Ailes: Ratings? What about them?

Times Staff Writer

As Fox News approaches its 10th anniversary, the top-rated cable news network is not about to let people forget the skepticism it encountered when it first came on the scene.

The network opened its Monday afternoon panel at the semiannual television press tour in Pasadena with a video montage featuring excerpts of the withering comments written about its 1996 launch, many authored by the very television reporters assembled in the room.

After noting that Fox News has beaten the competition for the last 55 months, a message on the screen suggested coyly: “Can’t wait to see what people say about us in the next 10 years.”

Nowadays, no one can argue the standing of the network, which regularly attracts at least twice as many viewers as second-place CNN. But Chairman and Chief Executive Roger Ailes wasn’t interested in discussing ratings.


“I really want to talk about our journalism,” Ailes said. “I actually think that Fox News is underrated in journalism.”

Ailes expressed his commitment to foreign news, saying the network has been “beefing up” its reporting of events abroad.

To buttress his case, the Fox News president had anchor Shepard Smith chime in via satellite from Israel, where he’s been reporting since the most recent conflict there began.

“I can’t think of a place more important for the anchor to be than here,” said Smith, who offered a lengthy and detailed analysis of Israel’s air war campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon. “The most ridiculous thing any of us can do is fly off to some place, parachute in and just anchor your show there and not go out and do any reporting. We’ve hit the ground every day.”


Monday’s session offered a rare opportunity to hear Ailes expound on his strategy for the cable news channel and the Fox station group, for which he recently assumed responsibility.

He dismissed criticism that Fox News has a partisan slant, repeatedly stressing the network’s commitment to news.

“Some people have biases against us, and we understand that,” he said. “They were unhappy we got in the game. Maybe we were a little too in-your-face at times. But basically what we do is we go to work every day, we cover the story and we haven’t been forced to eat our words because we’re actually telling people what’s going on. And sometimes there’s more than one point of view to that story, and we try to reflect that.”

While Ailes said he was in “active negotiations” over the development of a cable business channel that would compete with CNBC, he said it was unlikely to happen this year.


“When we have the distribution in place, we’ll go ahead with it,” he said. “We are still looking at it. I have developed a business plan. We have not pushed it any further than that because you have to get the distribution in place and you have to negotiate that. So the only thing I can say to that is stay tuned.”

The Fox News chief was also asked about whether he would have aired a piece about the federal government’s monitoring of international banking data that was recently written about in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times despite requests from the Bush administration to withhold the information.

“I would have looked at that and said, ‘Who does this story help?’ ” Ailes said. “Does it help citizens of New York, who already have 3,000 dead bodies lying down there, to put out this information, because we’re worried the government might be doing something we don’t know about? Or does it help the terrorists to let them know what we know about how they’re moving money? That’s how you have to weigh that.

“And I think that many people felt that there was no clear and present reason for the New York Times in a time of war to do that. But I would argue that under freedom of the press, they certainly had the right to do it. And you could decide whether you want to maintain your subscription or not.”