It was 8:49 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Sharon Fain, Fox News’s Atlanta bureau chief, was on an editorial conference call when she saw something on a monitor near her desk. “Oh my God,” she uttered, alerting her senior producers to the story of the decade, “turn on CNN.”
It would be four full minutes – ages in the hurried tempo 24-hour news cycle – before Fox News made mention of American Airlines Flight 11 fateful crash through the World Trade Center’s north tower. What traction the network lost breaking the story, they reclaimed defining it. 9/11 was a make-or-break moment for Fox News. And for its founding chief executive officer, Roger Ailes.
They acted fast.
As Gabriel Sherman puts it in his new book about Ailes, on Fox in the hours after the 9/11 attacks, “the defining tenets of the Bush years were coming quickly into relief: the with-us-or-against us defiance; the battering of political opponents as unpatriotic and unmistakable undercurrent of Christian messianism.” Within 30 seconds of another plane striking the south tower, anchor Jon Scott had named Osama bin Laden as public enemy number one. Later that same day, Ailes had instituted “the crawl,” that steady stream of bullet point headlines that rolls across the bottom of the screen.
The crawl is one of those things now so essential to cable news that, until reading about it in Sherman’s book, would never have occurred to me needed to be invented. The crawl gives a sense of news happening, of narrative unfolding, literally revealing itself as it flows from right to left. It gives cable news networks the license to state that they’re ostensibly reporting the news in a conventional, meaningful sense in the guise of “un-biased” bullet points. As it ticks by, it keeps the pulse of cable news’ cynicism.
Remarkably, The Loudest Voice In The Room doesn’t resort to this same level of cynicism. It’s not the nastiest book about Ailes – that’d be 2012’s The Fox Effect, by David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt of media watchdog Media Matters. But Sherman’s book distinguishes itself in its diligent characterization of Ailes as something more than just some political P.T. Barnum.
Despite the book’s backhandedly praiseful subtitle and constant references to its subject’s “bluster,” Sherman develops an image of Ailes as something more than a showman. Scarier, and more importantly, The Loudest Voice in the Room posits Ailes as a real-deal ideologue: someone who actually believes all the stuff Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck (“Fox News’s id made visible”) spout on his network. (Or most of it, anyway.) This is a man who called the president of Fox-owned cable channel FX and told him not to air a movie about the Pentagon Papers because “It’s bad for America.”
Born in the factory town of Warren, Ohio, Ailes defined himself as a producer on The Mike Douglas Show in the mid-sixties. In 1967, after helping to make the stiff, alienating Richard Nixon appear approachable on TV, Ailes was hired as an image consultant for his 1968 presidential bid.
Ailes would move between showbiz (he produced a few failed Broadway musicals, and a TV special about Federico Fellini) and political consulting between the 1970s and eighties. He served as an executive producer of Rush Limbaugh’s late-night talk show in the early nineties, and then as president of cable news channel CNBC and the short-lived NBC cable channel America’s Talking (sort of a dry run for Fox News). The merger between MSN and NBC saw Ailes sidelined, then drafted by News Corp mogul Rupert Murdoch, who installed him as the head of Fox News in 1996.
As The Loudest Voice In The Room pivots from being a straight-ahead bio of a media mogul into a history Fox News, it transforms into a sizzling page-turner. A New York magazine writer who has served as a commentator across the cable news band (including Fox), Sherman’s insider access is impressive (he interviewed a total of 614 people). As expected, there’s plenty of “dirt” here, from a story about Ailes offering a prospective female hire an extra $100 week to sleep with him whenever he pleased, to his doughnut-throwing tirades, to engineering Fox’s “War On Christmas” as a ratings ploy, and his miscarried attempt to use the network to rocket a Republican to the White House (in the form of Mitt Romney).
At Fox, Ailes was able to fully realize his long-held notions of politics as entertainment. He carefully controlled everything from on-air graphics to wardrobe – fitting Alan Colmes, the network’s token liberal punching bag, with fake glasses – and deliberately obfuscated the network’s blatant conservative bias with stuff like their often-mocked “fair and balanced” tagline.
Yet even something like Fox’s laughable mantra revealed Ailes’s grander political ambitions. It was less a programming slogan than a broader cultural mandate. It wasn’t that Fox News was necessarily fair (nor balanced). It was that Fox was restoring a perceived imbalance caused by the Democrat-sympathizing liberal media. As one Fox senior exec puts to Sherman, “You didn’t need to hear both sides of the story at Fox. You were getting the other side by coming to Fox.”
Ailes’s stature – as well as his defining “bluster” and paranoia (he reportedly tried to have his Fox News office bomb-proofed) – mean that many of Sherman’s more incriminatory observations come from unnamed sources. There are a lot of senior executives, former O’Reilly staffers and even “a person familiar with the conversation” quoted here. It runs the risk of undermining Sherman’s validity, with the spotty sourcing opening up holes that Ailes and Fox News are already exploiting in their campaign against the damning tell-all, and its author.
Of course, this megalomaniacal desire to control the message only serves to certify Sherman’s characterization of Ailes as an embittered, mock-populist ideologue. And unlike something like The Fox Effect, which for all its incriminatory e-mail transcriptions and trumped-up “revelations” felt a little “duh,” like 336 pages decrying water for being wet, Sherman makes a fairly assiduous effort not to mire himself in the us-versus-them dogma that defines the cable news landscape. He dutifully indexes Ailes’s efforts to “triangulate” Fox’s political bias (as when the network formed an unlikely coalition with presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton in 2008) and mentions his thoughtfulness in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut in 2012, which had Ailes ordering producers not to insensitively stack segments with Second Amendment debates.
These depictions of Roger Ailes as something other than a frothing, ratings-mad showman-provocateur may be cases of damning with faint praise. But it’s about as a fair and balanced an account as one could hope to read about someone who has so weightily tipped the scales of American political life to the right.
John Semley is the online editor of Now magazine in Toronto.