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.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard