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?

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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20 thoughts on “‘A political organisation that employs journos’: how Fox sets the agenda

  1. klewso

    “What Ailes the Viewsmedia”?

  2. klewso

    FUX News is no more than a Conservative political PR concern – as are Murdoch’s toys here.

  3. mikeb

    He doesn’t seem to be a very cheerful man. But I guess none of them do. So much anger…so much hate.

  4. illywhacker

    “Some blame for the 2012 loss by Mitt Romney to Barrack Obama can be apportioned to Ailes, according to Sherman.”

    Can something be done about this travesty of a sentence?

  5. Electric Lardyland

    I think the most pertinent thing, is the fact that Ailes installed a stocked up, underground bunker and had all his trees removed, to prepare himself for a possible future attack. To me, this is strongly indicative of the perils of living your life, in the manner that Ailes seems to have done. That is, if you behave in a contemptuous, authoritarian manner towards your underlings, while constructing a world view that is an assortment of lies and propaganda, then you’re really not going to enjoy your skin deep material success. Instead, the further that you climb, the more you are consumed by bitterness, madness and paranoia. This is because, the more atrocious your own behaviour, the more convinced you are that all others behave in a similar manner and the more likely you are to create surroundings, where people conform to your own standards of venality and vindictiveness.

    I do think that it is one the great tragedies of the modern media age, that so many people seem happy to absorb life advice from aggressive ranters, who are fairly obviously, deeply bitter and twisted.

  6. Scott

    It’s not hate, it’s fear.
    I think the left forget that there is a large portion of the public unhappy with the social changes that have occurred since the second world war.
    The older white, straight, working class family is under the pump (both cultually and economically), both here and in the US. All these people want is a steady job for themselves and their kids, physical security, decent income, spirituality (through their church), a role in the world as a mother/father/employee/etc and to be left alone by the Government.
    Instead they have an increasing activist government (especially on climate change), terrorism (911 was a wake up call), job security lost due to globalisation and immigration, a breakdown in family and even gender roles and the decline of organised religion. They feel impotent and out of control.
    Is it a surprise they want a voice and someone who listens to their concerns (which are usually ignored or ridiculed by the elites)?
    FOX News (Andrew Bolt/Alan Jones/Ray Hadley etc in Aus) provide that voice. If anything, these outlets are going to be more popular as time goes on as people get older and hence more conservative.

  7. AR

    IlyW – I think that is just the awful banality of what passes for English in these amerikan daze, apart from dodgy spelling of BO’s name.
    The author probably meant “cultural mores” (assuming that he even knew the word exists)rather than “cultural morals” (wot they?)and “inciting the culture wars” was probably meant to be “class war” (just the one).
    It has been well observed that FUAX viewers are “low information voters” when not plain ignorant – over 68% of mudorc’s audience thought Iraq was responsible for 911, even more thought that it had WMD and that WMD had been found. I treasure a statement, now had to find, when US troops found an ice cream truck, by shrub in Poland “you people (journos.) ain’t bin paying attention, we found WMD today!”.
    Interesting that the audience demographics, 55+, white, male is the same as for the hate/shout jocks here, gotta be a PhD to be written there.

  8. leon knight

    This guy should be put in a chaff bag with Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Andrew Bolt (maybe with Janet Albrechtsen for polite company)and dumped a good distance out at sea..!!
    How much more pleasant would the world be without them?

  9. Will

    Ailes is one person who bears more responsibility than most for the general coarsening and deterioration in our discourse and the polarisation of our polity. He is a vile human being.

  10. klewso

    I thought Psycho was his best.

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