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The King of the Foxes

Fred Prouser/Reuters
Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, Pasadena, California, July 2006

President Obama thumped Mitt Romney in the 2012 election by excelling with the voters who are most likely to influence future American elections. Obama won 55 percent of votes by women, who go to the polls in larger numbers than men. The president attracted 71 percent of Hispanic voters and 73 percent of Asians, groups that are growing as a share of the population. Among voters under thirty, Obama won 60 percent. Romney, on the other hand, did very well with older white men. The 2012 race looked winnable for Romney at times because of persistent high joblessness. Yet not only did he lose, he delivered to the Republican Party a bleak forecast of its prospects.

A month after Election Day, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a report about what had gone wrong. The study’s authors did not cite Fox News by name, but they made clear that they thought the network’s polemical programming aimed at the Republican base was a major part of the problem. “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself,” they wrote. “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us.”

Since its creation in 1996, as an arm of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, News Corporation, Fox News has made a killing by providing ideological reinforcement to like-minded conservatives. Although the audience for Fox News is aging and leveling off in size, it remains the largest of any cable news network in America by far. The network’s profits in 2012 were just under $1 billion, according to the Pew Research Center. Its profit margin has been above 50 percent in recent years, a rate almost unheard of in mainstream business. Fox’s success has been due in no small part to the insights of Roger Ailes, a former Republican media and campaign consultant and the network’s first and only president, who is the subject of the journalist Gabriel Sherman’s thoroughly reported biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room.

Particularly during the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loathed Ailes because they feared he had devised a propaganda-inspired communications strategy at Fox News that might assure long-term Republican hegemony. There was some basis for this anxiety. By Sherman’s telling, for example, Ailes had a significant and self-conscious part in publicizing the “Swift Boat” smear ad against then Senator John Kerry during the late stages of the 2004 presidential campaign, an ad that purported (through falsehoods) to challenge the senator’s account of his wartime service in Vietnam. More recently, however, following two consecutive presidential defeats, at least some Republican elders have apparently come to view Ailes as a kind of Frankenstein monster that must be subdued and reprogrammed.

Sherman endorses the view that Ailes and Fox News helped to blow the 2012 election for Republicans. Fox News employs plenty of solid, enterprising reporters who play it straight, but Ailes’s overall formula relies heavily on opinion-talk shows in prime time, which are polemical by design. The network’s most popular evening hosts, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, celebrated Tea Party radicalism. Another highly popular host, Glenn Beck, who left the network in 2011, promoted conspiracy theories about creeping world government. Even the news coverage gave heavy airtime to disquieting Republican figures such as Sarah Palin and former pizza executive Herman Cain.

In Sherman’s account, Ailes was personally responsible for this ill-conceived strategy. At seventy-two years old, wealthy and isolated, the Fox chief had apparently reached the conclusion that President Obama was driving the United States to ruin. Ailes therefore insisted that Fox News promote an idiosyncratic narrative of America-in-danger. In this story, the country was beset by runaway government power, rising racial conflict, hostility toward Christianity, and out-of-control immigration. But the voters, it turned out, were more concerned with job creation, levelheaded governance, and some measure of accountability and equity after the worst recession in seventy years.

Ailes understood that if the GOP wished to win the White House in 2012, the party should nominate a moderate-sounding candidate. He tried privately to recruit New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and General David Petraeus. Yet these pragmatic instincts proved to be “at odds with the vivid political comedy Fox often programmed,” as Sherman puts it. In the end, the 2012 election was a case of “Ailes being unable to put his party’s goal of winning independents ahead of his personal views.”

Is this really the best way to understand the relationship among Ailes, Fox, and the Republican Party, looking toward 2016 and beyond? It is certainly true that Fox News’s aging and heavily white audience—and the relentless attacks on President Obama that seem to most excite that audience’s emotions—have contributed to the electoral isolation of the Republican Party. Sherman describes Karl Rove, who masterminded George W. Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, barking at Ailes:

Why are you letting Palin have the profile? Why are you letting her go on your network and say the things she’s saying? And Glenn Beck? These are alternative people who will never be elected, and they’ll kill us.

Yet Rove surely knew the answers to his own questions. Fox is first and foremost a media business. The network has become enamored of “vivid political comedy” while building its formidable profit machine. To map Fox News’s power in American media and politics, it is essential not only to understand Ailes’s role, but also to follow the money.

Roger Ailes was born in 1940 and grew up in a small Ohio town. When he was a boy, his father beat him viciously with a belt to discipline him, even though Ailes suffered from hemophilia and could conceivably have died from any bleeding wound. Sherman quotes Ailes’s brother Robert about their father: “He did like to beat the shit out of you with that belt. He continued to beat you, and he continued to beat you…. It was a pretty routine fixture of childhood.” As an adult, perhaps unsurprisingly, Ailes has exuded a portentous, Dreiserian air. By Sherman’s account, he displays a fierce temper around the office, holds grudges, and regularly vows vengeance against his enemies.

Ailes began his career in television at The Mike Douglas Show and later worked as a Broadway producer. (He flopped with Mother Earth, which Sherman describes as a “trippy, environmental-themed rock musical,” but later succeeded with a production of Lanford Wilson’s play The Hot L Baltimore.) Ailes’s greatest talent, however, proved to be for providing advice to older, Luddite Republicans about how to use television to influence voters. He exercised this ability first on behalf of Richard Nixon in 1968. Ailes sold himself with a memo to Nixon’s aides. “Television is a ‘hit and run’ medium,” he advised. During political debates and talk shows, “the general public is just not sophisticated enough to wade through answers.” Nixon should therefore use “more descriptive visual phrases” and end his statements with “kickers.”

With some trepidation, Nixon’s team gave Ailes a job. He was then only twenty-eight. After Nixon’s televised debate calamity during the 1960 campaign, television understandably intimidated him; a young adviser brimming with confidence and full of piquant instructions might, so the thinking went, help the candidate decode the medium’s mysteries. Ailes may have helped Nixon perform better before the cameras but he did not play a decisive role in the campaign. His shrewdest move was to cooperate quietly with the journalist Joe McGinnis on what became the best-selling book The Selling of the President 1968. McGinnis’s portrait of Ailes as a manipulator of public opinion aroused that age’s anxieties about television’s potential for subliminal suggestion.

After Nixon’s victory, Ailes leveraged the reputation McGinnis’s book gave him to win political consulting contracts. He never entered Nixon’s innermost circle but he became successful advising and creating attack ads for other Republicans. The talent Ailes showed at the time was similar to the talent he later displayed at Fox News. He was willing to go to extremes when others might hesitate, yet he also had a sense of humor and an intuitive ability to meld political messaging with popular entertainment.

Briefly, during the 1970s, Ailes ran a nascent television network funded by the ultraconservative brewer Joseph Coors. The plan was to target Americans who distrusted the news broadcasts on the three major networks. The enterprise failed because in that era, before cable television’s spread, Coors and his partners could not figure out how to reach enough American TV sets to make money.

That frustration forecast the importance a multichannel TV world would hold for conservative media. Some Republican strategists understood that when cable technology arrived eventually and delivered many more options to American households, it would finally provide their ideological camp a chance to control and distribute their own news broadcasts. But at the time of the aborted Coors network, this was still a futurist’s vision. Sherman quotes a “prescient” memo prepared in 1973 for White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. It predicted that it would take “ten years or so” for cable technology to have “significant impact” on the number of television channels available in American homes. That forecast proved to be about right.

A limitation of Sherman’s biography is that he makes too many breezy claims about Ailes’s singular importance—that Ailes became “effectively the most powerful opposition figure in the country” during the Obama administration, or that “more than anyone of his generation, he helped transform politics into mass entertainment.” Such hype isn’t necessary; Ailes is a fascinating subject, and plenty important. It does not detract from the relevance of Sherman’s work to acknowledge that Fox News’s rise to power was ultimately due less to Ailes’s genius as a programmer than to the wider success of cable television.

During cable’s formative, analog years, most providers could deliver only about thirty channels to a home. (The digital cable era of five hundred channels that we know today arrived after 2000.) Ted Turner grabbed the first cable news franchise and named it Cable News Network. ESPN and MTV were other big early successes. As cable reshaped the economics of television, Ailes signed on at NBC, to help guide that network’s investments. But he soon lost a byzantine power struggle. One factor was NBC’s decision to back an upstart network, MSNBC, that Ailes would not control. Ailes departed with a $1 million severance payment. Two weeks later, early in 1996, he joined Rupert Murdoch at a press conference to announce the launch of Fox News. It was a moment of revenge for Ailes, a motivation on which he plainly thrived.

The big question facing Fox News at its launch was whether it could win access to enough American TV sets to be workable—whether, that is, it could overcome the problem that had doomed the Coors channel earlier. Murdoch had to negotiate for access with monopolistic cable owners. A popular programmer such as ESPN had leverage in such talks. But an unproven network such as Fox was in a weak position. This proved to be a dilemma made for Murdoch’s audacity. Normally, cable companies paid programmers for the right to carry their content. Murdoch upended that arrangement and offered to pay cable operators if they would help him launch Fox News. In late 1996, Murdoch paid an unknown amount, rumored to be about $200 million, to cable mogul John Malone to launch Fox News on Malone’s cable systems—at MSNBC’s expense, as it turned out. At the time, the deal seemed like it might be a crazy waste of Murdoch’s money. In retrospect, it looks like a steal. As Sherman writes with some understatement, “Murdoch’s distribution coup put wind at Ailes’s back.”

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