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TV & Radio

Jan 15, 2014

'A political organisation that employs journos': how Fox sets the agenda

A new book sheds light on how Roger Ailes and Fox News have created a culture of intense fear -- and then capitalised on it. So what do we learn about News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch?

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When American journalist Gabriel Sherman began work on a book chronicling the Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes (pictured), the New York magazine contributing editor says he was uncertain about what exactly he would unearth. After three years of research and 600 interviews, he found plenty. The extent of Sherman’s labour was revealed today with the US release of his explosive (and exhaustive) tome.

Landing at a hefty 560 pages, The Loudest Voice In The Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country seeks to investigate and demystify Ailes. It’s an intriguing read; in media circles here, anticipation was sky high.

One of the book’s key planks is Ailes’ own definition of the Fox News mantra “fair and balanced”. An Ailes associate tells Sherman the boss’ meaning of “fair and balanced” is not to tell both sides of a story, but that Fox acts as a balance to the rest of the media. Yes, Ailes perceives Fox News and its definition of “fair and balanced” as a political messaging device.

A recent example is the lack of coverage Fox has devoted to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s George Washington Bridge scandal. Sherman said yesterday if most media were covering something like Bridgegate, it was Fox’s job to go in another direction. That the direction benefits a candidate who hopes to eventually run for president on the Republican Party ticket is no coincidence.

Sherman contends that, as it stands today, Fox News is no longer merely a cable news channel. “Roger Ailes has created a political operation that employs journalists,” he says.

It was not always this way. Although Sherman writes in detail about the extreme-right views Ailes has long held, the nature of Fox News has subtly altered as he has accumulated power within Rupert Murdoch’s empire.

While the seeds of its political nature were in place from its early days in the 1990s, Fox began as a tabloid-populist counterpoint to CNN. The early vision was of a cable news rendering of Murdoch’s beloved New York Post. As the network became more commercially potent, Ailes’ power and influence swelled, and he was handed more latitude to run the channel as he saw fit. With that, Sherman notes, various checks and balances on his role were loosened.

Fox News trades in fear and loathing. There is little room in its sphere for nuance or subtlety; issues are black and white. You are, as one president liked to say, either with us or against us.

Paranoia is omnipresent. Even though Fox is the highest-rated US news channel, boasting an incredibly impressionable audience and some of the best-compensated on-air talent of any outlet, staff from other networks are dismissed as “the media elite”. If you question cultural morals, you are elitist. If you stand up for affirmative action or accuse somebody of racism, it is you who are actually racist. If you scrutinise income inequality, you are inciting the culture wars.

Ailes has helped foment his viewer’s anxiety by riding a doggedly pro-business and socially conservative standpoint to massive profits. He has commercially exploited an ageing demographic of people who feel left out of the cultural shift now occurring in the United States. His demographic, mostly over 55 and white, feel under siege. Watching Fox confirms all of their worst fears.

If you find the chintzy graphics or the shrill on-air talent and their ideologically driven bile irritating, you are not in the target audience. And Ailes couldn’t care less about you. So for the Left, he is the big, bad wolf.

“Anyone who has covered Roger Ailes knows that he is the most combative man in American media.”

Among other things, the book delves heavily into the paranoia Ailes exhibits in his personal and professional life. There are some fascinating tidbits. On the enormous Ailes estate out of Manhattan, all trees were removed so the family could have a full view of imminent attacks on the property. Contractors helped install an underground bunker possessing a six-month supply of freeze-dried food and several bedrooms (with televisions).

Some blame for the 2012 loss by Mitt Romney to Barrack Obama can be apportioned to Ailes, according to Sherman. The network’s politics became more extreme through the race as the Ailes worldview was pushed on-air. Romney was unable to break out of the far-right image Fox had created for him. Romney, says Sherman, was a more moderate candidate.

Ailes told his executive team during the 2012 campaign that “we are going to have to do a lot to get this guy elected”. He told one associate he did not think Romney had the spine to “rip Obama’s face off”, so Ailes apparently took it upon himself to run Romney’s media strategy. The war room was essentially being run out of Fox News HQ in Manhattan.

Also in the book, Ailes deems Sarah Palin, whom he awarded a huge contract and a home studio in Alaska, “an idiot”. Bill O’Reilly, his long-running prime-time ratings winner, is “a book salesman with a TV show”.

His personal politics are quite extreme. He dislikes most Republican moderates but is pragmatic enough to know that he has to work through them to achieve his goals.

As portrayed in the book, as well as paranoid, Ailes is also highly temperamental, authoritarian in his management style and at times extremely unpleasant. It describes enemies being followed by mysterious henchmen in black SUVs. (A Gawker editor this week said Ailes also had him tailed).

The book’s launch, which CNN covered with zeal, has gone almost unmentioned on-air on Fox. Fox released a statement after Sherman’s first interview on CNN this week, describing it as “another example of an agenda-driven cottage industry built on attacking Fox News … The author failed to secure an interview with the principal subject.”

Fox insists Sherman should have submitted the manuscript to be fact-checked. The author says he attempted to contact Ailes more than a dozen times via phone, email and in person. He travelled interstate several times in an attempt to meet with him, and there are two brief, fractious personal meetings detailed in the book. Sherman also employed two fact-checkers, and his publisher Random House asserts they spent more than 2000 hours vetting his reporting. There are 100 pages of footnotes.

It should be noted that the ever-paranoid Ailes took the liberty last year of employing his own hand-picked biographer, Zev Chafets, to tell his authorized story. Although it was released last March, his publisher cheekily ran an ad for the book in The New York Times on Sunday. Ailes also conducted a rare but fiery interview this week with The Hollywood Reporter. Among other things, he said owing to its recent foray into documentary-making, CNN was getting out of the news business. He also delivered a morsel on his boss, Rupert Murdoch:

“He calls once every day or two usually just to gossip and catch up on the news. We’ve hit our numbers for 16 straight years. I don’t have a lot of issues related to the business side, because I tend to deliver what I promise to deliver. I think that’s the way with Rupert. If you deliver money, you do fine.”

CNN boss Jeff Zucker later told reporters in California at a television press junket Fox News wasn’t a cable news channel but rather the Republican Party “masquerading as a cable news channel”. Zucker also dismissed the Ailes criticisms of CNN “as meant to deflect your attention from the book this week”.

But Ailes can always point the ratings; Fox as usual holds a big lead over CNN and MSNBC. Meanwhile last night, CNN again hosted Sherman.

“Anyone who has covered Roger Ailes knows that he is the most combative man in American media,” the author told Piers Morgan. “This has been the toughest, most brutal reporting experience of my career.”

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