Roger Ailes: Off Camera
King of news
By Steven Martinovich
Stating that Fox News founder and president Roger Ailes has been a controversial figure is like arguing that water is wet – a fact that need not be disputed by anyone. He's been portrayed as everything from the propagandist of American conservatives to the murderer of the traditional broadcast news – by both friends and enemies alike. Whether true or not, it's hard not to believe that these simplistic caricatures of Ailes can't possibly tell the whole story. Whether sinner or saint, a figure as controversial as Ailes must be a more complex person.
Zev Chafets attempts to paint that picture with Roger Ailes: Off Camera, an effort that is informed thanks to unprecedented access to Ailes and key figures on both sides of the political line. Although it doesn't quite fully reveal the man behind the curtain, Ailes is a master of creating a narrative after all, Chafets does an admirable job of penning a relatively candid look at a man who defines what it is to be polarizing.
Ailes' backstory isn't quite Horatio Alger though it wasn't an easy one either. Born to a working class family in Warren, Ohio, Ailes was driven to succeed at an early age. He gained fame as a producer for The Mike Douglas Show before eventually transitioning into political consulting. As a media advisor he was credited with helping to elect Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, along with a number of other lesser campaigns. It seemed that outside of a few instances, Ailes simply couldn't fail at almost everything he tackled.
That golden touch would be needed in 1996 when Rupert Murdoch tasked him with what seemed an impossible task: creation of Fox News. Available to just 17 million cable subscribers, Ailes has managed to grow it into a billion dollar operation and the most dominant cable news network in the United States. Chafets chronicles the many battles Ailes has fought with critics and describes some of the inner workings of the network, some details of which may surprise critics who assume a monolithic message is issued from Ailes' office and serves as marching orders.
There are some surprises for readers who imagine Ailes as an ogre who operates through fear and deception. His list of friends is staggering and includes everyone from Rachel Maddow on the left to Rush Limbaugh on the right. Although he maintains a hands-on control of Fox News, he also gives the staff a surprising amount of latitude in how they cover stories. Painted as a hardline conservative, Ailes is relatively liberal on issues like immigration. Although Fox News boasts a large collection of conservative talent as commentators, a more careful investigation reveals that the network's producers, researchers and journalists are often anything but.
Roger Ailes: Off Camera does tell an interesting story about a compelling figure. One truly gets the sense that Ailes loves combat and winning – whether the battle ground is intellectual or measured by Nielsen Ratings. At the risk of ending this review with one of those blatantly inarguable facts noted at the beginning, Ailes has revolutionized the news business by understanding that a message isn't enough, one needs to package that message in a way that the audience wants. Sounds simple, but if it were Fox News wouldn't be crushing its competition years after the secret to Ailes' success was figured out.
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Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.