Fox News' greatest failure: Roger Ailes, Chris Christie and the quest for a Republican president

Fox honcho Roger Ailes started 2012 dreaming of a Christie presidency. By the end, his dreams had become nightmares

Published January 15, 2014 4:45PM (EST)

Roger Ailes, Chris Christie                   (Reuters/Fred Prouser/AP/Rich Schultz)
Roger Ailes, Chris Christie (Reuters/Fred Prouser/AP/Rich Schultz)

Excerpted from "The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News -- and Divided a Country"

By the time of Glenn Beck’s departure from Fox News in 2011, Roger Ailes had been spending considerable energy discussing the consequences of an Obama reelection. For the past two and a half years, he had committed himself to blocking the Obama agenda. When the Affordable Care Act passed the previous March, “he went apeshit,” a senior producer said. Ailes instructed his producers to book former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey, a conservative health care advocate who popularized the notion of “death panels.” “He said she was the best person to talk about this,” the senior producer recalled. “He even gave her a prop: a giant stack of papers of the law itself.”

And so Ailes set out to recruit a viable Republican candidate. In the summer of 2010, he invited Chris Christie to dinner at his home in Garrison with Rush Limbaugh. Like much of the GOP establishment, Ailes fell hard for the New Jersey governor. They talked about pension reform and getting tough with the unions. Ailes saw in Christie a great candidate: an ordinary guy, someone you’d be comfortable talking to over your back fence. But Ailes may have seen something else. Christie had Fox News television values with a ready-made reel. And, of course, Obama versus Christie was a producer’s dream: black versus white, thin versus fat, professor versus prosecutor. Maybe, just maybe, Ailes could laugh all the way to the White House and the bank. Nevertheless, Christie politely turned down Ailes’s calls to run. Christie joked at dinner that his weight was an issue. “I still like to go to Burger King,” he told the three rotund conservatives.

In April 2011, Ailes sent Fox News contributor Kathleen T. McFarland to Kabul to make a pitch to then-General David Petraeus. “He adored Petraeus,” a senior producer said. “When put the ‘General Betray Us’ ad in the newspapers in 2007, Roger said it was treasonous and we reported it as such.” Ailes had already told Petraeus that if he ran for president, he would quit Fox News to run the campaign. War hero presidents were especially impressive to Ailes. It was why he spoke almost daily to George H. W. Bush. “The big boss is bankrolling it,” McFarland told Petraeus, referring to Murdoch. “Roger’s going to run it. And the rest of us are going to be your in-house.” But Petraeus also turned Ailes down. “It’s never going to happen,” he told McFarland. “My wife would divorce me.”

Around this time, Ailes set up a meeting with David and Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialists who were financing a phalanx of rightwing groups to defeat Obama. Ailes had never met the brothers, and both sides expressed that it would be a good moment to sit down. Charles Koch flew to New York for the meeting. But Ailes, for unclear reasons, canceled. “Charles was miffed,” one conservative familiar with the meeting explained. Perhaps Ailes recognized that if details of the gathering leaked it would further cement his image as a conservative kingmaker, a fact he was working overtime to dispel. “Listen, the premise that I want to elect the next president is just bullshit,” Ailes told a reporter. “The idea that I’m grooming these Republicans is just wrong.” Though the meeting was called off, Ailes’s interests were aligned with those of the Kochs. In the winter of 2011, Ailes had called Chris Christie, the Kochs’ preferred candidate, and implored him for a second time to run. Christie turned him down again.

The first Fox primary debate proceeded on May 5, 2011, in Greenville, South Carolina, without an A-list candidate. The aspirants on the stage were a bunch of also-rans: pizza mogul Herman Cain; former governors Gary Johnson and Tim Pawlenty; former senator Rick Santorum; and Congressman Ron Paul. Ailes’s Washington managing editor, Bill Sammon, had assured Fox executives that bigger names would show up, but Sammon proved to be misinformed. The debate confirmed what a mess the field was—a mess partly created by the loudmouths Ailes had given airtime to and a Tea Party he had nurtured.

Meanwhile, Ailes had his hands all over the campaign in his backyard. It was also a mess. Democratic town supervisor Richard Shea was up for reelection in November 2011. Ailes wanted him out. “I still owe you one for that article,” he told Shea, referring to his comments in The New York Times. Since the volatile town hall meeting on zoning, their relationship had settled into a stalemate. But a few months before the election, Ailes asked Shea to meet him at the PCN&R office on Main Street. “What you should do is hire an opponent to run against you and then you win,” Ailes said. Shea later told others he wondered if Ailes was secretly taping him to set him up.

The campaign season was unlike any the community had seen. The Ailes-backed conservative candidate, Lee Erickson, who owned a well-drilling business in town, sent out nearly a dozen high-gloss mailers to voters and conducted telephone push polls against Shea. Then, in October, Erickson refused to attend a debate that Gordon Stewart and were organizing at the Haldane School. Stewart even promised to publish the website’s questions in advance, but Erickson was unswayed.

On the day of the PCN&R debate, Ailes engaged in a bit of psychological warfare. The latest issue of Newsmax magazine had a cover story about Ailes, calling him “The Most Powerful Man in News.” That day, several local politicians, including Shea, received hand-delivered copies of the issue, with candy-colored tabs affixed to the pages of the glowing profile. “Using his instincts about on-air talent and the assault on American values, Roger Ailes has set the new agenda for TV journalism. But he’s decidedly not the kind of media mogul described by his liberal critics,” the article read. The text seemed tailor-made to rebut a series of articles about Ailes that had recently appeared in national magazines. Ailes had included personal notes with the magazine, at least one of which read, “Be careful what you say about my wife.” That night at the Haldane cafeteria, Shea was overheard asking Ailes about the Newsmax story and his note: “What’s up with that?”

“Oh, I sent that out to everyone,” Roger said, and smirked.

After Beth gave opening remarks to the crowd of 150, Joe Lindsley’s replacement, Doug Cunningham, moderated. Over the course of the debate, Erickson hurled Ailesian putdowns. He called Shea “King Richard” and criticized his “disappointing level of arrogance.” Erickson, who had cofounded the property rights group Citizens of Philipstown, mainly went after Shea’s zoning legislation. Shea remained unflappable. “One of the things I’m most proud of is the zoning,” he said. Instead, Shea accused Erickson of distorting his positions. He said his opponent “went up and down [Route] 9 spreading a campaign of disinformation to business owners, riling people up.”

The consensus in town was that Shea dominated Erickson that night. On Election Day, after an Erickson supporter went up and down Main Street in colonial garb stumping for his candidate, Shea won decisively by 518 votes, or 58.8 percent of the vote to 41.2 percent for Erickson. It should have been an augur of things to come. The PCN&R succeeded in monopolizing access to Philipstown Republicans, but failed to get Erickson into office. The same dynamic was about to play out on the national stage.

Republicans referred to the 2012 campaign as the “Fox News Primary.” “It’s like a town hall every day on Fox News,” Kansas governor Sam Brownback told The New York Times not long before the Iowa caucuses. “I like Fox, and I’m glad we have an outlet, but it is having a major, major effect on what happens.” For both the candidates and Ailes, the Fox Primary was a ratings boon but a branding challenge. In the last eight months of 2011, GOP presidential candidates made more than six hundred appearances on Fox News and Fox Business while largely ignoring non-Fox media. (“I’m sorry, we’re only going to be doing Fox,” Gingrich’s spokesperson, R. C. Hammond, told a CNN producer on the eve of the Iowa caucuses in Des Moines.) Their face time on Fox during this period totaled seventy-seven hours and twenty-four minutes. But as Fox’s pundits and anchors pushed the candidates into the conspiracy swamps of Fast and Furious, the gun-running debacle, and Solyndra, the bankrupt solar panel company, Fox risked alienating independent viewers—and voters.

It was a case of Ailes being unable to put his party’s goal of winning independents ahead of his personal views. “He doesn’t like green energy— period,” a senior producer said. “He says all the time that no one in America has died from nuclear power, but fifteen people have been chopped up by those damn windmills.” For Ailes, Fast and Furious was a passionate cause. “He wants indictments. He thinks [Attorney General Eric] Holder should resign and go to jail for the death of a federal agent. He won’t be happy until he gets it,” the producer said.

Branding issues aside, the Fox Primary was a cunning programming ploy. It gave Ailes’s audience a new reality TV show with a revolving cast of characters to follow. In May 2011, Mike Huckabee ginned up interest in his weekly Fox show by promising to reveal his presidential ambitions live. “Governor Huckabee will announce tomorrow night on his program whether or not he intends to explore a presidential bid,” his producer, Woody Fraser, teased in a press release. “He has not told anyone at Fox News Channel his decision.” On the night of May 14, when Huckabee announced he was not running, ratings soared to 2.2 million.

But when the action took place off his set, Ailes, like any director, went wild. In October, Sarah Palin made the mistake of breaking the news that she would not be running for president on Mark Levin’s talk radio show. “I paid her for two years to make this announcement on my network,” Ailes told Bill Shine in a meeting. Fox was left with sloppy seconds: a follow-up interview with Palin on Greta Van Susteren’s 10:00 p.m. show, after news of Palin’s decision had been drowned out by Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs’s death. Ailes was so furious that he considered pulling Palin off Fox entirely until her $1 million annual contract expired in 2013. Shine told Palin’s agent, Bob Barnett, that Palin was at risk of being “benched.” After conferring with Palin, Barnett called Shine back and told him that Palin recognized the misstep. But tensions between Palin and Fox did not subside.

Ailes questioned the spine of the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. In a private conversation with Bill Kristol, Ailes said, “Romney’s gotta rip Obama’s face off. It’s really hard to do. I did this with Bush Sr. He was uncomfortable with ripping Dukakis’s face off. George had to tell Barbara, ‘Look, this is Roger’s thing.’ It made Barbara uncomfortable that George was going so negative, but I had to rip off Dukakis’s face.”

Romney’s shaky interview with Bret Baier on the afternoon of November 29 proved Ailes’s point. For days, Romney had been declining invitations to appear with a roundtable of “All-Star” pundits. Romney’s campaign did not think it would look “presidential” for the candidate to be surrounded by Fox News commentators lobbing questions at him. Finally, they reached a compromise. Bret Baier would interview Romney at a Conchita Foods warehouse in Miami, where the candidate was on the trail. But just because Baier agreed to travel to Florida did not mean he was going to go soft. After rattling off a list of Romney’s flip-flops on climate change, gay marriage, abortion, and immigration, Baier confronted Romney about his position on universal health care. “Do you believe that that was the right thing for Massachusetts?”

“Bret, I don’t know how many hundred times I’ve said this—” Romney stammered. “This is an unusual interview.” The back-and-forth continued for several excruciating minutes.

When the cameras cut out, Romney complained to Baier about the exchange. Not coming prepared had been Romney’s first mistake. Insulting Baier was his second. The following night, Baier appeared on The O’Reilly Factor and reported Romney’s off-camera tantrum.

At times, it seemed that Ailes was using Fox to manufacture moments of excitement around alternative candidates. After receiving just 9.4 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, Newt Gingrich bounced back in South Carolina. His springboard was a fiery on-air exchange with Fox analyst Juan Williams at a debate in Myrtle Beach held on Martin Luther King Day. Williams, who is black, asked Gingrich about his campaign trail comments that inner city children lacked a “work ethic” and should work as “janitors” in schools. Weren’t these remarks “insulting to all Americans but particularly to black Americans”? “No,” Gingrich shot back. His answer was greeted with rapturous applause. “Only the elites despise earning money,” he said. Gingrich carried the state’s primary five days later.

Some in Romney’s camp blamed the outcome on Ailes. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s media strategist, later told Romney’s advisers that he thought Ailes put a black newsman onstage as a way of symbolically putting Obama in a room filled mainly with white conservatives. Gingrich’s defiant retort, red meat in the cradle of Dixie, was a symbolic smackdown of the president.

In one editorial meeting, Fox News executive Suzanne Scott wondered aloud if Ailes was damaging the party by stoking on-air death matches. “You can create a Reagan through an intra-party fight,” Ailes responded. “If there’s a fight, we should be the one doing the shooting.”

By any measure, 2012 was shaping up to be a phenomenal year for Ailes: Fox News was on track to make $1 billion in profit, the network was in the driver’s seat during the fractious Republican primary, and it still was crushing its cable news rivals. And yet, to some who knew him, Ailes seemed to be consumed by increasingly paranoid and morbid thoughts.

“Listen, one out of every twenty-five people in America is a psychopath,” he told his executives. Petty grievances and past battles triggered outsized responses.

In the fall of 2011, Ailes found himself in a row with Google after the company co-sponsored a GOP debate with Fox at the Orlando Convention Center in Florida. Michael Clemente had worked hard to develop the relationship with the Internet search giant, but the relationship did not last long. Ailes was furious that the third hit in search results for his name was a liberal blog called (“Not affiliated with the fat FOX fuck,” the blog informed readers at the top of its homepage). Ailes told Fox executives that he wanted Google to push the blog’s ranking down. Google told Fox that they did not intervene in such matters. Afterward, Fox canceled the partnership and did not co-host future debates with Google.

Ailes spoke frequently about death. “I’d give anything for another ten years,” Ailes would say. Having a child amplified these sentiments. “I don’t want the kid growin’ up in a fouled-up world,” he told a reporter. “He has common feelings of a parent who wants to protect a son,” a close colleague said. “The thing is, most parents don’t run a television network.” To prepare Zachary for his absence, he gave him an accelerated education. When Zachary was twelve, Roger set up a summer internship for him at the Manhattan-based PR firm the Dilenschneider Group, whose founder, Robert Dilenschneider, was Ailes’s personal PR consultant. Each morning, Zachary would put on a coat and tie and get driven in Roger’s News Corp SUV to the office. Around this time, Roger told a journalist that he set aside boxes filled with keepsakes. Besides family photographs and letters, the contents included a pocket-size copy of the Constitution (“The founders believed it and so should you,” he wrote on it), press clippings lionizing his accomplishments, some gold coins (“in case everything goes to hell”), and Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War," with a note inscribed on the opening page:

Avoid war if at all possible but never give up your freedom—or your honor. Always stand for what is right.

If absolutely FORCED to fight, then fight with courage and win. Don’t try to win . . . win!


But there was more on his mind than his own mortality. He sometimes feared the worst for Zachary. In February 2012, Gordon Stewart received an unexpected, hysterical call from Ailes.

“You’re putting a target on my son’s back!” he screamed. “You’ll be responsible if something happens!”

Stewart, who had to hold the phone away from his ear, asked Ailes what on earth he was talking about.

That week, published a brief item about recent hearings of the local planning board. The final paragraph reported that Ailes and his neighbor were seeking approval to adjust the line between their properties, which were owned by “Hudson Valley 2009, formed by Roger Ailes; Viewsave LLC; and Gerald Morris.”

“I’ll sue you!” Ailes yelled into the phone.

The article, he said, put Zachary in danger because it disclosed the existence of a trust. He began fulminating about unrelated disputes, including the old charge that Stewart encouraged his employees to quit without giving notice. “You must know I did no such thing,” Stewart said.

“You’re a liar!”

“Roger, since you called and I said hello, you have insulted my integrity, called me a liar to my face, have threatened me with a lawsuit, accused me of potentially being an accomplice to the murder of your son,” Stewart said. “Can you explain to me how you can expect that approach will advance the purpose of your calling?”

Ailes paused. “You need to get help!” he blurted out and hung up.

An hour later, Ailes called back. This time, he calmly asked Stewart to take down the article from the website. Stewart told him he would get back to him. After discussing his concerns with his editor, Kevin Foley, and the reporter on the story, Stewart called Ailes and informed him that he would not be removing it.

“You don’t know how people are out to get me! I asked you for a favor and you’re turning me down.”

“First of all,” Stewart said, “there’s no mention of your son. There’s nothing in this article that would jeopardize you and your family. You’re asking me to remove what happened at a public meeting, and I can’t do that.”

Ailes repeated his claim that Stewart needed mental help. The conversation ended there. At home that night, Stewart’s cell phone rang. It was Ailes calling for the third time that day. Stewart didn’t pick up.

Later that month, Ailes’s old nemesis David Brock coauthored a new book, "The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine," which synthesized the most damaging research that Media Matters had published over the past decade on its website. “He was obsessed with Brock’s book,” one Fox contributor recalled. In one meeting, Ailes said he couldn’t “do anything” until it was published. Highlighting leaked emails from Fox executives, which expressed overt right-wing bias, and detailing wild on-air claims about Obama’s religion, background, and policies, the text provided Fox’s detractors with rounds of ammunition to deploy in their battle to define Ailes as a master propagandist. In retaliation, Fox aired segments claiming Brock was mentally unstable.

Google, Media Matters, and were new media antagonists. Ailes’s threats did not have the same effect on them that they did on legacy media outlets. This was especially the case with Gawker. On April 10, the gossip website introduced a new series. “What follows is the inaugural column of a person we are calling The Fox Mole—a long-standing, current employee of Fox News Channel who will be providing Gawker with regular dispatches from inside the organization,” the editors wrote. The columns brought about a minor media convulsion, but the show had a short run. Within twenty-four hours, Fox executives successfully identified the Mole as Joe Muto, a thirty-year-old associate producer who’d worked at the network for eight years, and fired him.

When Muto quickly landed a low-six-figure book deal in early May to write about his exploits, Ailes decided to send a message. Jimmy Gildea, Ailes’s security guard, told the boss he could press charges. “If this Gawker paid for stolen goods, it could be part of the crime, same as if somebody hires a hit man,” the former cop said. Brian Lewis wanted Ailes to let it go, but was overruled. “I told them,” Lewis said, “but I was told that legal would be handling this from here forward. I’m like, Okay.”

At 6:30 in the morning on April 25, officers from the New York district attorney’s office arrived at Muto’s apartment with a warrant charging him with grand larceny and conspiracy, among other charges. They seized his iPhone, laptop, and old notebooks. A year later, a month before his book was published, Muto appeared in handcuffs at the Manhattan Criminal Court, where he pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanor charges: attempted unlawful duplication and criminal possession of computer-related material. The judge fined Muto $1,000, ordered him to forfeit a $5,000 fee he earned from Gawker for reporting on Fox, confiscated his Mac, and ordered him to do ten days of community service and two hundred hours of private service.

In the closing weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign, Ailes’s worldview radiated from his daily editorial meetings onto the screen. “He likes to raise questions in chyrons,” a senior producer said, referring to the graphics and the text that appear at the bottom of the screen. “Is Obama a socialist? He tells producers that such an approach is better than simply saying Obama is a socialist.” Ailes’s anchors and pundits breathlessly inflated a panoply of administration blunders into full-blown conspiracies. While Fox reporters did some enterprising coverage of the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, the journalism was undermined by one host claiming it was “the biggest news story since Watergate.” A few days before the election, the mother of Sean Patrick Smith, a State Department employee killed in Benghazi, said that Fox’s reports had caused her to believe that “Obama murdered my son.” Fox hyped the influence of fringe groups like the New Black Panther Party and pushed fears of stolen elections. “ELECTION OFFICIALS IN BATTLEGROUND STATE OF OHIO FEAR WIDESPREAD VOTER FRAUD,” one on-screen banner read.

Ailes’s executives flattered him with suggestions that he go on camera and deliver the attack lines himself or even run for president. (Michael Clemente had “Ailes 2012” bumper stickers printed and distributed around the second floor.) At some moments, Ailes demurred. “Those days are gone,” he told his team. At other moments, he indulged them. That summer, he told his inner circle at the afternoon strategy meeting that he wanted to host a talk show. His PR deputy, Irena Briganti, who was sitting in the room, advised him against it. “The media will go after you,” she warned.

So when Ailes wanted to get his message out, he often turned to his lawyer, Peter Johnson Jr., who took to Fox & Friends to spread it. In private, Johnson spoke of Ailes like a father. Johnson told a Fox colleague Ailes thought of him as a son. Owing to his special status, Johnson was allowed to use the teleprompter to read from scripts, a perk that was normally reserved for Fox hosts. “He can load a script directly into the teleprompter. So it’s not even Ailes unplugged. It’s Ailes plugged in,” one person familiar with the matter said. Johnson served up frightening scenarios filled with Muslim extremists and Occupy Wall Street anarchists and overreaching government bureaucrats, lacing his commentary with Nixonian bogeymen. On the day before Obama and Romney squared off in their final debate on foreign policy, Johnson discussed the situation in Benghazi. He speculated about whether Obama had known about the attack early enough to have ordered military action to save the Americans who were killed. “If he did nothing, then that is the shame of America,” Johnson said. “I have no evidence for this,” he mused, but “were these people expendable as part of a Mideast foreign policy?”

On the afternoon of November 6—Election Day—Ailes had lunch with Karl Rove, who still believed in a Romney win. Few Fox pundits had stumped as hard as Rove had for the candidate. Rove’s Super PAC, American Crossroads, and its affiliate, Crossroads GPS, had vowed to spend up to $300 million to back conservatives in the 2012 political campaigns. “Hell, maybe Karl’s right,” Ailes said later that day.

At 5:00 p.m., Ailes assembled his network’s election team in the second-floor conference room to discuss the night’s coverage. “Guys,” he told them, “no matter how it goes, don’t go out there looking like someone ran over your dog.” But as Fox’s exit poll team presented the numbers, Ailes came undone. “They weren’t good for Romney,” a person in the room said. “Roger started arguing about how the sample skewed toward liberals.” Ailes said, “Liberals like to share their feelings, and conservatives work, so they don’t vote until later.” Arnon Mishkin, the head of Fox’s decision desk team, told Ailes that the data accounted for a sample skew. It appeared that Romney was going to be trounced. Worse, so-called late deciders were breaking for Obama.

“Thank you, Chris Christie,” Ailes grumbled. He was still furious that Christie had given Obama a bipartisan photo op on the New Jersey coastline after Hurricane Sandy.

“Actually, that’s not true,” Mishkin said. “We asked people that. There’s no data in the polling to suggest that Sandy hurt Romney.”

“Well, hugging the guy couldn’t help people feel good about Romney either,” Ailes countered.

Data was no substitute for what his gut told him. “Everyone left that room with the knowledge that Roger didn’t believe the polls,” a participant said. His opinion would be channeled on-air later that night, with embarrassing consequences.

About an hour later, Ailes settled into a plush chair in the Fox Sports Suite. A couple hundred people, including Rupert Murdoch, mingled in the room snacking on sushi and lamb kabobs. One Fox executive recalled he made sure to avoid eating the raw fish in front of Ailes. “Sushi is liberal food,” he explained. The election coverage played out on eight flat-screen televisions mounted on the wall. Around 8:00, Beth arrived. The PCN&R was going to press that night. She sat beside Ailes reviewing the week’s edition on her iPad. Shortly before 11:00, with Romney’s chances fading, Roger and Beth called it a night. “I want to kiss Zac good night before he goes to sleep,” Ailes told a journalist, trying to put the best spin on the outcome. “If Romney wins, it’s good for the taxpayers. If Obama wins, it’s great for our ratings.”

Downstairs, Arnon Mishkin and Fox’s number crunchers were preparing to call Ohio for Obama. “Let’s remember this is Fox News calling Ohio. This will say something beyond Ohio going for Obama,” Mishkin told Fox brass. Fox executives told Mishkin to get the numbers right and ignore the politics: “If we think Ohio has gone Obama, we call Ohio,” said a Fox News executive.

Bret Baier announced the call on set. “That’s the presidency, essentially,” he said. Instantly, Fox phones lit up with angry phone calls and emails from the Romney campaign, who believed that the call was premature. After Baier’s Ohio call, Rove took their complaints public, echoing Ailes’s earlier comments, and conducting an on-air primer on Ohio’s electoral math to dispute the outcome. With the network divided against itself, senior producers held a meeting to adjudicate. The decision desk stood their ground. They knew how momentous the call was. In the end, producers had to find a way to split the difference. Megyn Kelly walked through the newsroom to interview the decision desk. “This is Fox News,” a person in the room said, “so anytime there’s a chance to show off Megyn Kelly’s legs they’ll go for it.”

By midnight, Rove reluctantly seemed to concede. The moment became a symbol of the denialism that had taken hold on the right in the closing days of the election. On air, Dick Morris had predicted a Romney landslide, putting Romney’s odds of winning at 90 percent. In private, some Fox staffers thought the network’s boosterism had become a joke. At a rehearsal on the Saturday before the election, Megyn Kelly chuckled when she relayed to colleagues what someone had told her: “I really like Dick Morris. He’s always wrong, but he makes me feel good.”

Only half of Roger Ailes’s grand plan had come to pass. While Fox’s ratings were still unchallenged, the channel had failed to elect the next president—the circus on Fox had complicated the effort as well as assisted it. By giving airtime to the most outlandish voices on the right, Fox had helped distort the debate over the country’s future, making it easier for voters to dismiss Republican arguments. Ailes’s personal political impulses—to enlist Chris Christie, or David Petraeus—were at odds with the vivid political comedy Fox often programmed. It turned out that television and politics were different disciplines. In pursuit of ratings, Fox had sharpened national divisions—and the division had favored the Democrats. Since the Nixon administration and TVN, the right had dreamed of a television channel that could make its case with the American public, to balance the debate. “You’re a hero to our people,” one prominent conservative told Ailes at a gala at the Kennedy Center. But in 2012, by this measure, Fox had been a failure.

After Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, Mark Rozell, the acting dean of the George Mason University School of Public Policy, and Paul Goldman, a former chairman of Virginia’s Democratic Party, wrote an essay noting the inverse relationship between the rise of conservative media and the Republican Party’s ability to win national majorities. “When the mainstream media reigned supreme, between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out of the ten presidential elections,” they reported. “Conservative talk show hosts and Fox News blame the ‘lamestream’ national media’s ‘liberal bias’ for the GOP’s poor showing since 1992. Yet the rise of the conservative-dominated media defines the era when the fortunes of GOP presidential hopefuls dropped to the worst levels since the party’s founding in 1856.” Perhaps the freak show had become too freakish.

Excerpted from "The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News -- and Divided a Country," by Gabriel Sherman. Copyright © 2014 by Gabriel Sherman. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.

By Gabriel Sherman

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