What Ailes the Liberal Media?
The first glimpse we get of our hero in the new book Roger Ailes: Off Camera isn’t promising. The author, Zev Chafets, sits with Ailes at his 10-year-old son’s basketball game at an Upper East Side prep school. It’s a truth universally acknowledged: A man is never less appealing than when he is watching his son play sports. If he wanted to charm the reader, Ailes would have been better off posing in a terry-cloth bathrobe at seven in the morning before his first cup of coffee. With a bad case of flu. And a hangover.
Sure enough, Ailes sits at the edge of his seat, taking far too much interest in the game and his son’s part in it. Dad goads son and instructs him unsolicited, overbrimming with the same advice (“Don’t get boxed out!”) and complaint (“You missed an open shot underneath”) and grudging encouragement (“You played hard”) that fathers have been heatedly and pointlessly offering from the sidelines since the first 10-year-old hominid blew the first easy layup back on the Serengeti scrubgrass. Yet as Chafets relates it, there’s something oddly touching in the scene, too, and soon the book’s tone softens further as the author asks Ailes to reflect on his boyhood in Warren, Ohio, after the war—picture summer nights walking to the local bijou to see Yankee Doodle Dandy with his grandmother, who would insist they save half their popcorn to feed the birds around the courthouse fountain on their way home.
At which point a certain sort of reader will sit bolt upright in shock and revulsion, blurting out as the book sails across the room: Are you trying to tell me Roger Ailes had a grandmother?
It was all too much for poor Michiko Kakutani, the daily book reviewer for the New York Times. Chafets likes Ailes, and Kakutani dislikes the book, and you can be sure the two judgments are not unrelated. Kakutani was amazed, she wrote, that a veteran journalist like Chafets refused to peel away Ailes’s hand-molded mask to expose the evil roiling behind it. In her phrase, the author—and in fairness it’s my fault, not hers, that we’re suddenly mixing metaphors here—“serves as little more than a plastic funnel for Mr. Ailes’s observations.” (Why the funnel has to be plastic, I don’t know.) Chafets, she complained, never asks the tough questions about Ailes and Fox News, the network he founded nearly 20 (!) years ago and is now, in some minds, identical to.
And what are those tough, unasked questions? Oh, well, you know, “about Fox News’s incestuous relationship with the Republican party, its role in accelerating partisanship in our increasingly polarized society, or the consequences of its often tabloidy blurring of the lines between news and entertainment.”
I wonder sometimes about the computers in the Times newsroom. Is there a special hot key on the keyboards that allows a faithful Timesperson to call up phrases like “our increasingly polarized society” and “accelerating partisanship” with a single stroke, thus reducing the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome and saving energy, time, and thought? You’ll notice that Kakutani’s questions are mostly of the when-did-you-stop-beating-your-husband variety: “Tell me, Roger, how did you get the idea to have an incestuous relationship with the Republican party?” You can find in them most of the assumptions that underlie what we might call the high-minded critique of Ailes and Fox. The high-minders claim to despise Ailes and his network not for partisan reasons, but for reasons that are civic and cultural, even spiritual. Through his manipulation of Fox, they argue, Ailes does harm in some fundamental way that runs counter to the very idea of America. He is an offense against Democracy itself.
The high-minded critique from sophisticates like Kakutani is a gloss on the low-minded critique that comes more often from the suited-up warriors charging in from Ailes’s left. What he’s done to the Constitution isn’t the half of it: Mostly he’s just a bad guy. According to a perversely enjoyable book-length exposé called The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine—got out last year by the watchdog group Media Matters, working under the whip hand of its founder, David Brock—Ailes is a demented ideologue, venal and devious, a paranoid liar, a suborner of perjury, a racist…and so on. Liberals can get wordy laying out the personal case in its earthiest form. An overwriter for Esquire named Tom Junod subjected Ailes to a typically sweaty psychoanalysis in the pages of Esquire a couple of years ago. He took Ailes’s evil nature as a given, tracing it back to childhood insecurities or something equally Freudian. Out of this roiling stew of psychopathology has slithered a bug that has infected all of American culture. “He has used his considerable power of persuasion to persuade us to elect presidents,” Junod informed us, “and, if they’re not following the ‘Ailes Agenda,’ to turn against them.”
Junod didn’t give us an example of a president that Ailes had persuaded us to elect and then commanded us to turn against, and after much hair-pulling, I’ve been unable to come up with one either. But then the case against Ailes has always been remarkably free of fact, resting instead on an emotionally compelling, comically overblown view of his influence. Barack Obama himself once called Ailes without irony “the most powerful man in America.” But we should wonder how much political power this colossus can command. Of the 315 million people now dozing off in front of America’s television screens, perhaps 10 million can be counted as faithful Fox viewers. Fox News’s most highly rated show, The O’Reilly Factor, stars an ideologically flexible populist berating liberals and conservatives in roughly equal numbers and, more to the point, gets viewers considerably fewer in number than the three network news shows command on any given night.
Besides, it’s never clear what precisely constitutes this “Ailes Agenda” that has been imposed on America with such Pavlovian mastery. A curious and open-minded Fox News skeptic (there must be some) should find reassurance in Chafets’s amiable and informative account. He’s happy to concede, as Ailes is, that most of Fox’s enterprise stories are selected and pursued, sometimes to ridiculous lengths, according to conservative assumptions. Yet where Democratic sympathizers might outnumber Republicans by 10 to 1 in the newsrooms of NBC or the Washington Post, the ratio is roughly 1 to 1 at Fox. “Most of our producers are liberals,” Fox’s vice president for news, Michael Clemente, tells Chafets, and I believe him. It could scarcely be otherwise: As a trade, journalism attracts liberals, and a steep majority of skilled journalists are liberals. This is true even of the on-air anchors. Whatever the ideological views of Shepard Smith are—Martian? Vulcan?—they’re not Republican. Smith presents two hours of news a day, from 3 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 8 p.m. Fox News is the only ideologically diverse news organization in the country.
A much more plausible view of Ailes—and the one a reader is likely to take from Chafets’s portrait—is of a man who wears his politics lightly and is impatient with crusades undertaken for the purity of the cause. Like his friend Rush Limbaugh, Ailes is above all a businessman whose success requires that his customers believe him to be something more than a businessman. Ailes began as a TV producer and spent his middle years as a political consultant, and in both businesses a rigid ideology is the surest impediment to commerce. The same holds true, paradoxically, in the business of news-slinging and opinion-mongering. Ailes courts ideologues, but he can’t afford to be one himself. Does this make him a panderer or a cynic? Chafets reports, you decide. But here’s a hint. The cardinal mistake in politics, Ailes told Chafets, “is to believe your own bull—t.” His true genius, he might have added, has been to make everyone else believe it.