Regular readers of this space will appreciate that I'm certainly in the “Ailes camp” as far as anti-Left sentiment is concerned, so I was really hoping that Zev Chafets' Roger Ailes: Off Camera would be a sympathetic look at the phenom who invented Fox News. I had a concern, as right up front in the author's info is the flagship of Leftist misinformation, the New York Times, but fortunately, this book is about as straight-forward without spin as one might hope.
If one were looking for the broadest of the broad strokes for what this book is about, one could do worse than this snippet from the Preface:
While this is a biography (and so starts with a lot of family stories, school stories, etc.), it's also framed a bit with Chafets' search for the story. Key of the factors from Ailes' childhood is his hemophilia, a recurring issue in his youth, but something of a non-factor in the story here. More lingering was the damage done to his legs when hit by a car in second grade, and perhaps more developmentally important, was his father “throwing him out” once he graduated high school … he ended up going to Ohio University (“it was cheap, it had a reputation as a party school, and he could get in with less than stellar grades”), but found himself “homeless” soon after (“when he came home for Christmas break, he found his house sold and his belongings discarded” – his mother having run off with a guy she'd met at a convention).… Ailes is not another working-class stiff who got ahead through hard work and the power of positive thinking. For fifty years, he has navigated the waters of show business, national politics, and big-time media. He taught Dick Nixon new tricks, stepped in as Reagan's emergency debate coach when the Great Communicator needed help communicating, and held George H.W. Bush's hand all the way to the White House. He more or less invented modern political consulting and made a small fortune along the way. When he left politics, he talked his way into the number one job at CNBC and then convinced Rupert Murdoch to gamble a billion dollars give or take, on an idea and a handshake. The gamble become Fox News, one of the most lucrative and influential news organizations on the planet. …
Roger Ailes has his admirers, some of them surprising, and his detractors – entire organizations dedicated to discrediting him and all his works. I talked to a great many people on both sides.
At several points in the book Chafets “gets involved with the story”, and when Ailes talks about missing an old friend who'd he'd lost track of decades previously, the author looks him up, finds him living in New York (teaching acting), and connects the two. This ends up providing him with a lot of “good material” from Ailes' early years, and lets him stick in info about Ailes' time in the early 70's when he was producing theater (including winning three Obies for The Hot l Baltimore).
The book really picks up at the end of Ailes' college years – he managed to take a run of shows on the campus radio station (he'd majored in TV) and make a pitch to a Cleveland TV station to be a segment producer on a new “daytime variety show” they were developing, featuring soon-to-be the famed Mike Douglas. The main producer (who would later be tapped at Fox) asked Ailes to come in with a hundred show ideas, which he did and he was hired on the spot. That was 1961. In 1967 his producer left to do Dick Cavett's show, and Ailes got the executive producer slot on The Mike Douglas Show. I don't know if the author was trying to “humanize” Ailes in the eyes of his more rabid detractors, but he spends a lot of time featuring stories of Ailes bringing Black icons to the airwaves at the time … Muhammad Ali, MLK Jr., Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and even Malcolm X … the latter connection coming in handy many years later in proving to hostile elements in the Congressional Black Caucus that he didn't just have a “sudden interest” in civil rights.
One of the guests on the show was Richard Nixon, who was traveling around the country trying to build support for his 1968 run. He and Ailes (who was only in his 20's at the time), had a chance to talk, and Ailes convinced Nixon that TV had to be a key part in a campaign. He was called into New York to meet with Nixon's media team, which grilled him for four hours … before offering him the job of producing Nixon's TV presence – which he took, infuriating Mike Douglas. Once Nixon was elected, Ailes was being frozen out by the White House staff, and in 1969 he left D.C. to move to New York and start his own company. This period he spent producing plays, documentaries, TV shows, and even tried to get a conservative news service (funded by Joseph Coors) off the ground.
In 1980 he was approached by Al D'Amato to help him oust Jacob Javitz from his Senate seat … he succeeded, and became something of a GOP power-broker, working on numerous campaigns, and winning most. One of the interesting things that comes up here is that he really had very little interest in the substance of the politics, just getting the candidates elected … “it was always a matter of sizing up the opponent, finding his weaknesses, or turning his strengths against him”. In 1984 he was called in by the Reagan campaign to help with preparation for the second debate with Mondale. Under his coaching Reagan came up with the classic line reversing the “age issue” where he stated “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”. In 1988 he handled Bush's media, including the classic spots with Dukakis looking silly in a tank … but by the end of that, he was getting sick of the political work. He did some minor consulting on the 1992 campaign, but was pretty much out of the game at that point.
He was, however, producing a lot more TV, including the Tom Snyder show which was the precursor to the Letterman show on NBC. In 1991, he connected with Rush Limbaugh, and developed a TV version of Rush's phenomenally popular radio program – which ran for four years. Rush was quoted as describing some key coaching he got from Ailes:
(Which is, if I recall correctly from setting up media tours in my PR agency days, pretty good advice for most interview situations!) Limbaugh eventually wanted out (he disliked all the extra stuff needed to get a TV show done), but it had gotten the attention of the management (and ownership – Jack Welch of G.E.) of CNBC, and they reached out to Ailes to run the channel. This was good for all involved, as Ailes doubled the asset value in two years. Many familiar Fox News faces (Neil Cavuto among them) were on board there. There was a management change above CNBC, and Ailes was faced with reporting to somebody he didn't care to work with, so he left. Rupert Murdoch was waiting … he had an idea for a more conservative cable news voice, and presented the idea to Ailes, asking if it was doable … Ailes assured him that it was, but could cost a billion dollars to launch. And, so Fox News was born … and more than eighty CNBC people followed Ailes into the new venture.“Roger told me that he had detected in me a common fault that newcomers to TV make when being interviewed by mainstream journalists. He said, 'Rush, they don't care what you think. Don't try to persuade them of anything. Don't try to change their mind. They are not asking you questions to learn anything. So don't look at this as an opportunity to enlighten them. Whatever they ask, just say whatever you want to say.'”
There's a middle section here with a lot of details about personnel development at Fox News, with some familiar names, some less so, some building up individuals (Bill O'Reilly, Shep Smith), some getting rid of others (Jim Cramer, Paula Zahn). Lots of names, lots of scenarios … too much to try to cherry-pick examples here. This is followed by a bit about Ailes' personal life in upstate New York, and the (very liberal) community he lives in there. The narrative then switches back to Fox, and how hated it is by the Left – and regularly smeared by them. One quote I thought was worth bringing in was this bit by Ailes in response to some of the vitriol being hurled at Fox:
This is prefaced by a story that Ailes tells about meeting a Liberal at a cocktail party who complains about Fox News coverage:“The first rule of media bias is selection,” Ailes says. “Most of the media bullshit you about who they are. We don't. We're not programming to conservatives, we're just not eliminating their point of view.”
In support of these points Chafets brings in a very interesting mix of quotes … from Chris Matthews admitting to the Liberal stance of Walter Cronkite (who openly mocked Barry Goldwater during his 1964 campaign), to the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane admitting that there's a “culture of like minds” that “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism” that taints nearly every word hitting their pages. The bias in most of the media creates what amounts to hostile work environments for anybody not part of the leftist hive-mind, which the author notes enables Ailes to “scoop up most of the really good conservative talent”. Chafets notes that Fox also hires a lot of overt liberals to provide counter-point to these conservatives … probably having more of these than all the leftist media outlets together have non-lefty voices.Ailes asks him if he is satisfied with what he sees on CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and PBS. The man says he is very satisfied. “Well,” says Ailes, “if they all have the same take and we have a different take, why does that bother you? The last two guys who succeeded in lining up the media on one side were Hitler and Stalin.”
An interesting thing that's pulled in here is UCLA Poly-sci professor Tim Groseclose's PQ (political quotient), which measures how political viewpoints range on a scale from 0-100. The data is based on the rankings of Lefty group “Americans for Democratic Action”, so the higher the number, the more leftist the stance (the vile Nancy Pelosi is close to 100, the current execrable POTUS is around 88). The “average voter” is right about 50 on the scale. The MSM network shows were all up around 65, while Fox was at 40 … however, most damningly: “Professor Groseclose puts the PQ of the average political reporter for a mainstream organization at 95” … and that's the “echo chamber” that drives political news – everybody (but Fox) being on the extreme Left end of the spectrum, leading the liberals to think something like an 80 would be “middle of the road” and Fox is way off to the right!
There's a chapter that largely deals with how Ailes manages the day-to-day news cycle at Fox, then a chapter about his hiring, firing, and people management (including some of the odd connections that he has with people not in Fox's camp), followed by a chapter looking at race and religion, noting Ailes' efforts to boost Black and Latino involvement in the organization. I found this illustrative, however, of his basic philosophy (especially vs. the pandering on the Left):
Chafets then takes a look at how Ailes gets along with his famous boss, Rupert Murdoch, and starts this off with a story about how when he called Murdoch's office to try to schedule an interview for the book, he was surprised to get a call back from Murdoch within 15 minutes (Chafets, assuming he'd get a time penciled in some weeks later, had nothing prepared, so just had Murdoch chat about Ailes – he's obviously a big fan of his hire). In this chapter he also looks at how Ailes runs the show from a financial basis, noting that he's totally self-taught in business. One quote I found amusing was how Ailes is very leery of getting the “next big thing”, especially with technology, and he's quoted as saying:Racial identity politics are not Ailes's “thing.” He belongs to a generation that was raised in a time and place where forward-thinking people accepted MLK's famous exhortation to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, as the gold standard for racial aspiration. In Ailes's America, everyone would share Middle American, middle-class values and blend into a single national culture. He sees the celebration of racial differences as balkanizing. “Every month is something else,” he said, “I'm waiting for Lithuanian Midget Month. ...”
The last few chapters are largely adding perspective on different fronts, including how the current POTUS has called Ailes “the most powerful man in America”, and how his administration tried very hard to keep Fox out of the White House press pool (to their credit, all the other major news organizations stood up for Fox). There's talk of how ultra-Left organization Media Matters considers Ailes one of it's two “Great Satans” (Rush Limbaugh being the other), and how they are constantly trying to cause trouble for Fox. There's a bit about his young son (Ailes started a family very late in life), and how he's handling being a dad in his 70's, with other family reminiscences. The book closes with a look at election night 2012, which reinforces some of the previous bits about how Ailes, for all his success as a political consultant and political broadcaster, really isn't a “political junkie”, caring a whole lot about getting the message out and not so much about the actual “stuff” involved.Let CNN buy the new stuff and test it out, and when the technology is right I'll come in like a ton of bricks. … When I see that the Framistan is working, we'll get one. Hell, we'll get two. But in the meantime, let CNN waste their money.
Roger Ailes: Off Camera is a fascinating read, and is something that I think anybody with an interest in politics (especially if you're not a Leftist), or broadcasting, would find quite interesting. I can't tell if this is currently in print or not … Amazon lists the hardcover at full retail, but notes that it won't ship for a couple of months. The copy I got at the dollar store was the paperback, but the new/used guys have the hardcover available for 1¢ in “like new” condition, so that's probably your best bet if you want to snag a copy.