Roger Ailes Bio book cover

Of Showmanship & The News

Book review by R. Alan Clanton | published January 7, 2014 |
Thursday Review Editor

A few months back we published a long-form review of Murdoch’s World; The Last of the Old Media Empires by David Folkenflik, a book which takes us inside the operations of what is arguably the most powerful media conglomerate the world has ever known. That book review generated a lot of conversation on the internet, both in the United States and in several countries affected by the vast reach of Murdoch’s newspaper, radio and television kingdom. But the story of Rupert Murdoch is difficult to tell in a single volume (as noted in our review), and even Murdoch’s footprint in the U.S. (The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Dow Jones, Smart Money, TV and radio holdings, 20th Century Fox) seems too large to contain in even 500 pages.

But it has been Murdoch’s special creation—Fox News—which has most indelibly changed the landscape of television news and, some argue, altered the American political landscape and all conversations within.

A new book by Zev Chafets, Roger Ailes Off Camera: An Inside Look at the Founder and Head of Fox News, attempts to dig deeply into the uniquely powerful culture of Fox News, and its audacious guiding spirit, Roger Ailes.

Once in the U.S. there was a mainstream narrative about the news media and press. That narrative was that—whether you liked them or not—most journalists (newspaper reporters and TV newsmen) were honest brokers who happened to list slightly to the left when not fastened securely in their studio chairs or to their desks at the New York Times or Washington Post. TV anchors, though they rarely showed their true colors, were expected to be dispassionate and neutral. Broadcast reporters, we understood, were given leeway to be slightly combative (think of the early Dan Rather, or the mid-career Sam Donaldson). And editorialists, such as CBS News’ Eric Sevareid, were—on occasion—given their two minutes of prime time for appropriate and sometimes elegant pontification.

Beyond those simple boundaries, TV reporting was bland and detached, with a generally predictable pattern of delivery. In print, there were a few columnists who reflected rightist or conservative values, but they were few. Many writers and print reporters reflected a leftward tilt, but most made a game attempt at moderation and neutrality. Though not perfect, it was an agreeable template in a lukewarm kind of way; those who wanted their print from a rightist perspective read The National Review or Human Events; those who preferred a leftward filter subscribed to The Nation or anything by I.F. Stone.

Conservatives were always wary and sometimes on guard for what they viewed—sometimes rightly—as institutional seepage from the liberal pipeline into the mainstream news. When reporters and editors were, as a profession, polled internally, they denied that any such coloring existed and proclaimed their neutrality, but those same polls often revealed the numerical dominance of liberals among the newsrooms, magazine staffs and in the studios of NBC, ABC and CBS. Over the years, deeper professional surveys of reporters revealed an institutional penchant for progressive causes and liberal views.

For many conservatives, this was par for the course. Often feeling marginalized in the national debate in the early and late 1970s, this tension gave them their zeal, and drove them toward a defensive but highly disciplined approach to engagement with the news.

By the mid-to-late 1980s, things were starting to change. And now, looking back across the 1990s and the aught years, it seems both nostalgic and surreal to recall a time when we had television news without Fox News.

Chafets' biography of Ailes, at only 250 pages, is relatively short and brisk. Like Folkenflik’s look at Murdoch, it may not be possible to easily condense into a single volume the life of a media genius like Ailes, not without also including the breadth of technological change, dramatic political shifts and the scope and fragmentation of news competitiveness. If Ailes was skilled enough to catch these tsunami waves as they approached, much of this sea change was in fact the result of Ailes himself.
Ailes, who as a skilled infighter worked his way diligently through the administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, took his street-smarts and bare-knuckled political skills into the studios of television news upon his partnership with Murdoch. The two men shared an unvarnished desire for success and a savvy, intuitive understanding of how to draw followers—which in the case of TV means viewers, i.e., ratings.

Ailes, who has never been shy about his desire for ratings success, ushered Fox News from a distant position in the early days of fragmented news (fifth or sixth place), to virtual preeminence, in part by redefining how American’s received and digested their news, and also by capitalizing on—not to put too fine a point on it—middle class, working-class and center-right fears and frustrations as seen through the prism of us-versus-them. CNN may not have been liberal by any standard definition, but by angling Fox News into the conservative position (“fair and balanced”), the wedge nevertheless exploited and heightened that narrative of a news business dominated by liberals, with only Fox to set the record straight.

By the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the aught years, the folks at CNN became easily demonized as liberal, even as the team at MSNBC attempted to be the genuine progressives despite a lackluster track record of maintaining viewer loyalty. MSNBC, by direct comparison to Fox, is in fact the greater aggressor when it comes to “unbalanced” news delivery across a wide spectrum of social and political subjects—but their failure to establish the same kind of passion now found among Fox viewers speaks more to the success of Ailes magic formula than to MSNBC’s guilt or innocence when it comes to partisanship.

The book gives plenty of illustrations of Ailes doing what Ailes does best: merging showmanship with political instincts to create the kind of TV content which will bring the viewer back again and again. Chafets shows Ailes to be brutally aggressive in his desire to master the ratings and shape the political narrative, but Chafets also illuminates Ailes as occasionally sensitive to criticism that Fox is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the GOP right, pointing out Ailes' long friendships with journalists, editors and elected officials across the political spectrum, as well as his insistence of having liberals (or the immediate family members of well-known progressives) visible in the TV studios and on camera.

This is an extremely interesting, engaging book. Conservatives may enjoy it and even find it enlightening, for Ailes is not without his flaws of arrogance and hubris. Meanwhile, I suspect more than a few of our liberal readers (assuming they have the stomach for this showman’s story in the first place) may feel their blood boil from time to time.