The Magazine

Roger’s Neighborhood

The world according to the Fox News maestro.

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By PETER WEHNER
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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.