Is Roger Ailes, the founder and puppet-master of Fox News, one of the most dangerous men in America? Gabriel Sherman, a writer for New York magazine, interviewed more than 600 people in reporting The Loudest Voice in the Room, the bestselling unauthorized biography which traces Ailes's rise from his work as a producer on The Mike Douglas Show to media consultant for both Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. It is a complex and ultimately damning portrait.
This book took more than three years to report and write; why did you want to do it?
Fox News is the biggest story in media over the last 15-plus years. It is the most dominant cable news network, its ratings are double that of CNN and MSNBC, it generates more than a billion dollars of profit for Rupert Murdoch's media empire. Everyone in America has an opinion about Fox News, but we have very few facts about how it works on the inside.
So, would you say you set out to create a "fair and balanced" portrait of Fox?
It's a testament to the power of Fox's marketing slogan that that phrase has become so politicized. What I set out to do was to tell a story – of how Roger Ailes built this empire – and then step back and figure out: Where does Fox News fit into the larger sweep of American history? It's a journey back in time, to when Ailes was born in 1940 in Warren, Ohio, a factory town in northeast Ohio. We journey through the world of show business, politics, and now television news. It really is this journey through American culture, and how conservatives gained control of the media and really altered the balance of power in American society over the last three decades.
You see him as malignant; you believe he divided the country.
When he was a political consultant in the 1970s and 80s, a colleague of his told me that Ailes's favourite advertising strategy was 30-second issue ads, because they forced his candidate to take a stand on an issue. No nuance: 'Are you for taxes; are you against them?' 'Are you pro-military; are you a peace activist?' He would boil down these very complicated, very complex issues into binary answers.
In the 1988 presidential election, Ailes was the chief media strategist for George H.W. Bush, and his strategy was not really to build Bush up, but to train all of his firepower towards Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, as kind of un-American. Bush had all of these ads about Dukakis's stand on crime. They did campaign attacks about Dukakis's position on whether people should be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. A nickname that Ailes had for Dukakis around the Bush campaign headquarters was Grape Leaves – which was a dig at Dukakis's Greek ancestry.
In that example, you see how Ailes's wedge issues are trying to make Dukakis seem somewhat foreign to the white, middle-class American electorate. By selecting these issues that generally don't have a lot to do with what it takes to govern the country – I mean, I don't think anyone would argue that whether saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school or not was the most pressing issue when the economy, foreign policy, the environment were major issues. But that's where Ailes had this unrivaled ability to find these sideshow issues and elevate them to the top of the conversation. And that's where he divided the country. And he did it in a way I feel was harmful, because he targets the 'out group' as something that's not like his group, and it's a kind of alienation of the out group that I find is sort of detrimental to creating heterogeneous American electorate.
He was not always the reflexively hard-hearted anti-government operative. In 1972, he brought an anti-welfare candidate he was advising to meet a disabled single mother of six, and told him to explain to her why welfare was bad. The candidate couldn't do it.
Yea, that is a very revealing story and is a window into Ailes's character, and makes him into a human character. He had a very difficult childhood. He was hemophiliac. Early in his career, he really identified in many ways with the underdog. But as he gained power and success, Ailes's politics really ossified. The older he got, the wealthier he got, he lost some of that empathy and that nuance. And now he is a committed right-wing ideologue.
You didn't get an interview with him.
Yes, despite my more than a dozen attempts to.
In what ways do you think the book would have been different?
Let me answer this first by saying the one way it wouldn't change: Even if Ailes gave me the opportunity to sit down with him, it would not have changed my approach to trying to talk to everyone who has known or worked with him in his decades in public life. Because what we have not had until now is an account that is based on something more than Roger Ailes's own self-mythologizing. What I found after all of this reporting is that many of the pivotal moments in his life did not happen with the degree of drama and excitement that he recounts them in his own telling.
Meeting Charles Manson, for example.
Yes, or meeting Richard Nixon, most famously, on the set of The Mike Douglas Show. Roger Ailes is one of the great American hucksters. He fits into that tradition of storytellers and self-made men who kind of charm their way to the top.
It's also a story about the intertwining of TV and entertainment and politics, about the way Ailes put Marshall McLuhan's theories about media into practice. But TV is in many ways becoming less powerful. Do you think Ailes and Fox will have the same influence if he's still around for the 2020 elections?
No. I think the portrait that emerges at the end of my book is of a man who is sitting atop an empire with a crumbling foundation, and while that empire is still very powerful, the underpinnings are weakening. You see that in Fox's audience demographics that continue to get older every year. It's an older, whiter audience. It's the rump core of the kind of Nixon silent majority, the same people that Ailes was kind of appealing to on The Mike Douglas Show all those years ago.
Right-wing media has had an impressive rise.
The galvanizing event was Watergate, which was a triumph for the so-called mainstream media. The Washington Post led that story, CBS News hammered the story, and out in conservative America there was a feeling by the mid-1970s: Never again would they allow the media to have the only voice. And, since then, there has been a quest to create a counter-media establishment. Ailes did not invent the idea of right-wing media, but he was there in the wings, watching all of these people experiment with different ways to create television that would appeal to conservatives, and at Fox he figured it out.
Ailes made Fox News in his image. They're both combative, paranoid and fascinatingly full of internal contradictions: he's an elitist who hates the elites…
Hates journalists, but his obituary will be a testament to him being a newsman. He's constantly at war with himself.
Do you believe Fox could thrive without him?
I think it'll be very different. One source likened it to a Lord of the Flies-type situation: once the king is not there, all of these princes who have ruled over these principalities turn on each other. I think it's telling that Ailes has refused to release a public succession plan. There won't be a Fox News as we understand it without Roger Ailes. It's all about him.
This interview has been condensed and edited.