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Roger Ailes: Off Camera
Book Reviews

Roger Ailes: Off Camera

A largely uncritical look at the man behind The Fox News Channel that should appeal to diehard fans most and critics second, if at all.

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Journalist Zev Chafets says he was given unprecedented access to the subjects of his latest book, Roger Ailes: Off Camera, and the Fox News network itself (which Chafets calls “about as reporter-friendly as Tehran”). But while the author admits the book is “not authorized” and that Ailes had no control over the manuscript, there were ground rules from the beginning, including keeping whatever was said ‘off the record’ just that, adding “Ailes didn’t want to be eviscerated by a reporter.”

Chafets, in turn, claims he didn’t want to “get conned by a master image maker.” Whether he was successful or not isn’t the point. Less a biography and more what Chafets calls his “record of almost a year spent watching Ailes in action”. Throughout Chafets writes in a too-the-point style that seldom ventures far from the laudatory and light on actual criticism, which suggests he was aware his access was conditional or that he was hired for a specific reason. In many ways his book feels like a continuation of his last look at another polemic conservative figure in Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, published in 2010 (and whose subject matter is frequently quoted here, unsurprisingly).

Those expecting a clinical look at the man behind Fox News will likely be disappointed, despite Chafets’ access to Ailes, his family, and much of the news channel’s crew and inner workings. At the same time it’s bound to disappoint those rapid anti-Ailes zealots hungering for whatever they can find to justify their intense hatred for the man, the network, or anything remotely related to either.

Rather, the book gives the sensation of being a fly on the wall at a party, and as such this won’t  be so much a review of Chafets’ research (others have and will do that plenty), and I won’t be taking any potshots at Ailes, Fox News, or any of its most famous talking heads and personalities. Roger Ailes: Off Camera is just that – a book that attempts to present Ailes as just another human being, one with his own set of faults, frailties, and over fifty years of experience helping make people famous – or infamous. You don’t last that long in the business without making a few friends and enemies, and both are quoted at length in the book.

There’s a quick biographical sketch of his parents and growing up in Warren, Ohio, though apart from a too-brief glimpse to what some might consider parental abuse by his father (“He used an electric cord, a belt, whatever was handy”), but these moments feel less personal and more like research notes. There’s no real attempt at giving explanation to why Ailes the Boy became Ailes the Man, and much of Chafets’ narrative feels like research copy. He claims Ailes will be writing his own autobiography soon enough, so for now we’re to make due with what we’ve got.

Chafets instead focuses on Ailes professional ascendancy to the top of cable television news, from his precocious beginnings on The Mike Douglas Show to his famous reworking of Nixon’s failed relationship with television (following his lackluster televised debate with Kennedy in 1960) into a winning formula.

Or how Fox wasn’t his first attempt to bring a conservative-leaning news challenger to the air. In 1973, Joseph Coors, a famous right-wing billionaire and heir to the Coors Brewing Company, started Television News, Inc. (TVN), with Ailes on board as a “producer with a license to fire.” It wasn’t successful and shut down after only two years, though most notably helped give Charlie Gibson his shot at syndicated news.

Or how Ailes could have, under very different circumstances, been head of another cable news network owing to his success at NBC/CNBC’s America’s Talking, the predecessor to MSNBC. Chafets claims that Ailes was “too brash and too conservative” for their new partner, Bill Gates, and wasn’t included in the transition.

Chafets’ spends most of his time detailing Ailes from the outside, from the perspective of many he’s worked for, with, and often against. None of these battles has been as famous as those with CNN founder Ted Turner, who famously quipped “I look forward to crushing Rupert Murdoch like a bug,”, comparing Murdoch to Hitler, which would make Ailes a modern-day Goebbels:

“The late Fuhrer, the first thing he did, like all dictators, was take over the press and use it to further his agenda. Basically, that is what Rupert Murdoch does with his meda.”

Turner, under pressure from the Anti Defamation League, later apologized but would eventually compare Ailes to Hitler yet again years later (to be fair, Ailes wasn’t afraid to invoke Godwin’s Law on occasion, either).

Chafets isn’t shy reasoning that Fox News’ “liberals are there by and large for the same reason conservatives are at the other networks, as foils and tokens,” admitting the network’s internal balance isn’t always the point. Says Richard Wald, former NBC News president, “ethics czar” at ABC News and now a Professor at Columbia School of Journalism, that “journalism is better for having opposing points of view,” with Ailes himself adding “Sometimes, we are the balance.”

About his professional relationship with his benefactor, Rupert Murdoch, Ailes is logical and realistic: “When I go up to the magic room in the sky every three months, if my numbers are right, I get to live. If not, I’m killed. Our relationship isn’t about love, it’s about arithmetic.”

When Murdoch asked how much Fox News would cost, Ailes replied “Nine hundred million to a billion,” adding “And you could lose it all.” “Can you do it?” asked Murdoch? When Ailes affirmed he could his future-boss simply said “Then go ahead and do it.”

The media fury surrounding the 2012 election cycle saw Ailes rile critics by hiring former GOP pols Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin as commentators, charging he was trying to buy up all the candidates for the presidency. What bothered him most wasn’t the charge itself  but what Chafets’ called an ‘amateurish’ attack – “an example of journalists who don’t know politics trying to impute dumb motives to him.” For his part Ailes didn’t see their hiring as that big a deal. “I knew when I hired them they weren’t viable candidates,” he says.

Predictably, most mainstream ‘reviews’ of the book have focused solely on the choicest bits of red meat aimed at riling Ailes detractors, especially those centered around last year’s election. He calls President Obama “lazy” (clearly a ‘dog whistle’), VP Biden “dumb as an ashtray”, (but he still likes him), and several other headline-grabbing rips ripe for Twitter tweets and retweets.

There’s quotes and anecdotes aplenty, though you’d be hard-pressed to find any that put Ailes in a decent light floating amongst the journalistic muckrakers, especially from those with an axe to grind. I find it hilarious how transparently biased many journalists have become, especially those based primarily on the web, but such is the nature of traffic-grabbing and SEO-friendly headlines (interestingly, a recent one touted Ailes’ praising MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, showing once again the power of Ailes’ endorsement, and that even zealots aren’t above seeking it).

But there are several that might surprise diehard detractors. Like the the one about comedian Bill Cosby, about whom a senior executive at The Mike Douglas Show told Ailes straight out “You can’t put that nigger on the air. It will kill us in the south.” Ailes insisted and Cosby went on anyway, with the show somehow managing to survive another twenty years.

Or about his dear friend Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice-president candidate in a contest against his then-candidate Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Presidential bid. Ailes produced a film of her marital rededication ceremony and hired her as a Fox News contributor, even keeping her on full salary when she couldn’t work following her cancer diagnosis.

Of course, it’ isn’t long before the argument turns to where it always does whenever there’s talk about Fox News and Ailes from their cultural critics – race. For them, it’s a done-deal that Fox – and by extension Ailes – is openly racist and even hostile to black viewers, no doubt as they don’t fit in with the GOP’s “old white-man” demographics. Forgetting the Cosby quote above, Chafets’ spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to dispel this myth, and rightfully so, as it’s not so much what Ailes might call a ‘dumb motive’ but a hurtful one, especially for a man with close ties to the civil rights movement and early promoter of black entertainers and journalists.

Michiko Kakutani’s review at The New York Times is predictably scathing, though I’m curious if she even bothered to read through it before dousing her review with the typical anti-Fox News propaganda (a frequent tactic in online forum arguments). While Kakutani is quick to point out Chafets’ “slapdash” reporting (and in fairness, some of the research is questionable), there are moments when she does little to distance herself from Ailes’ charge – and Chafets apologist nature – that the “newspaper of record” is less interested in pursuing truth than enacting agendas it deems fashionable.

She says:

“There are not a lot of black viewers in Fox’s audience, Mr. Chafets acknowledges; his response is to quote black journalists at Fox talking about the lack of racism there and its ‘postracial’ environment.”

Actually, Chafets’ response was to dedicate an entire chapter to this exact issue, awkwardly titled The Minority Report, in which there are several examples of Fox News’ – dare I say it – progressive attempts to diversify and promote minority (black, hispanic) reporters within the network and beyond. Such as the Ailes Apprentice Program, where every year six minority kids are given paid internships in an ‘aspect of television news’, with every graduate guaranteed a job. “I noticed that the kids who got internships here were mostly white kids with contacts,” adding “Somebody knows somebody here, gets the kid in, and then helps them find a mentor. Minority kids didn’t have any opportunities like that, so I decided I’d be their contact.”

Eric Deggans, head of the National Association of Black Journalists, doesn’t like Fox News that much, saying it represents a “white gaze”, and makes it his job to chart how black journalists are faring on television news networks. Chafets says that Deggans he has never heard of the Ailes Apprentice Program. “He doesn’t know because he doesn’t want to know,” says Ailes. “After all, it can’t be true if I’m the one who’s doing it.”

Or the story about the cleaning woman he noticed wearing makeup, who when asked admitted that she had been in a makeup room and couldn’t resist giving herself the full treatment. A single mother from North Africa whose dream from childhood was to be a beautician, Ailes sent her, at the network’s expense, to a prestigious cosmetology school, and then enrolled her as one of the first Ailes apprentices. “I had seen her around the office and noticed she was always in a good mood…That’s critical for a makeup artist. They’re the last ones the talent encounters before going on the air. If they are negative people, they can bring down the show.”

How much of Zev Chafet’s Roger Ailes: Off Camera is heartfelt honesty and how much is staged myth-making seems inconsequential to its larger goal of simply talking about a man loved and reviled by millions, a reputation he may or may not have earned. Diehard Fox News fans seeking insight to the man behind their favorite cable news station it’s a must-read, if only because it offers ammo for them to regurgitate against the anti-Fox army they no doubt encounter at every turn (who themselves might find some of the info contained here interesting). I’m not sure how helpful any of this is for meaningful dialogue at this point, though perhaps the endgame is best summed up by a typical Ailes quote given when President Obama jokingly called him “the most powerful man in America”. His response: “Don’t believe that bullshit, Mr. President. I started that rumor myself.”

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Zev Chafets

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Sentinel HC

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03/19/2013

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About the Author: Nathan Evans