Weeks before its release, “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country” set the media universe popping and fizzing. And no wonder.
The unauthorized biography of the media titan revealed, just for starters, that Ailes: Once offered a female producer $100 extra a week for sex. Targeted a rival TV executive with an obscene, anti-Semitic slur. Mused that if he ever found himself as commander in chief he would require Navy SEALs to pass a new certification requirement — killing illegal immigrants as they crossed the border.
The unsavory revelations provoked a stinging counteroffensive against the author, journalist Gabriel Sherman. Ailes’ Fox News minions have tagged Sherman as everything from a “harasser” and “stalker” to a “phony journalist” and a puppet of liberal financier George Soros.
The rhetorical fog of war has obscured at least a few less obvious truths about “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” One is that, despite Ailes’ abundant objections, the author’s framing of his subject is not so different, in some regards, from what Ailes might offer himself. Would the Fox News boss really mind being viewed as a brilliant and relentless true believer who pursues a singular (conservative) vision of America?
Truth two is that Ailes’ political ideology took form relatively late in life, but his dark world view sprung from his earliest years in an emotionally austere Ohio household. A domineering, abusive father taught him that life is a merciless competition.
Truth three is that, for all of liberal America’s hand-wringing and even Sherman’s representation of Ailes as a media force nonpareil, the Fox boss has mostly failed to impose his will on the electorate. Four of the last six presidential elections have gone to Democrats who were routinely demonized on Fox News.
That does not lessen our fascination with Ailes, now 73, as a figure who has chosen to live his life in extremis and who has changed the way political news is reported on TV.
The media titan liked to tell the story of himself as a young boy, jumping from a top bunk bed at his father’s urging. The patriarch let his son crash to the floor to deliver this lesson: “Never trust anyone.” Winners succeed by beating others down. While there has been debate over whether the tale is apocryphal, Ailes carried that sensibility into his career as a political consultant, where he devised ads that slimed opponents, sometimes with half truths. A notable Ailes TV spot savaged one U.S. Senate candidate for freeing an inmate from prison. Never mind that the bars were opened on order of the FBI, which needed the prisoner’s testimony for an investigation.
When he segued into television news, Ailes determined that news had to entertain. At Fox News, that has meant putting an endless string of attractive blonds in front of the camera. “Move that damn laptop,” Ailes snapped when a computer obscured one anchor. “I can’t see her legs!”
Show-biz values extended to story lines. Even Ailes’ brother, Robert, joins in the musing about made-up stories like the perennial “War on Christmas.”
“Roger believes that the ends justify the means,” said Robert Kennedy Jr., an unlikely early collaborator on a wildlife documentary. “It’s the idea that everybody does it, that the world is really a struggle for power.”
Sherman, a contributing editor at New York magazine, worked on “The Loudest Voice in the Room” for three years. His 600 interviews are noted in 97 pages of footnotes. The use of multiple anonymous sources has disquieted some critics, but many associates have gone on the record.
Former Fox reporter David Shuster describes pressure to stop his tough questioning of George W. Bush representative James Baker during the 2000 presidential election recount. Flashing forward eight years, Fox banished young reporter Shushannah Walshe from the air for daring to demand that Sarah Palin answer questions rather than hide behind her handlers.
Ailes found in News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch a perfect partner and an occasional foil. Clearly, the establishment underestimated the duo. We are reminded how veteran New York Times television reporter Bill Carter saw little promise in the fledgling cable outlet. But the media grandees on the two coasts underestimated the cultural disconnect with people in the heartland.
The Whitewater scandals of the Clinton years — and particularly the revelations about the president’s dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — gave Fox News a chance to turn the nightly news into a morality play. Stars like anchor Brit Hume could supercharge the ratings, much as Ted Koppel had by turning the saga of Americans held hostage in Iran into a nightly staple for “Nightline.” “What Koppel had done for the abduction of fifty-two Americans,” Sherman writes, “Hume would do for the president’s creative use of cigars.”
Sherman is at his best writing with sweep about the history of cable news and placing Ailes in context. There are flashes of humor, as when a Fox executive worries that Ailes mustn’t catch him eating raw fish. “Sushi,” the exec explains, “is liberal food.”
And “The Loudest Voice in the Room” cites several examples of Ailes building his own myth as the adventurous, hard-charging newsman. In one anecdote, he recalled brawling with another producer when he helped run television’s old “Mike Douglas Show.” Ailes also claimed that when he put Richard Nixon on the breakthrough talk program he teamed the future president with a belly dancer named “Little Egypt.” Trouble is, no one who worked with him recalls either episode.
Ailes’ comfort with being part of the story would play out more fully once he was in charge at Fox. A couple of years before the last presidential contest, Ailes told associates, “I want to elect the next president.” He eventually would put five possible candidates, including Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on the Fox payroll.
But the master choreographer couldn’t push the candidate he really wanted, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, into the presidential race. Meanwhile, his wall-to-wall coverage of the tea party and other extreme elements of the Republican Party had made it easier, in Sherman’s estimation, for voters to dismiss the Republicans.
Ailes remained the ringleader, but, as Sherman concludes, “Perhaps the freak show had become too freakish.”
The Loudest Voice in the Room
How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country
Random House: 538 pp, $28