on the part of the audience as sort of cheerleaders. But I do think he takes in a lot of people too. There are a lot of people who tune in to Fox who are moderate or who have little information from other sources and they are taken in to a degree.

You devote a significant amount of space in the book to Ailes' involvement in George H.W. Bush's campaign versus Michael Dukakis in 1988 and specifically with the allegations that Ailes was behind the infamous Willie Horton ad campaign. What's your conclusion, after having researched and written this book, about the extent of Ailes' participation in the first ad that featured Willie Horton, the one that was paid for by a group that wasn't officially affiliated with the Bush campaign?

Interestingly, I got the general counsel of the FEC to say something on the record that he hasn't talked about in years. And that is, that he thinks that the investigation never really got off the ground. I'm careful in the chapter to point out that there's no evidence at all that Ailes conspired or that Ailes was involved at all. The evidence is not there. But there are people who believe that there must have been some kind of coordination going on.

According to your book, the way the ads were structured during the campaign was that in September 1988 a pro-Bush group called the National Security Political Action Committee began airing a Willie Horton ad that slammed Dukakis for his furlough program while he was governor of Massachusetts. In October, the Bush campaign, for which Ailes worked, rolled out its own ad that didn't mention Horton directly, but reinforced every claim in the independent Horton ad.

It's just too convenient. [Bush political strategist Lee] Atwater and Ailes, especially Atwater, had been talking about Willie Horton all winter and spring and then that summer, of course, these independent ads come out. It's just too convenient. And you've had other scholars, like Darrell West, who I quote in there, who have looked at it, and he thinks there was a coordinated plan there to have an official Bush ad campaign and then a non-official independent ad campaign. He's really saying, yeah, they probably planned it all, even though there's no evidence of that.

You think that Ailes' involvement in the Bush campaign is what led him to get out of the political consulting business.

After 1988, he had become too famous. Consultants normally are fine with working in the shadows, so to speak. And it was really the Willie Horton thing; after '88, people were so disgusted, and associated a lot of it with Roger Ailes, that they did see him coming and Democratic campaigns started planning to campaign against Roger Ailes. He became a big fat target for his clients and if you look at the record, I think that helped usher him out of politics.

With the campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain about to start up in earnest, how do you see Fox News and, more specifically, Ailes becoming involved in the election?

They're going to keep pushing their story line. E.D. Hill was looking at this fist-pump thing, and what is she saying, that there's some kind of secret handshake for anti-American activists? There's going to be stuff like that. At Fox News, they always draw out the story line a day or two longer than the other news organizations do. And the kind of questions that they put to issues like that are designed, it seems like, to poke holes in the Democratic side. And of course, when they wrap up the news on Brit Hume's show or whatever other show, the conservatives always outnumber the moderates. They're going to keep pushing their ideology.

But do you think that liberals in general have an unnecessarily intense obsession with Fox News and Ailes?

I don't think so. I think they have a legitimate issue and I think there's been a certain amount of frustration out there that liberals haven't been able to hold Ailes more accountable than they would like to, and hopefully this book will help people do that -- from the whole TVN thing and some of the other bits of evidence you can connect the dots with.

As you point out, Fox News ratings are declining. Do you think the network's, and Ailes', heyday has passed?

I don't think so. Their ratings are slightly down, but they're still winning in the key time slots. They're not crashing. They're not what they were a few years ago and I attribute that to their viewing public, which is primarily conservative.

I think Republicans in general, there's a depressed turnout. They're not turning out in as high of numbers. And that includes Fox News' audience. They're not tuning in in as high of numbers as they used to two or three years ago because of the problems that Bush is having and the Republicans are having.

So you still see Ailes and Fox News being as potent as they used to be?

Yeah, I think they could bounce back. I don't see them suffering greatly and I don't see Ailes leaving any time soon. I'd be surprised if that were true. I know there have been some rumors recently circulating around -- HarperCollins and all that -- but I'd be surprised. He is 68 years old, he won't be around forever. But I don't see him being pushed out.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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