Books postsThursday February 27, 2014
Gabriel Sherman: 'Paranoia is Essential to Understanding Roger Ailes'
This afternoon, Gabriel Sherman, author of “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Bombastic, Brilliant Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country,” which is much recommended, held an online chat on Reddit, and I arrived in time to ask him two questions.
The first—based upon this post—was kind of lame, since it asked what couldn't really be answered. Still, I was curious if it brought up anything interesting from Sherman. I've done enough Q&As to realize that the best questions can get you nothing while the worst can open up a goldmine. Not really a rationale for asking bad questions, but ... You ask what interests you.
Q: Do you feel Roger Ailes' paranoia, chronicled in the last part of the book, is a consequence of how he lived his life? I.e., he expects his enemies to be as ruthless with him as he's always been with them?
Sherman: Paranoia is essential to understanding Roger Ailes. I'm a reporter, not a novelist, so I can't be in his head. But following the adage that “action reveals character,” I think your question gets at something. Ailes has certainly justified his behavior in the past by projecting the worst motives onto his enemies. One instance: at NBC, at the apex of the anti-Semitism investigation, Ailes claimed his opponents were “un-American” because they were challenging his abusive management style. Ailes also talks of people being “spies,” which is revealing, since he's a man who has had private investigators follow people and spy on them.
If you've read the book, the second question is inevitable. McGinniss and Ailes were friends in the late 1960s, so ...
Q: Did Ailes ever mention anything about Joe McGinniss moving next door to Sarah Palin? He was once friends with the former, and never with the latter, despite the former being a conservative bete noire and the latter being a conservative icon. So I'm curious if he ever went on the record on the subject.
Roger Ailes' Just Desserts
After reading Gabriel Sherman's “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Bombastic, Brilliant Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country,” and after spending a few weeks absorbing it, I came to this conclusion:
It's a story about just desserts.
First, let me say the book is, yes, a fair and balanced portrait of Ailes, the president of Fox News. It doesn't go for the low blow. It's not overtly partisan. It's not tabloidy. Meaning it's not like Fox News. It's researched and written by a professional.
It turns out that Ailes' own story undercuts Fox News ideology. The network is one of the great promoters of the notion that the wealthy, the “job creators,” deserve what they have, while the rest of us are more or less leeches. Fox's bugaboos are “socialism” and “redistribution of wealth.” The rich work hard for what they have. They should keep it. Why give it away to the less-deserving?
Ailes, too, worked hard to get where he is. No doubt. So how does that undercut Fox News ideology?
Because it isn't just hard work. It's never just hard work.
Ailes was also a relentless self-promoter and a bastard, A kind person might say he was driven but the rest of us would simply call him ruthless. He was a mighty, mighty sonofabitch.
Here's an example from late in the book. It's shortly after Richard Shea becomes town supervisor of Cold Spring, NY, where Ailes lives:
A few weeks later, Shea discovered just what life with Roger Ailes as a constituent would mean. On Sunday morning, January 10, he received a string of frantic phone calls from friends in town. Ailes had been calling around ranting about a front-page New York Times profile of him that appeared in that morning’s paper. “My takeaway was that this guy [Ailes] is pretty much threatening me,” Shea was quoted saying about the town forum. Friends told Shea he had made a big mistake. “You can’t mention Ailes’s name in the press,” they said.
Later that day, his phone rang. “You have no fucking idea what you’ve done!” Shea immediately recognized the voice. “You have no idea what you’re up against. If you want a war you’ll have a battle, but it won’t be a long battle.” “It was an accurate portrayal of the exchange,” Shea said calmly. “If you’re offended I’m sorry about that, but it was accurate.” “Listen,” Ailes seethed, “don’t be naive about these things. I will destroy your life.”
There's also his muckraking of other journalists, his “search and destroy” approach to the competition. Ailes' friends once called this “ratfucking”:
[Ailes] set up an anonymous blog called The Cable Game that took shots at his rivals. Ailes assigned Fox News contributor Jim Pinkerton to write the entries. “The Cable Game was Roger’s creation,” one person close to Ailes said. “Is CNN on the Side of the Killers and Terrorists in Iraq?” one headline read. “David Brock Gets Caught! (Although Secretly, He Probably Loves Being Naughty and Nasty),” blared another. The item’s text was accompanied by a photo of Brock posing in a skintight tank top with Congressman Barney Frank ...
Lewis’s staff regularly fed reporters with embarrassing news and gossip about Fox’s competitors. After Andy Lack was quoted in the Times declaring he was “America’s news leader,” a Fox PR person sent an email to reporters that featured the quote and a Photoshopped picture of Lack’s face superimposed onto Napoleon’s body. After MSNBC anchor Ashleigh Banfield generated positive headlines for her post-9/11 dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan—which featured her head wrapped in a shawl and her Clark Kent–style glasses peeking out—Lewis’s deputy, Robert Zimmerman, wanted to embarrass her in The Washington Post. “Take her out,” Brian Lewis told him. Zimmerman called Post reporter Paul Farhi and fed him a tip that foreign correspondents were laughing that Banfield, despite her intrepid image as a foreign correspondent, was scared to leave her hotel.
There's tons of this stuff in the book. Ailes didn't just try to destroy ideological opponents. He goes after like-minded folks who are disloyal or no longer useful. He terrorized three kids who for a time ran his small-town newspaper. They wound up fleeing the town as if from a monster.
At least Ailes' boss is a kindred spirit:
Long before the world would learn about News Corp’s practice of phone hacking, Murdoch was encouraging his executives to push boundaries, and to carve out their terrain and defend it, ignoring reputational concerns that normally bred caution. “At most organizations, there’s a lot of low-level people who want to take risks,” a former News Corp executive explained. “The further up it gets, more people say, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ News Corp is the opposite. People at the top are like, ‘What are you doing? Go out there and start something.’”
All of which takes us to the just desserts.
The last part of the book portrays Ailes as not just ruthless but paranoid. He feels he's surrounded by enemies. He's paranoid about the Chinese, and liberals, and who knows who, so he buys up properties adjacent to his own so his enemies can't get him. He's creating a kind of moat. He's walling himself up from the world. More than he already does.
Why? Because he assumes everyone is as awful as he is.
He's spent his life struggling to get to the top of the heap, and he's done it, more or less. And as he stands there, triumphant, he sees, all around, others struggling to get up to him, to do to him what he did to others. Some might in fact be interested in doing that. They want his place. Why not? It's a powerful place. But he sees these people everywhere. He sees ulterior motives everywhere because he always has ulterior motives. He sees plots everywhere because he always has plots. He's a tragic figure in this way. You'd almost feel sorry for him if he wasn't such a ruthless bastard ruining the country he thinks he's saving.
“The Loudest Voice in the Room” is worth your time. It's worth learning about where this man came from, where he's going, and what he's done. And what he's done to us.
Murdoch and Ailes, without ruth.
It's Not Too Late to Give the Gift of Bryson
The other night at dinner with friends I mentioned that I don't get many personal emails anymore and they took it to mean I was pretending to be younger than my 50 years, someone who communicated in hipper ways, but I was actually lamenting the emails I got: amazon and Barnes & Noble, Rotten Tomatoes and SIFF. Plus stuff in Vietnamese. Lately, most of these were offering LAST MINUTE GIFT IDEAS and telling me IT'S NOT TOO LATE TO GIVE THE GIFT OF ...
My shopping is done so I don't need any of these ideas. You probably don't need, either. But here's one, nonetheless:
“One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson.
I bought a Kindle a couple of months ago and for a trip to Minneapolis I decided to finally use it. Why not? Bring one slim device rather than several thick and heavy ones. But what to put on it? I had like 15 minutes to decide. So I threw on there Kostya Kennedy's book on Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, which I was already halfway through in hardback form, Eric Schlosser's book “Command and Control,” on the many ways we nearly blew ourselves up during the Cold War, and a stab in the dark, Donald T. Chrichlow's “When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls and Big Business Remade American Politics.”
I finished the DiMaggio book on the planeride over. Schlosser's book was interesting but dense. The Crichlow? Awful. I could barely read it. So I quickly needed something else.
I forget when I remembered the Bryson book, but I quickly downloaded it and even more quickly got into it. It's how history should be written: quirky and fun. It's straightforward and full of digressions: I need to tell you about X but first you need to know about Y and Z. The first section is on Charles Lindbergh, for example, but you also need to know about all of the other aviators at the time, and how two guys actually crossed the Atlantic by airplane way back in 1919—Newfoundland to Ireland—to little acclaim, and how the whole New York to Paris thing was the result of a $25,000 prize offered. How difficult was it fly then? This difficult. How little-known was Lindbergh a month before his flight? Completely unknown. How little had Lindbergh done before this moment? Very little. He'd dropped out of college but he took to flight. The section on Lindbergh is called “The Kid” but it could be called “The Natural” because that's what Lindbergh was when it came to flying. Lucky, too. How well-known did Lindbergh become afterwards? So well-known, so suddenly, we can't fathom it today. And what does all of this have to do with Randy Newman's song, “Louisiana, 1927”? Get the book and start reading.
Anyway, that's my suggestion for a last-minute Christmas gift: “One Summer: America, 1927,” by Bill Bryson
This is how good the section on Lindbergh is. The second section is on Babe Ruth and baseball and I'm kinda bummed. I know. Me.
Be Like Obama: Give Books for Christmas
Laurie Hertzel at the Star-Tribune has a piece on the book-buying binge Pres. Obama went on over the weekend at Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.
Two of the 21 books he purchased are all-time favorites of mine: “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow and “My Antonia” by Willa Cather. The rest of his list looks interesting, too.
My reading this year has mostly been non-fiction, but all of the books below (with links to posts about them) are recommended as gift possibilities:
- “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,” by Ty Burr
- “Joseph Anton,” a memoir by Salman Rushdie
- “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998” by George W.S. Trow
- “Popular Crime: Reflections on the celebration of violence” by Bill James
- “The House that Ruth Built” by Robert Weintraub
- “56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports” by Kostya Kennedy
- “An Athiest in the FOXhole: A Liberal's Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media,” by Joe Muto
- Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" by Sean Howe
Is This Plagiarism? REVEALED
Last week I asked readers to weigh in on a matter of plagiarism.
This was the original sentence, written by Michael Lewis for his book, “Moneyball.” During the 2001-02 off-season, the New York Yankees, the Goliath of Major League Baseball, had signed Jason Giambi, the All-Star first baseman with Oakland A’s, the David of Major League Baseball. Lewis writes:
Goliath, dissatisfied with his size advantage, has bought David’s sling.
And here is the passage of concern by another writer. In his book, Lewis revealed the small-market “moneyball” strategies of A’s GM Billy Beane that had allowed him to compete with big-market teams like the Yankees. When the book was released, the Yankees began using those strategies:
[Lewis’] best-seller stabilized the market inefficiencies Billy Beane had been exploiting. It was as if Lewis had shown David's playbook to Goliath. When the two returned to the field, Goliath had a slingshot of his own.
I said I came across this passage recently in a 10th-anniversary review of the book. That was a lie. I wrote it myself in Sept. 2011 for a post entitled “Moneyball Revisited.”
Back then, a friend had quoted my passage and added in the comments field, “Damn fine sportswriting there.” Earlier this month, someone named Jason agreed. “Damn fine, indeed,” he wrote, then added the Lewis quote above, with page number.
After a beat, I thought: Is he accusing me of plagiarism?
After another beat: Is it plagiarism?
Some part of me didn’t think so. The David-and-Goliath metaphor is the most obvious metaphor when talking money matters in MLB. And if Goliath takes something of David’s? A strategy, for example? A way of waging war? How else do you extend the metaphor?
On the other hand, I had read the book, twice, and while I didn’t remember Lewis’ line above it could have lodged in my unconscious and come out when I was writing about it later.
So I went back to check my copy of the book. I’m an underliner of books. I read with pencil in hand. And in Lewis’ “Moneyball,” yes, I’d underlined a line on pg. 143, but not that one. I'd liked this one: “There was something indecent about hurling abuse at Oakland A’s fielders.” I’d also underlined sentences on pages 142 and 147, but the above line hadn’t impressed me enough to underline it.
But that was me. I knew me. How might others feel? Particularly others who didn’t know me?
That’s why I wrote the post, “Is This Plagiarism?,” without indicating it was my words that might be plagiaristic. I was curious what others thought. Was this plagiarism?
A friend on Facebook: “No. Biblical references, like Shakespeare, are fair game and cannot be ‘exclusive’ to anyone's writing.”
A longtime reader: “I am someone who takes plagiarism seriously and who has sent his share of students to the Dean because of it, but this isn't plagiarism.”
As I suspected.
Then he added, “It’s just lazy and bad writing.”
Win some, lose some.
“It's a metaphor.”
“I know it's a metaphor.”
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard