Fox News has a "crumbling foundation": Roger Ailes' biographer talks to Salon

Violence, paranoia, bigotry and sexual harassment reign at "America's Newsroom," author Gabriel Sherman explains

Published January 21, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Gabriel Sherman, Roger Ailes      (New America Foundation/AP/Jim Cooper)
Gabriel Sherman, Roger Ailes (New America Foundation/AP/Jim Cooper)

Gabriel Sherman’s exhaustive, inflammatory biography of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, released days ago by Random House, has already prompted network pushback. “While we have not read the book,” a Fox News spokesperson told the New York Times, “the only reality here is that Gabe was not provided any direct access to Roger Ailes and the book was never fact-checked with Fox News." Sherman’s 538-page tome, "The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country," is the product of three years of work and hundreds of interviews. It paints Ailes as a transformative figure in American media and politics – and includes alleged episodes of violence, paranoia, bigotry and sexual harassment.

Sherman, a contributing editor at New York magazine, spoke with Salon Friday about Ailes’ power, his myth-making about his own biography, and Fox’s future. “He is presiding over an empire that has a crumbling foundation,” said Sherman. A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows.

You write that Ailes has been “essentially running the Republican Party …” Why Ailes and not, say, Mitch McConnell, or Jim DeMint, or Rush Limbaugh, or Rubert Murdoch?

I think Ailes has surpassed the Republican Party. Fox is driving the set of stories and the mission in a way that – it’s not that Ailes is doing it to help the Republican Party, Ailes has his own agenda. He is bigger than the Republican Party. He has a meeting, which I report on in the book, and he expresses disdain for the Republican Party -- he jokes at one point that the GOP couldn’t organize a one-car funeral. So you know, to your question, why Ailes and not somebody else, I think because there is just a legitimate power vacuum in Republican politics. I mean, the biggest power center on the right in American life right now is Fox News. It is the toll booth that Republican politicians have to go through to speak to Republican primary voters. And Ailes has created an empire that effectively controls the message on the right. That’s why I write about him being the closest thing we have right now in American politics to a party boss.

Let’s take three motives: Winning profit for Fox News, winning elections for Republicans, and winning ideological or policy victories for conservatism. How big a role do each of those play in the way Ailes has run Fox?

I think the way to look at it is that it’s a dance. There are these competing interests and motivations that govern how Ailes runs Fox News; they are all interrelated, and at any given point one of those motives will be higher up than another.

Without the profits and the ratings, Ailes cannot win an election and push his conservative agenda. So at a certain respect, the profits and the ratings are the primary agenda, because this is the engine that allows him to accomplish everything else.

But really since 2002, since Fox News passed CNN and never turned back as the No. 1 cable news network -- and now its ratings are double that of CNN and MSNBC combined, and it generates around a billion dollar profit for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire -- now that financial success is so assured ... Ailes can bank that. He knows that Fox is going to be an ATM machine for him and for Murdoch. So now, his agenda becomes more about advancing Republican fortunes at the polls.

And what my book shows is, most recently, his agenda has become pushing his own agenda. That’s how I see that Ailes has come to a remarkable point in his career, where his agenda -- the style of politics that he is pushing, and that his audience wants to hear on Fox -- is detrimental to the GOP.

That was the moment we saw Ailes’ agenda damaging Mitt Romney’s ability to win a national majority, by turning off moderate voices, from the center-right all the way to the left. Fox became this extreme circus-like brand of politics that Mitt Romney could never shake.

After recounting election night 2012, you suggest that “perhaps the freak show had become too freakish” for the GOP’s own good. How so?

I recount a confrontation that Karl Rove and Ailes had around the time of the 2010 midterm elections, when the Tea Party wave was washing over America, Sarah Palin was flirting with running for president, Fox was giving airtime to Tea Party candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Michelle Bachman and others.

And Rove goes to Ailes, and Rove is the consummate party insider … [he] went to Ailes and effectively said: You’re going to kill our party. You’re promoting people like Christine “I’m a witch” O’Donnell. You’re putting Palin out there. These are marginal fringe candidates that are never going to win an election.

And I think in that confrontation you can see how Ailes’ instinct and agenda, to promote both very entertaining candidates and very far-right candidates, damaged the party. And that’s what brought him into conflict with Rove.

You describe Ailes’ building what his brother called a “panic room,” underneath his house, suspecting people of being spies, and believing Michelle Obama was threatening his safety when she said she was surprised to see him at an event. Do those anecdotes reveal something about Fox News as well as Ailes?

I think they are directly related to the culture of Fox News. I set out to write a book about Fox News. And very early on in my reporting three years ago, I realized the story of Fox News is the story of Roger Ailes. The network is a total reflection of his worldview. The paranoia, the conspiracy, the humor, the charisma. You can’t write about Fox or Ailes without acknowledging that he has the timing and the range of a comic. I mean, he’s hilarious.

But all of those elements of his personality are part of what winds up on the screen on Fox. But also, most importantly, how the organization is run. The paranoia.

I mean, I can’t tell you how many people I spoke to said something along the lines of, If Ailes knew I was talking to you he would kill me, or my life would be ruined if it got out that Ailes knew I was helping you with your book.

And so I wanted to show [how] this conspiratorial world that Ailes has created for himself is also sort of a metaphor for the style of politics that has become so pervasive on the right -- this fear of outsiders and this paranoia that has been dominant, that the GOP since 2012 has been making a vocal effort to change. But I don’t think it will change as long as Fox News continues to be programmed by a man who has this worldview.

You mention “post-election tweaks” at Fox, and you end with the observation that “every show has its run.” Where is Fox News headed? 

I write at the end of the book with a bit of sadness for Roger Ailes; it’s the human story, and the incredible journey that he had through show business, politics and now television news. And Ailes is 73. He is trying to re-create an America that doesn’t exist anymore. And one could argue it never existed.

And I see both him and Fox -- you know, he is presiding over an empire that has a crumbling foundation. And it still is very much an empire, but the underpinnings holding it up are weakening.

And Ailes is clinging to power. So you can never predict when that end will come. But what has made Fox News powerful is speaking to a part of America that has continued to get older and older. And the time will come when that audience is no longer there to program to.

And what will happen then?

Well, it’s impossible to predict the future. But I think one thing is clear: Without Roger Ailes, Fox News cannot exist in its present form. The culture of the newsroom, of how the news is programmed, is so tied to his worldview -- and everything flows from his office -- that if you take him out of the picture, that machine loses its life force.

That’s not to say there can’t be a conservative news network. There is a very vibrant conservative media in this country. But the sort of fear and drama that Fox is does not exist without Ailes. And I think it's telling that he has not publicly discussed a successor. He kind of refuses to acknowledge who he would pick to take over, if and when he goes.

Your book recounts producer Randi Harrison saying that in a salary negotiation, Ailes offered her $100 extra a week “if you agree to have sex with me whenever I want.” A Fox spokesperson said they “have not read the book” but that “these charges are false.” Who’s telling the truth?

Well, the sourcing is very transparent in the book. There’s more than 100 pages of endnotes at the back. That anecdote is told from on-the-record sources. Randi Harrison told that anecdote to me in the course of several interviews. I corroborated her story with other sources. So at the end of the day, you know, I have a firsthand account of that episode. And I think it’s very important to note that it’s in the context of other women who have had encounters with Ailes of a sexual nature that they felt uncomfortable with. And those are also documented in the book with on-the-record sources. So I think the reader can evaluate for themselves what the truth is. And I’m very transparent with the sourcing.

Has anything surprised you about the way Fox News has handled the release of your book?

Well, I think it’s notable that the volume of hysteria that greeted the reporting of this book, the more than 9,000 words that Breitbart spilled distorting me and my journalism in the months that I was working on this book, the Twitter attacks by Fox personalities maligning me. I think it’s telling that once the book is out they went silent. And the degree to which Ailes and Fox can control the conservative media’s coverage of a story.

Now, let’s do a thought experiment for a second. If Breitbart News thought my book was a big story … and if Sean Hannity and Karl Rove and Andrea Tantaros and other Fox personalities thought that my working on this book was a big story, so much so that they would take to Twitter to comment on it, I think it is very telling that there has been very little response now that it’s out.

So that tells me they were covering my book not as a news story, but as a political campaign. It was a political campaign designed to impugn me and my journalism. To distort my journalism in an effort to close the eyes of their conservative audience. And now that the book is out, I’m so happy that readers can judge for themselves the book on its merits. That it’s a nuanced and measured look at Ailes’ power, and his dark side. And that is something that Roger Ailes has no power over.

While you were working on your book, Ailes was cooperating with a biography with a different tone, by Zev Chafets, that some people saw as a move to undermine your book. Have you read that one?

Of course, I read it … I read thousands of pages of secondary sources in the course of my reporting that are all listed in the bibliography …

And what was your reaction to it?

I thought it was a fascinating document that revealed Roger Ailes in ways that Roger Ailes did not perhaps intend …

There are episodes in Ailes’ life that he recounts, both in Chafets’ book and elsewhere, that are these wonderful stories, they’re old chestnuts, and he tells them all the time. He tells them in meetings with his Fox executives. He tells them in speeches. And they’re these stories that present Ailes as this kind of lucky kid from Ohio, who through luck and good fortune stumbled into politics -- he never really cared about politics, he was a TV guy, a showman, and just kind of lucked into this career. And the prime example of that is his encounter with Richard Nixon on the set of the Mike Douglas show in January of 1968.

And in Chafets’ telling -- and this is an account that Ailes has given to other journalists -- Ailes had met Nixon because he had booked a belly dancer called Little Egypt on the Mike Douglas show. And Ailes, being the savvy producer, wanted to spare Nixon an uncomfortable encounter with the belly dancer in the green room of the Mike Douglas show. So Ailes put Nixon in his private office, to give him a private place to wait while the show tapes. And that was the opportunity: When Ailes went into his office, he started making small talk with Nixon. He made the famous remark:

Nixon says, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like television to get elected.” And Ailes retorted, “Sir, if you think that way, you’re gonna lose again” …

So that’s a wonderful story. It shows Ailes as being a quick thinker. It shows him downplaying his ambition while he amassed power. So you know, I went out and I had rereported that anecdote long before Chafets’ book came out, because I was fascinated by that. It’s the Roger Ailes creation myth story.

And I interviewed the Mike Douglas producers, I consulted the show logs for the show, the documents, and it turns out there was no belly dancer that day. So there was no way that Nixon could’ve been having an awkward encounter with a dancer that Ailes was trying to avoid.

And what all of the sources that I spoke to told me is that Roger Ailes was intensely interested in Nixon. He wanted to be his media adviser. He had discussed becoming his media advisor with a colleague.

He had also discussed with another colleague his appreciation of the Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. And not for her ideology -- I want to make it clear that in no way am I saying that Ailes was taken with Nazi ideology. It was her skills as a filmmaker that he was enthralled with. He loved her use of camera angles and edits  to communicate a political message.

And so what my book does is show, actually, that there was a calculated effort. That Ailes had to meet Nixon, to talk his way onto the campaign. And I think it’s an amazing bit of stagecraft that he has pulled off in his career, to present himself as kind of up-from-his-bootstraps, unassuming person, when in fact there has kind of been a design and an agenda to his desire to enter the political arena.

And so that’s a case where Chafets’ book has that anecdote, and it reveals Ailes, but what it reveals about Ailes is that he’s willing to spin these myths and these yarns, these kind of invented stories about himself …

You portray Ailes as quick to see the potential of television and in some cases perhaps slow to adjust to the move to the Internet. Is that a trend that continues?

I see no indication that it changes. Ailes is very, very aware that his audience is an older audience that wants traditional television. They’re not putting a lot of content online. So I don’t see Fox innovating in a way that suggests that Ailes is looking to build, you know, a digital future beyond cable news. I mean, Fox has a phenomenally successful business model that he’s going to ride this out as long as he needs. I mean, Fox is an ATM machine so they’re not rushing into new media, because those business models are not as successful as the one he already has.

What does your reporting suggest about what CNN or MSNBC would need to do in order to compete with Fox?

They’re in a tough place. Because Ailes has carved out such a loyal audience, and is willing to do things … CNN is a news network. MSNBC has kind of morphed into a progressive sort of talk radio with pictures, it’s a different thing. But let’s just look at CNN: They have bureaus all over the world … They supply much of the global news for many other media … CNN is in the news business, the news gathering business …

The president of CNN U.S., he can’t do what Ailes does, which is effectively, Ailes has built a political organization that has journalists. I mean, Ailes starts every morning talking to his executives about … how to speak to conservatives, and appeal to their emotion. And, for example, he’ll say, “Obama hates capitalism” and you see his vision radiate throughout the channel. You see the chyron, the segments, repeated segments on Fox: Is Obama a socialist? Is Obama bringing socialism to America? You see those themes, those story lines develop.

And while every news network you know has narrative -- MSNBC right now is obsessed with Christie’s bridge scandal -- what Ailes can do, that CNN can’t, is that he programs a political message. And that he has journalists that go out and fill in the spaces with some reports, but it’s a political organization at its heart. And CNN is just a very different animal.

I think what [CNN’s] Jeff Zucker is trying to do is to apply more entertainment values to what CNN does, and when there’s not big, breaking news, maybe bring in eyeballs and viewers with compelling content like the "Blackfish" documentary that got a lot of attention. But they’re just different. You know, CNN and Fox News are fundamentally different, different things.

And so I think there are limits to how CNN could try to apply Ailes’ success to their own business. And I think it would be to their detriment. You know, in the past cable news executives have failed when they have tried to emulate Ailes. Because you can’t emulate Ailes. Because Ailes has built something that is a complete expression of his own worldview. I mean, he is the fuel. He is the flux capacitor of Fox News, and Jeff Zucker is not at CNN.

CNN is a complicated multiheaded beast. You know, it’s just very different.

And the efforts that Ailes made, that you report, to recruit Chris Christie or [David] Petraeus to run for president, what do those choices reveal about Ailes?

Well, I think that those choices are in keeping with his long career as a Republican operative. You know, Ailes politically is a committed conservative ideologue, hostile to government spending, hostile to environmental regulation, he’s hawkish on foreign policy -- you know, you go down the line, he’s very conservative. But his career has mainly been spent working through moderates. You know, his political hero is George H.W. Bush. At one point they were speaking many times a week …

Ailes has been able to be the bridge between the moderate, country club establishment wing of the party, and the populist blue-collar base out in the heartland. And Ailes has communicated their frustrations and their resentments, and been able to harness that kind of frustration onto an establishment GOP candidate. And I think it’s important that Ailes has monetized this unique ability to understand the frustrations of middle America not only in service of moderate GOP candidates … Ailes also has done this in service of large corporations …

Ailes crafted messages on behalf of Philip Morris and big tobacco in a campaign against raising tobacco taxes in California … He was running his own consulting firm, and his ads on behalf of Big Tobacco played upon fears of crime and cigarette smuggling, which you know were criticized … for their racial appeals: that if you raise taxes, you’re going to increase inner city crime and drug trafficking and gangs, because people are going to smuggle cigarettes. And that shows you how he was willing to take that message also to corporate America, and help lobby on behalf of corporate America by appealing to the resentments and the fears of sort of the white middle class that he understood so well.

Is there something you think has been missed in the coverage so far about what is in your book?

What I hope readers can experience now that the book is out is that this is a story. While it has revelations … fundamentally it is a story that has a beginning, and a middle, and an end. And at the center of that story is my protagonist, Roger Ailes …

“Mad Men” was so successful on television because it evoked the pre-culture war 1960s in New York City, and even if you weren’t interested in advertising, you wanted to see what happened to these characters. In that same way, I’ve really tried hard to create a world, with Roger Ailes at the center of it, where you have these characters who you care for …

It’s a human story and the characters are what are at the heart of it.

By Josh Eidelson

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