Earlier this summer, Roger Ailes, president of the Fox News Channel, was honored by the Bradley Foundation. Ailes’s speech, delivered to a right-leaning audience at the Kennedy Center, was rollicking and well received, filled with red meat and barbed humor, and proudly pro-American. Liberals didn’t like it. And Ailes didn’t care.
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who reads Zev Chafets’s engaging and sympathetic biography. When Roger Ailes was in second grade, he was hit by a car, his legs were badly injured—and his father took him out to a track and told him to start running. So a certain toughness was ingrained in Ailes at an early age: He is caustic, profane, and unafraid of controversy and conflict. He seems to relish it, in fact. As a kid, Ailes liked to get into fights, and he’s been fighting one way or another ever since.
According to many on the left, Roger Ailes is the personification of evil, “the pallid, smirking, ultra-rich white guy who sits atop the unrepentant lie factory that is Fox News,” in the words of the left-wing website Gawker. And yet, according to Chafets, Ailes is a far more complicated, multi-dimensional figure than most of the world—and perhaps even Ailes himself—would like to admit. He has been liked and admired by people who could easily have grievances against him, including his ex-wife (the former Marjorie White), journalists who were fired by Ailes (Jim Cramer), political consultants he has squared off against (Bob Squier), and cable news competitors (Rick Kaplan). Ailes is a good friend of Barbara Walters, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow finds him charming and friendly. He is held in high regard by Jesse Jackson and the Kennedy family.
Douglas Kennedy, the youngest son of Robert Kennedy who was hired by Ailes at Fox, describes Ailes as an avuncular benefactor: “Roger always wants people to think he is worse than he is,” Kennedy tells Chafets. “He hates admitting that he’s softhearted.” Chafets himself says that, in his conversations with the man, Ailes usually explains his motivations and behavior in the most cynical way. But underneath the cynical veneer is a fierce personal code of ethics, at the center of which is loyalty. Ailes is loyal to others and he expects it in return. “Ours is a perfidious business,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo tells Chafets, “but Roger stands up for his people.”
“Roger thinks long and hard about hiring, but once you are in, he’s got your back,” according to Fox’s Chris Wallace, who adds: “Loyalty is very important to him.” In 2008, Wallace criticized Fox & Friends hosts, including Steve Doocy, on the air. Ailes was furious: “You shot inside the tent,” he said to Wallace, whom he called a “jerk.” Wallace sent Ailes a letter of apology, and all was forgiven.
The same can’t be said about Jim Cramer. Cramer held a secret meeting with executives at CBS while under contract with Fox, and he didn’t inform Ailes of the meeting in advance. “He fired me,” Cramer says, and “we had worked together for two years.” But, Cramer adds, “He was right to fire me. And, despite everything, I still like him. He delivered on what he promised. I just wish, in retrospect, that I had, too.”
Of course, the fact that Ailes is a colorful, abrasive figure would be of little interest to anyone save the fact that he’s been successful in every professional endeavor he’s undertaken. In politics, Ailes has been a debate coach, an ad maker, and a strategist for presidents. By his count, in the more than 140 campaigns he has orchestrated, his victories outnumber his losses by about nine to one. Chafets recounts how Ailes was the one person in Ronald Reagan’s inner circle who, before Reagan’s second debate with Walter Mondale, raised the sensitive age issue.
Ailes was also a key figure in George H. W. Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988. He served as Bush’s “morale officer,” framing Dukakis as weak on national security and running some of the most effective advertisements in presidential campaign history, including “Revolving Door,” which attacked the Massachusetts prison furlough (without showing a photo of Willie Horton) and another that showed garbage and debris floating in Boston Harbor alongside a sign that read “Radiation Hazard: No Swimming” (thus effectively undercutting Dukakis’s claim to be an environmentalist).
“It was Roger Ailes who created the dominant issues in that campaign,” says Democratic consultant Paul Begala. “He did it by defining Dukakis. The campaign was incredibly impressive, and it was mostly because of Ailes. He has an intuitive grasp of what Bill Clinton calls walking around people.”
But where Ailes has been a transformational figure, and the reason why Barack Obama called him “the most powerful man in America,” is Fox News. He was present at its creation in 1996, having been hired by Rupert Murdoch after a successful run at CNBC, and in a remarkably short period Ailes built Fox News into America’s top-rated cable news network, an honor it has maintained since 2002. (It’s not unusual for 9 of the 10 top-rated cable news programs to be Fox shows.)
Make no mistake: It’s not Fox’s existence as much as its success that causes liberals to suffer paroxysms of rage, success they ascribe to its being a Republican propaganda machine that has developed bonds with the benighted. Yet the left’s ideology has blinded it to an alternative, and much more plausible, explanation: Ailes is a “creative genius,” in the words of Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric. It’s certainly true that Fox offers a more conservative alternative to other news outlets, all of which are, to varying degrees, liberal-leaning. But in a nation in which 40 percent of people describe themselves as conservative—versus 20 percent who self-describe as liberal—there are certain openings and advantages for a network like Fox. And what keeps Fox successful is Ailes’s great eye for talent.
In addition to its talent pool, Fox News is simply more interesting and entertaining to watch, according to journalism professor Mark Danner, who confesses to Chafets that “Fox, even now, is still more fun to watch” than CNN, MSNBC, and the others. “Ailes has proved cannier in seeing what attracts attention.” Ailes also understands that, in his own words, “The first rule of media bias is selection. Most of the media bulls—t you about who they are. We don’t. We’re not programming to conservatives, we’re just not eliminating their point of view.”
I have a theory I call The Fox Effect: The elite media, in part because of the success of Fox, have become more open in their liberal advocacy than in previous decades. When liberal journalists had an ideological and institutional monopoly on the news, they felt no urgency to engage in open advocacy or propaganda. But Fox, by offering a different perspective and opening up the discussion, has caused them to become more transparent in their points of view. Which is, in general, preferable to the pretense of objectivity in pushing progressive causes. For people like the New York Times’s Bill Keller, who mock Fox’s “fair and balanced” motto, the dirty little secret is that liberals hate to be reminded, as Brit Hume has remarked, that “there are more liberals on Fox than all the networks combined have conservatives.”
When he worked on Mike Douglas’s daytime talk show as a 23-year-old assistant producer, Ailes, intimidated by Bob Hope, was too scared to ask the comedian to stay longer on the program than planned. When Hope learned of the predicament, he told Ailes that he was a big enough star to refuse a request, but if he didn’t even know about it, there’s no way he could respond. Hope ended up staying for the full 90 minutes. On his way out, he turned to Ailes and said, “Next time, speak up.”
Roger Ailes has been speaking up ever since. He has changed the trajectory of television news in a way that Walter Cronkite never did. And when the history of the first century of television news is written, Ailes will be among its most successful and consequential figures. Liberals won’t like it. And Roger Ailes won’t care.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.