The power behind the throne at Fox
Rupert Murdoch's news channel has brought a new venom to US political life. Even his own family is unhappy. But that's unlikely to bother Roger Ailes, its pugnacious boss
Tuesday 12 January 2010
An urgent question arises regarding Roger Ailes, one-time heavy-weight Republican campaign consultant turned Fox News chief for Rupert Murdoch. Why does he need two tinted-window sport utility vehicles to commute daily into New York City from bucolic Putnam County? Answer: to accommodate his ego. The real explanation, according to a
New York Times profile, is security and Ailes' belief since 9/11 that he could be a terrorist target.
The same piece described him as the most successful new television executive of the last decade, not least because Fox News – which he started from zero in 1996 for Murdoch – makes more money than CNN and MSNBC and the evening news bulletins of the broadcast networks combined. Nobody really needed to tell Mr Ailes this. He and his on-screen crew of conservatives at Fox – notable among them Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity – have been savouring the ascendancy of the channel for years. They love that it is so profitable, that it has become so influential a voice in American politics and – above all – that it finds ways to send every liberal in the country into fresh fits of furious indignation almost hourly.
The outrage-meter – and the ratings – are sure to bump up one more notch with the revelation yesterday that Fox has landed Sarah Palin as a regular contributor. This is another Ailes coup, regardless of whether hiring the former vice-presidential candidate is a boon or a death knell for intelligent conversation on the dial.
"If he were a Democrat, I think there would be 67 Democratic senators right now," the Democratic political consultant James Carville says of Ailes. (As against the 60 Democrats in fact in the Senate) "In terms of the news business, the cable television business, and the political business, there is him and then there is everybody else."
It is the on-air antics of O'Reilly et al that generally get everyone's attention. There was a moment to chuckle yesterday when Fox continued to try to make hay out of a plausibly racist remark attributed to the Senate Majority leader Harry Reid in a new book about Barack Obama. Fox ticking someone off for racist innuendo? Only funnier would be Fox calling itself "Fair and Balanced" when it comes to its political reporting. Except that that is what it calls itself.
O'Reilly liked the New York Times profile of his boss. "Well done Roger!" he gushed on the sodahead blog site yesterday. "Roger Ailes is openly right of centre and has been a screaming success in an industry dominated by the left." The irony is that when conservatives rail about America's "liberal left media" they especially mean Manhattan's Grey Lady, The New York Times.
But for all the racket that O'Reilly and his brethren generate on the air, belittling liberals and warning of the cataclysm that is Obama's America, it has always been Ailes who has driven the channel's agenda, which is perhaps why Mr Murdoch reportedly paid him $23m (£14.3m) last year (more than he paid himself.) Those who can't bear Fox are correct, therefore, when they bypass the on-air talent and direct their fire directly at Ailes.
That, notably, is what the London public relations veteran Matthew Freud did at the weekend. (It had a particular punch because Freud is married to Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert.)
"I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes's horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to," he declared. The remarks were enough to generate a small riposte from a company spokesman. "Matthew Freud speaks only for himself, and his views in no way reflect those of Rupert Murdoch, who is proud of Roger Ailes and Fox News."
Ailes boasts that he does not go to parties in Manhattan. Rather, he celebrates the fact that he is the son of a factory foreman from Ohio, and feels that he has nothing in common with the elite classes of the US East or West Coasts. He is of Middle America. "I built this channel from my life experience," Mr Ailes, 69, said. "My first qualification is I didn't go to Columbia Journalism School."
Ailes was famously 27 when, as a young researcher for a TV chat programme, he met then presidential candidate Richard Nixon and corrected him for suggesting that TV was nothing more than a gimmick in politics. It was 1968. Believe that, he told him, and you will never get elected to the White House. Nixon subsequently hired the young Ohioan.
But it was as a campaign consultant to Ronald Reagan and later to George Bush, that Ailes grew into every American liberal's bogeyman. It was a reputation that was cemented by his role in conceiving the TV ads that helped doom the presidential run of Michael Dukakis and put Bush Senior in the White House.
Ailes and his campaign colleague, Lee Atwater, did not make and run the most egregious of those spots about a weekend prisoner furlough programme introduced by Dukakis while he was Governor of Massachusetts. But he and Atwater did produce another spot on the same theme attacking a similar Dukakis prison early-release programme. Critics claimed the campaign exploited racial fears to get their man elected. To be accused of using race as a wedge issue remains one of the harshest criticism that can be levelled at a political campaign in the US.
If Democrats were relieved when Ailes announced in 1992 that he was quitting the political consulting business, they shouldn't have been, because he went into something else that would give him just as much influence – television. He began by running CNBC, the US's main business news cable channel and thereafter a now defunct channel called America's Talking, which later became MSNBC, the 24-hour-news joint venture of Microsoft and NBC. When Murdoch hired him to start Fox News the idea that it could catch up with CNN, let alone one day eclipse it domestically, seemed outlandish.
Aside from his conservative, Middle America instincts, Ailes also thinks he grasps something about the purveyance of news that many others in the business remain squeamish about. To get an audience, you need to be entertaining, or provocative, and hopefully both at once. It is not exactly about the dumbing-down of news – even though some would argue that Ailes has played a huge part in that process. In the case of Fox, it's more about identifying where its audience lies and appealing directly to their political prejudices by hiring on-air talent who love to share them. Forget fair and balanced, which the channel isn't. (But nor, its fans would claim, is The New York Times or any other member of that liberal left-wing media machine.)
Like it or not, Ailes has left CNN and MSNBC uncertain of how best to respond. The latter has essentially borrowed tricks from his book, with correspondents and commentators from the other side of the political spectrum who know how to be outspoken in their views, but who can never bring themselves to be quite as extreme as their Fox counterparts. CNN experimented with the formula when it allowed Lou Dobbs to err into crazy-man territory about illegal immigration and Obama being a foreigner, until they lost their nerve and pushed him out a few weeks ago.
One measure of the influence Fox has these days is the seriousness with which the Obama White House takes it. The President said publicly that the channel's coverage of the 2008 race was probably costing him two or three points in the polls. "If I were watching Fox, I wouldn't vote for me," he said.
Once in office, Obama seemed at one point last year to be in open warfare with Fox – to the extent of excluding it from rounds of TV interviews. It culminated in a secret meeting in New York in September between Ailes and White House top aide David Axelrod which was meant to smooth things out. Did the tone of the anti-Obama rants on Fox News change even a little after they shared coffee? It did not.
Three months ago there was a rush of speculation that Ailes might be pondering a run for President in 2012. But a White House quest would take him away from Fox. And whatever Mr Murdoch's son-in-law may say about him (and however extravagant his salary), it's a likely bet Murdoch would not let such a thing happen.
Faces of Fox: The star presenters
She and Fox clearly share the same constituency, and the fit announced yesterday is made in heaven. So far, we don't know what she will be paid. She is being described as an occasional contributor and will not have her own regularly scheduled slot.
With his TV and radio programmes, Hannity earned the 2008 "Misinformer of the Year Award" from the watchdog mediamatters.com. Refusing to let go of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 election, he said: "I think he (Obama) is Reverend Wright."
Recruited from CNN, baby-faced Beck is Fox's latest gift to the Republican right. He attracts liberal ire with clockwork regularity, most notably when he suggested last year that Obama was a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people".
Only the brave agree to be a guest on the O'Reilly Factor and those who refuse may become victims of his nightly ambush segment, when his producers track down subjects on the street. The channel's most popular host, he has been accused of racism on the air.
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