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Thu January 16, 2014
Book Chronicles The Building Of Roger Ailes' Fox News Empire
Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 3:00 pm
Fox News CEO and President Roger Ailes has succeeded in turning a television news network into an unprecedented force. Fox News is the most dominant media organization in America, generating more than a billion dollars in profit and earning the highest ratings of any cable news network.
Gabriel Sherman writes about Ailes' success with Fox News in his new book, The Loudest Voice In The Room: How The Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — And Divided A Country.
He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "Fox News is a complete expression of [Ailes'] world view. He said an interview ... he 'built this network from his life experience,' and it's true. It's amazing how this giant media organization is run as the expression of one man and his rule inside the company is absolute."
On how Ailes gets his opinions on air
There are selected personalities on the channel that literally will take dictation from him. One example is his lawyer, Peter Johnson Jr., ... who is also a Fox [News] host. He will occasionally host the morning show Fox & Friends and he offers legal analysis on other segments.
Ailes will give Johnson things to say. One source told me that when Peter Johnson goes on Fox & Friends and says something incendiary, it's not Johnson, it's Roger plugged in. So there are certain people [who] if you watch closely and you know how the channel works, that it's actually Roger Ailes [who] is speaking to the camera. He's using these people to speak for him.
On the network's early focus on big personalities
In 1996, when Ailes launched Fox [News], he brought in two executives to be his deputies. One of them was a man name Chet Collier. ... And Chet is not a political person: He's a talk show guru; he's a Massachusetts liberal; he's not ideological. And his big influence on the early years of Fox was showmanship and big personalities. Chet famously told colleagues that you could hire someone for television by watching them with the sound off — which is funny if you actually really don't care what they're saying. That was his idea, ... that you want to hire people with big personalities that jump through the screen.
On how Fox News' coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal transformed the network
That was the defining moment in transforming Fox [News] from a fledgling cable news startup to a national phenomenon. Ailes seized on the Lewinsky story by instantly adding news programming that would capitalize on it, because for his audience — the audience of conservative Americans — it distilled the essence of everything they hated about Bill Clinton: the corruption of power, the sexual appetites, the kind of lurid tabloid aspect of the story.
[He gave] it wall-to-wall coverage on the day the scandal broke. Ailes created a newscast with Brit Hume, a respected former ABC correspondent, and he called it Special Report and Ailes wanted Hume's show to be like Ted Koppel's famous Nightline broadcast during the Iran hostage crisis. Because for Ailes, the Lewinsky story was every bit as riveting for his audience as a foreign policy crisis like the Iran hostage situation.
... He moved Bill O'Reilly — who was struggling at a 6 p.m. newscast — to 8 p.m. and that show exploded. ... All these forces came together and the ratings during the Lewinsky scandal exploded more than 400 percent, so you saw instantly that there was a market for this type of conservative outrage television.
On what Obama's 2012 victory means for Ailes
The fact that Romney lost and Obama was able to counteract this machine that was set up to attack him is a testament to the fact that Ailes thrived in a world where he could keep the old Nixon silent majority together, but now that audience is aging. Fox [News'] audience is aging and a new audience is rising and Ailes is ultimately clinging to power. He's presiding over an empire that's built, in a large measure, on a crumbling foundation. So the story of 2012 is a story of failure for him.
On how the network has changed media in America
One of Ailes' lasting legacies will be that for millions of Americans, news is now no longer viewed as a way to be informed about the world; it's a way of gathering information that advances your side.
... The subtitle of my book is "Roger Ailes Divided A Country." The resentments and the antagonisms that are surfaced on Fox have cleaved our culture. The right has Fox [News]; MSNBC counter-programmed to Fox; the Internet is now populated with all brand of sites that present news from different ideological positions. Ultimately, we've lost this notion that journalism should be separate from politics. ... Now, politics and journalism have been fused and Roger Ailes has been at the center of that transformation.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, has succeeded in turning a television news network into an unprecedented political force, writes my guest Gabriel Sherman. His new book is called "The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News - and Divided a Country."
Sherman writes, quote, Ailes both remade American politics and media. More than anyone of his generation, he helped transform politics into mass entertainment, monetizing the politics while making entertainment a potent organizing force. Through Fox, Ailes helped polarize the American drawing sharp with-us-or-against-us lines, demonizing foes, preaching against compromise, unquote.
The book is not just about Ailes' years at Fox News. It's also about his childhood, his years in show business and his work as a political consultant. Sherman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, where he's written cover stories on media, politics and business. Gabriel Sherman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
GABRIEL SHERMAN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Why did you want to write a book about Roger Ailes?
SHERMAN: Well, I set out to write a book about Fox News. I've been covering media for a decade now, and Fox is the most dominant media organization in America. It generates over a billion dollars of profit. It is - it has the highest ratings of any cable news network. It doubles the ratings of CNN and MSNBC. So I knew that was a tremendous story.
And very early on into my reporting, more than three years ago, I realized that the story at the heart of the story is Roger Ailes. You know, Fox News is a complete expression of his world view. You know, he said in an interview several years ago, which I quote in the book, that he built this network from his life experience, and it's true. It is really amazing how this, you know, giant media organization is run as the expression of one man, and his rule inside the company is absolute.
GROSS: You write that in the early years of Fox News, Ailes kept a healthy distance between his own world view and the product on the air. How did that change? What are some of the things you learned that he does to control the political agenda?
SHERMAN: It happens two ways. There's a morning meeting at 8 AM which is in his office. If he doesn't attend, he calls in by speakerphone. And Ailes will monologue and give his take on the news, and his executives absorb those ideas. And they know that's the way Fox is supposed to play the stories of the day.
He even goes beyond that. During the health care debate, Ailes was vehemently opposed to the health care reform, and he gave a Fox pundit a stack of the bill as a prop. He literally gave an anti-health care reform activist a prop, which was a stack of 2,000 pages of bills, and he wanted her to wave it on air to make that political point that this bill was, you know, massive an unwieldy and shouldn't pass.
So both in his, you know, morning directives in the editorial meeting and then actually in specific kind of programming instincts, such as handing out the health care bill, he is pushing his message onto the airwaves.
Another way he does it is there are selected personalities on the channel that literally will take dictation from him. One example is his lawyer, Peter Johnson Jr., who is his lawyer, but he's also a Fox host. He occasionally will host the morning show "Fox and Friends," and he offers legal analysis on other segments.
And Ailes will give Johnson things to say, and one source told me that when Peter Johnson goes on "Fox and Friends" and says something incendiary, it's not Johnson, it's Roger plugged in. And so there are certain people if you watch closely and you know how the channel works that it's actually Roger Ailes speaking to the camera, not - you know, he's using these people to speak for him.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman, author of the new book "The Loudest Voice in the Room," and it's about Roger Ailes. He's a contributing editor at New York Magazine. Roger Ailes really has had a very interesting life, filled with twist and turns that I found fascinating that I didn't know about until reading your book. So I'd like to talk with you about the earlier part of his life, before he joined Fox News, and then talk some more about his life at Fox News.
He gets his start in the entertainment business on "The Mike Douglas Show" as a producer there. And that was an afternoon variety that I think started in Ohio and then moves to Philadelphia, it's produced out of Philadelphia for a long time. And it's a popular, but it's a very, like, middle-of-the-road show in its sensibility. Is that fair to say?
SHERMAN: Yeah, "The Mike Douglas Show" was in many ways the antithesis of the late-night talk shows that were programmed out of New York and Los Angeles. It spoke to a middlebrow, middle-American audience. You know, the common saying was that it appealed to the millions of housewives who in those years in the 1960s were often at home watching television.
And, you know, Mike Douglas was a kind of washed-up big band singer. He was nearing the end of his career even though at the time he was in his early 30s, and on a lark he applied for a talk show opening in Cleveland, at KYWTV, and he landed the spot. And that sort of saved his career.
He was almost at the point of bailing out of show business entirely, and he clicked with that middlebrow audience because the seeds of the 1960s tumult were just percolating in the early, early '60s. You know, "The Mike Douglas Show" really took off from '63 to '68, and I think Mike, "The Mike Douglas Show" became a safe haven for the millions of Americans that felt that the culture was moving a bit too fast. And he was a genial, likeable character, and the audience connected with that.
And the other fascinating thing that Roger Ailes learned in his time on "The Mike Douglas Show" was how to create dramatic television and that television is medium that thrives on spontaneity, drama, likeability, surprise. And you see all of those elements on Fox News.
You know, the hosts are - even when they're spouting aggressive rightwing talking points, they do it with a smile. You never quite know where the segments on Fox are going to go. And on "The Mike Douglas Show," the producers talked about every segment needing a payoff. And so they would produce the segments so that the viewer would get a surprise at the end.
And I think that same DNA and that same formula has been, in a large sense, why Ailes has made Fox News the most successful network on cable news. It really is applying all of the best precepts of daytime television to a new medium, which is news.
GROSS: It's through "The Mike Douglas Show" that Roger Ailes meets Richard Nixon and gets involved with politics. Was Nixon a guest on "The Mike Douglas Show"?
SHERMAN: I love this story. This story gets to the heart of the creation myth of Roger Ailes. So in Ailes' telling, the way he met Nixon was that on the day Nixon was set to appear as his 1968 campaign was just getting into gear, "The Mike Douglas Show" had booked a belly dancer named Little Egypt. And as Ailes has told it over and over again, it was his idea to stick Nixon in his office so that he would be spared an awkward encounter with an exotic dancer in the green room, who as Ailes said had a boa constrictor.
He didn't - he called it a dancer with a snake, and it was in that encounter where Ailes talked himself into a job with Richard Nixon by telling Nixon he needed to improve his television skills. And Nixon, you know, was impressed by this young dynamo and said, well, I'm going to hire this kid to teach me TV.
Well, I went back, and I re-reported that episode. It's a wonderful story. It shows Ailes' wit and his charm. But in fact there was no belly dancer on the show that day. I consulted the show logs from "The Mike Douglas Show." I interviewed his producers and colleagues who were on the set that day.
And in reality the way they tell the story is that Roger Ailes was intensely interested in meeting Richard Nixon. He put him in his office specifically because he wanted to have a private conversation to pitch him on being his media advisor. And Roger Ailes was a fan of the propaganda work of Lenny Reifenstal.
He discussed it with a colleague on "The Mike Douglas Show" how impressed he was with Leni Riefenstahl's use of camera angles. And already he was thinking about how to use television to amass political power.
GROSS: She was Hitler's - Riefenstahl made propaganda movies for Hitler. I imagine what he admired was her craft and not her - not the ideology behind it, yeah.
SHERMAN: Yeah, he was enthralled with her technical abilities. He discussed with a colleague about her savvy use of camera angles, and they called it the hero shot, in which if you position the camera lower than the subject's eye level, facing slightly up, it has this tendency to make the person on the screen seem larger and more impressive.
And so it's this - it was the technical craft that Riefenstahl had that deployed in her films that Ailes was captivated by, and he used that in his work for Nixon and at Fox, and the use of camera is one of his - I mean, at his heart Ailes is a producer.
I mean, he's a powerful political strategist, but he thinks like a producer, and he was in awe of Riefenstahl's use of camera angles and editing to make a point.
GROSS: He succeeds in becoming a media advisor for Richard Nixon. What does he do for Nixon?
SHERMAN: Well, the irony is that Richard Nixon didn't make Roger Ailes a star campaign strategist. A liberal named Joe McGuiness did. Joe McGuinness was a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was friendly with Roger Ailes. And McGuinness had taken it upon himself to write a book, a landmark book, about the 1968 campaign by focusing on the handlers and the TV men who were behind the scenes.
And he had been shut out by the Humphrey campaign, and luckily, fortuitously, the Nixon campaign invited him in, and Joe McGuinness shadowed Roger Ailes throughout the 1968 campaign as part of the research for his book. And Ailes in McGuinness' portrait emerges as the most brilliant, the most savvy, the most colorful of the TV men that had surrounded Nixon.
So although Ailes was just a young Turk, and he was in no way a senior Nixon strategist, he was a television producer who was in charge of setting up camera angles and the staging of these TV town halls, these staged town halls Nixon did to soften the old Nixon and present himself as the new Nixon, Ailes emerged as the secret genius behind that campaign, which again is part of the self-mythology of Roger Ailes.
The greatest image manipulation that took place during the Nixon campaign was in fact the image of Roger Ailes.
GROSS: Did you talk to McGuinness about whether he thinks that the book played up, you know, exaggerated Ailes' importance in that campaign?
SHERMAN: McGuinness and Ailes have stayed in touch throughout their professional careers. And, you know, Joe is a wonderful writer, and he told me in our interview that Ailes was this incredible subject. He said something to the effect of all the other Nixon men were in black and white, and Ailes was in Technicolor.
I mean, he was profane. He was brash. He trash-talks his bosses. There are a couple of incredibly memorable quotes that Ailes delivered where he was making fun of Nixon and Spiro Agnew, and, you know, as a reporter if you're there as a witness you're getting incredible copy. Ailes provided McGuinness with incredible copy. And they both - that book made both of them into star and catapulted them on their careers.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman. He's the author of the book "The Loudest Voice in the Room," which is a biography of Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman. He's the author of the new book "The Loudest Voice in the Room," which is a biography of Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News. Sherman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine.
So in 1974 and '75, Ailes becomes part of Television News, TVN, which you describe as kind of like a wire service for television stations, but it's not just print they produce. I mean, they produce video packages. So for, you know, local TV news stations, they have, you know, national reports that they can run.
And this is a network that's funded by Joseph Coors, the beer magnate whose politics are very on the right. And you describe TVN as kind of a prototype for Fox News. You say it passed itself off as having no political agenda, the press release announcing its debut, saying it had no philosophical ax to grind. But you say in fact it did. What were the politics, and how were they expressed?
SHERMAN: The secret history of TVN is I think central to understand how television and politics have changed. You know, TVN really created the blueprint of Fox. It was the brainchild of an ABC executive named Robert Pauley, who was disaffected with the mainstream media. He was a Barry Goldwater supporter, a John Birch Society member.
And so he went around, Bob Pauley went around and raised money from Joseph Coors and others to create what he hoped would be a balance on the rest of the media. And you see in these documents, in these internal memos, about how they were going to package the news.
You know, they had a plan to send all of their story lineups to a conservative watchdog group called Accuracy and Media for review. They were consulting with former Nixon officials, Pat Buchanan and others, and so they were basically saying how do we package the news that is going to appeal toa conservative audience.
And there's one just remarkable memo that describes how they would actually produce the news. And I think anyone who watches Fox News now sees the exact same techniques. There's one technique they describe as the hold frame. And then the hold frame is a strategy in which you have an unflattering picture of your subject.
So for Fox it would be, say, Barack Obama or a Democrat, and you hold that image on the frame. Another technique was called, quote, repetition. And it's described in one memo as the oldest and most effective propaganda technique. And so at TVN they were writing about how if they repeated the same story over and over again on their news reports, it would become a national issue.
And I think at Fox you can see that with their relentless coverage of storylines like the fast and furious gunrunning scandal or the terror attack in Benghazi or the ongoing fallout from some green energy projects like Solyndra. So these repetitive storylines are ways to create political issues.
One other technique I think is essential to understanding Fox, they pioneered at TV, according to an internal memo, it's called, quote "whipping posts." And so the conservatives at TVN felt that the CIA and the FBI in the 1970s had become kind of bogeymen for the left. So they would come up with their own, quote, whipping post. And they selected, for example, the HUD agency and some inner-city welfare programs.
So they would come up with their own kind of enemies list, and the right would, you know, go after the EPA and these kinds of - Department of Education would be another one. So whipping posts was essential.
And then the final point, and this is what I was taken with reading these memos that are, you know, more than three decades old, is sex appeal. One TVN consultant writes how this is, quote, one of the most important elements which we should not ignore. And so you see as they're building this fledgling news service to have a political outcome, they're incorporating all these propaganda elements, pretense balancing, whipping posts, but most importantly sex appeal.
And anyone who turns on Fox will see that the anchors are - the female anchors are very attractive. They're often blonde. They have a lot of personality. And that's the way Ailes programs it to appeal to a mostly white, middle-class, male audience. And sex appeal is at the heart of one of the reasons why Fox is such a - successful at transmitting political messages.
GROSS: Can I just add one more thing from this memo that you're describing from TVN that you think becomes kind of like a template for Fox News, it describes something called pretense balancing, showing all sides of a particular story when in fact the balance is tilted.
SHERMAN: Oh, and that's exactly foreshadowing what Ailes would do.
GROSS: And that was a quote. It wasn't me. That was a direct quote.
SHERMAN: It's a quote from an internal memo, strategy memo about how they were putting together their newscast. And that is essential to understanding how Fox appeals to its conservative audience. You know, Ailes for years clung to this notion of fair and balanced, and we give all sides, and while there are liberals on Fox, if you look at the way the network is programmed, the fight is rigged.
You know, the whole notion that liberals have a fair shot on Fox is a complete fiction, and in my book I write I use as a case study for this, I write about the relationship between Alan Colmes and Sean Hannity, who for years hosted the sort of Fox equivalent of "Crossfire." It was a right-left debate show.
And Ailes, you know, used "Hannity and Colmes" as a talking point to say that, well, in primetime we give both sides. But what I show in the book is that the show was never intended to be an equal fight. Sean Hannity, as one producer described it, was the, quote, "executive producer," acted as the, quote, "executive producer of the show."
He would decide the stories that the show would cover every morning. And then there would be a second phone call with Alan Colmes that producers would kind of humor him and make him feel like he was providing input for the story rundown, when in fact the real stuff had already been - real lineup had been decided.
And Sean Hannity would openly kind of tease and berate Colmes on the set, off camera. You know, as his ego grew, he would say Alan, what's it going to be like when you are gone. I mean, so this notion that it was always a fair left-right debate was a fiction that Ailes sold to its audience.
And we see that going back all the way to TVN, that they were already thinking about how do we present ourselves as fair but really have our side win.
GROSS: TVN, this new service that we're talking about, folds pretty quickly. And then Ailes go back to political consulting.
SHERMAN: Yeah, this was really - the failure of TVN marked the moment when Ailes was winding down his efforts to make it in the worlds of entertainment and theater and show business. And the one reliable profit center that he had, the one arena in which he was better than anyone, was Republican politics.
And by the early 1980s, he emerged as the mercenary campaign consultant. His attack ads were known for their crass distortion, their humor, their devastating attack lines. One early employee of his consulting company told me how much Ailes liked 30-second issue ads because on a 30-second issue ad, your candidate had to be for something or against something.
There was no nuance. You had to be on one side or the other, and he knew how to drive wedges that would divide the electorate that would favor his candidate.
GROSS: Gabriel Sherman will be back in the second half of the show. His new book about Roger Ailes is called "The Loudest Voice in the Room." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross back with Gabriel Sherman author of the new book "The Loudest Voice in the Room, How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News and Divided A Country." Ailes is the chairman of Fox News and has headed the network from the start. He was hired by Rupert Murdoch, the head of the global media company, News Corp.
Gabriel Sherman is a contributing editor at "New York Magazine," where he's reported on media, business and politics.
Who were some of the people that Ailes is directly responsible for bringing to Fox News, both on air and off air - people who were key in shaping what Fox News became?
SHERMAN: Well, I like to tell the evolution of Fox through the story of two men. In 1996, when Ailes launched Fox, he brought in two executives to be his deputies. And one of them was a man named Chet Collier, he was an older man. He, in fact, was Roger Ailes' mentor on "The Mike Douglas Show." And Chet is not a political person; he's a talk-show guru, he's a Massachusetts liberal, he's not ideological. And his big influence on the early years of Fox was showmanship and big personalities. Chet famously told colleagues that you could hire someone for television by watching them with the sound off - and which is funny if you actually, you know, really don't care what they're saying. But that was his idea, is that people - you want to hire people who have big personalities that jump through the screen.
The other executive is a man named John Moody. And I really see John Moody as the conscience of Fox News. He's sort of at war with himself. He was a celebrated foreign correspondent for Time magazine in his earlier career. The colleagues at "Time" I interviewed said that he was a first-rate journalist. He was a conservative, but they felt he largely kept his politics secondary to his journalism. And by the mid-90s, Moody was frustrated at Time magazine - he expressed frustration at "Time" magazine and he looked for jobs in television. And Ailes hired him. They bonded over their shared belief that Christians were persecuted. In one conversation, they talked about how at Easter time all of the news media ran negative stories about Jesus Christ and made him into - in one of their telling - a cult figure. So they had sort of a cultural resentment that they shared.
And so Moody comes to Fox and Moody's job is to really try to build a real news organization. And he was at war with Chet Collier whose instincts were all about show business, and pizzazz and programming. And in that tension, you see how Ailes sets these two opposing views to clash. And ultimately, you know, Moody, through the years, you know, only could fight so much and he just, you know, threw in the towel and that sort of the show business and political character of Fox superseded news. And I think it's a story where you see it through these men and their struggles inside the office to get their worldview onto the screen. And as one executive said, you know, you can fight Roger for so long and then he's just going to kill you. You know, Moody did lead a good fight to keep Fox tethered to some journalistic moorings, but it ultimately failed and Chet Collier retired and was replaced by a man named Bill Shine who's Ailes is programming deputy and will do essentially what Ailes wants him to do. So the programming and the political side of Fox won. It's sort of brushed the news side to the corner.
GROSS: You say one of the stories that helped kind of like not only define Fox News but create a big audience for Fox News was the Monica Lewinsky story.
GROSS: What was it about how Fox handled it that helped create the Fox brand?
SHERMAN: That was the defining moment in transforming Fox from a fledgling cable news startup to a national phenomenon. Ailes seized on the Lewinsky story by adding - instantly adding news programming that would capitalize on it. Because for his audience - for the audience of conservative Americans - it distilled the essence of everything they hated about Bill Clinton. You know, the corruption of power, the sexual appetites, the, kind of, lurid tabloid aspect of the story. And so by giving it wall-to-wall coverage, you know, he, on the day the scandal broke, Ailes created a newscast with Britt Hume - a respected former ABC correspondent, and he called it Special Report. And Ailes wanted Humes' show to be like Ted Koppel's famous "Nightline" broadcast during the Iran hostage crisis. Because for Ailes, the Lewinsky story was every bit as riveting for his audience as, you know, a foreign-policy crisis, like the Iran hostage situation. So he just added programming, he moved Bill O'Reilly, who was struggling at a 6 PM newscast to 8 PM, and that show exploded because O'Reilly's outrage at Clinton resonated. So it was all these forces came together and the ratings during the Lewinsky scandal exploded more than 400 percent. So you saw, instantly, that there was a market for this type of conservative outrage television. And because the news cycle, the very headlines every day, were fitting into what the audience wanted to hear.
GROSS: So you say that Fox News is very rigid when it comes to leaks. It doesn't want its people to leak how Fox News operates, what happens behind the scenes. And you say that Roger Ailes has an assistant who helps police leaks. So what's the system that you're describing?
SHERMAN: Well, one of the most powerful executives inside Fox News is a woman named Judy Laterza. She's Roger Ailes' executive assistant. She has worked with him since the 1980s, and she attends virtually every meeting. And she sits in the meeting and takes notes of the proceedings. And Ailes would say something explosive, something like Mitt Romney is like Chinese food, you know, 20 minutes after you meet him you don't know what you've had. Or Barack Obama hates capitalism. Or global warming is a conspiracy - and these are the kinds of monologues that he delivers in these meetings. Judy Laterza will write down what Roger Ailes said. And as one source told me, you know, she'll roll her eyes, 'cause she's heard it all before, she'll write down what he says and then tellingly, she will write down a list of every single person who is in that room so that Roger Ailes has a written record of his comments in these meetings and an attendance list. So that if it appears in the press, he can consult his notes and then go interrogate every person who possibly could have been a source of that leak. And that kind of surveillance society chills these men who are making hundreds of thousands - in some cases millions of dollars - into silence.
And it was the hardest reporting challenge of my career to crack that code of silence, but I think, you know, it's a window into the secretive world that Ailes has been able to create, that he is able to get his political views directly into, inject it into the news without it being revealed to the wider public.
GROSS: You said that Roger Ailes said, at a meeting with executives, that it's fine that Fox is making a lot of money, but what he wants to do is elect the next president. And then you go on to describe, in a way, how he tried to recruit somebody who he thought would be a valuable candidate. Do you think he was trying to recruit a candidate?
SHERMAN: Oh, I know that he was. You know, the mission of Fox really changed in the Obama years. It became, you know, ultimately they're without a doubt a political organization and Ailes wanted for his legacy to defeat Obama and propel a Republican to the White House. So he set out to recruit Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who is going to his own political crisis at the moment, but at the time he was very popular. And Ailes' General David Petraeus, who at the time, was head of the Allied Forces in Afghanistan, and he sent an emissary to Kabul to have a secret meeting to lobby Petraeus to consider running. And what both those men decided to sit out the race and what it showed is the limits of Ailes's power.
In the story of 2012 and Fox News Ailes had created the most profitable cable news network, the most powerful political machine. But what made him power, ultimately, has destroyed his party's ability to win - at least in the last cycle - a national election because the brand of the Republican Party had become so associated with the extreme voices that Ailes had given airtime to on Fox, that moderate candidates - like Christie, like Petraeus - did not want to jump into the race. And then so Ailes was forced to back a candidate, Mitt Romney, who he had very little enthusiasm for. To his face, he told Romney that he needed to lighten up and stop being such a preppy. He said to another Fox personality, you know, no one ever wanted to know more about Mitt Romney. I mean these are kind of indicting words. And the fact that Romney lost and Obama was able to counteract this machine that was set up to attack him is a testament to the fact that, you know, Ailes thrived in a world where, you know, he could keep the old Nixon's silent majority together, but we're now - that audience is aging. Fox's audience is aging, a new audience is rising and Ailes is ultimately, you know, clinging to power. He's presiding over an empire that's built, in a large measure, on a crumbling foundation. So the story of 2012 is a story of failure for him.
GROSS: You made an assumption that when Petraeus and Christie declined to take Ailes' advice and run in the Republican presidential primary, that it was because they didn't want to be associated with Fox News or with the conservative principles that Fox News represented. Do you know for sure that that's the reason why they decided not to run? They probably had lots of reasons, don't you think?
SHERMAN: Oh, of - there were multiple reasons. I think, you know, people who sat out the 2012 race thought maybe in open election, 2016, may be more favorable. But it's undeniable that the brand of the Republican Party going into 2012, had been sullied by the extreme voices on the right that had dominated the debate. And so going into that, the - you know, it would be more favorable to wait instead of running against, you know, a historic president, the first African-American president in American history. And the moderate voices on the right did not see 2012 as a favorable environment for them. And Ailes tried to draft Christie on two occasions. He had a private meeting at his house in upstate New York and he lobbied him, and he had a second follow-up conversation in which he lobbied him aggressively to get into the race, and ultimately was unsuccessful.
GROSS: You're write that after Republicans lost the election - presidential election in 2012 - that Ailes' position at Fox News - at News Corp., the whole Rupert Murdoch empire - seemed to weaken. What evidence do you have of that?
SHERMAN: The reporting is based on conversations with very senior Murdoch executives. And the view inside the company is that while Fox News is a tremendously profitable asset, it's less of a, they don't view it as a growth business. You know, Ailes' audience is aging. The demographics continue to get older. It's a loyal audience, but it's not a growing audience. And so when you're in the board room with Rupert Murdoch and you're looking out at the future about where media is going, they don't see Fox as something that is going to be a rocket ship that's going to be continuing its ascent. It's had a great run, but as I write at the end of my book, every show has its run. And so they are content to allow Ailes to program it as he sees fit. He has ultimate editorial independence. But he no longer is viewed as someone who has unlimited potential to keep growing his business. And his efforts to rebrand Fox in the post-2012 world, you know, have, on the margins, improved ratings slightly, but there's no, there was no silver bullet to appeal to a younger demographic to grow into new markets. It's a very stable, mature business at this point.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman, author of a new book about Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News. It's called "The Loudest Voice in the Room."
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman. He's the author of a new book about Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News. The book is called "The Loudest Voice in the Room." And Sherman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine.
Roger Ailes is not happy with your book. And he said your publisher, Random House, refused to fact check the content with me or with Fox News. That tells you everything you need to know about this book and its agenda. What's your side of that?
SHERMAN: Well, Terry, I reached out to Roger Ailes more than a dozen times in the two and a half years I was doing the researching and writing, both in person and in writing. I traveled to different states to see him at public events to tell him I was eager to sit down and discuss every fact in the book. Ultimately, it was his decision not to participate with the book and to participate in the fact checking.
GROSS: Well, I think he might be implying that if you were doing your job, you would have handed over a manuscript to Ailes or to others at Fox News so that they could fact check it for you and then get back to you.
SHERMAN: No. That's not the way journalism works. I would not turn over a manuscript. I had a team of two fact checkers, spend more than 2,000 hours vetting the manuscript, talking to sources, consulting all of my research material. And I kept Roger Ailes abreast of my reporting and he knew what was going - he knew what was going to be in the book. You know, sources would report back to him what I was working on. He knew it was going to be a probing look at his life and career. And I offered to sit down and go through every single fact in the book and he is the one who declined. So that is reflective of his - it was a battle for control, a control over his story. And while I can appreciate his point of view, I was not going to cede that control. My responsibility is to my readers. And I fact checked the book. It is rigorous, and ultimately, he decided that he did not want to engage with my project.
GROSS: What's it like for you to be kind of in the vortex now of the like the political, cultural wars?
SHERMAN: You know, it's been a crash course in what it must be like to be involved in a political campaign, which, as a reporter, is an odd place to be, because I'm not the story. Roger Ailes is the story. But he has elevated me to a place where I - it's this kind of me-versus him dynamic. Very early on into the reporting, I started to see attacks on me on right-wing media sites.
There's been a concerted campaign from the right through surrogates of Ailes and Fox to demonize me as some left-wing activist who's on the payroll of George Soros, and just a completely distorted picture of me and my journalism. And I think that's, again, tying back into this issue of control. This was an effort to try to malign me in the eyes of the conservative audience that watches Fox, because I - it makes me wonder: What is Roger Ailes scared of? What wouldn't he want people to know about him that's in my book? And why would he try to, through his surrogates and emissaries, color and shade my journalism?
And, you know, there was one anonymous smear on a website that described me as, quote, "Jayson Blair on steroids" - and referring, obviously, to the disgraced former New York Times reporter who had been fired for fabricating stories.
And I found out through my reporting that that comment was made by Ailes' deputy Bill Shine, in a meeting with Ailes, and within 24 hours of Bill Shine repeating that line, it showed up on a right-wing website. So I could see these attacks emanating from within the building, and to me it just - again, it just was more revealing of my subject. It was, you know - maybe in a way that Ailes did not intend it - he was revealing himself to me and confirming my own reporting.
GROSS: So now that you finished the book, how do you think Fox News has changed media in America?
SHERMAN: Well, one of Ailes' lasting legacies will be that, for millions of Americans, news is now no longer viewed as a way to be informed about the world. It's a way of gathering information that advances your side. And we have segmented and siloed ourselves as a culture. You know, the subtitle of my books is, you know, "Roger Ailes Divided a Country." You know, the resentments and the antagonisms that are surfaced on Fox have cleaved our culture.
The right has Fox, MSNBC counter-programmed to Fox. The Internet is now populated with all brand of sites that present news from different ideological positions. And ultimately, you know, we've lost this notion that journalism should be separate from politics, that, you know, reporting the news, gathering fact, is something that's noble. And politicians are supposed to - and people who are politically minded - can look at the facts. But now politics and journalism have been fused. And Roger Ailes has been at the center of that transformation.
GROSS: Do you think that MSNBC, in its left-leaning, has eroded the wall between journalism and politics?
SHERMAN: I think MSNBC has responded to Fox, but they're actually very different. I mean, MSNBC is essentially progressive talk radio with images. They do very little reporting. They actually do very little journalism. They - it's liberal commentary throughout the day, and I don't think MSNBC is telling their audience that they're getting the gospel.
They don't have the fair and balanced slogan. Their slogan is, you know, lean forward. It's just a different - it's a much smaller business. Fox News, for most of its history, told its audience that you do not need to watch anything else but Fox. Don't trust the mainstream media. Fox News is fair and balanced. We report. You decide. It's that relentless hammering of this notion that it's objective journalism that separates Fox from all the other partisan media outlets there.
And it's a testament to Ailes' genius as a storyteller and a mythmaker that he was able to maintain that fiction for so long.
GROSS: Gabriel Sherman, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
SHERMAN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Gabriel Sherman's new book about Roger Ailes is called "The Loudest Voice in the Room." Sherman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine. Coming up: techies, hackers, software Americans? Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been thinking about what to call the seemingly privileged new neighbors who are changing his San Francisco neighborhood. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.