Roger Ailes: Off Camera by Zev Chafets (Sentinel, 272 pp., $26.95)
A few years ago, Zev Chafets wrote a book about Rush Limbaugh. Now he has written a book about Roger Ailes. He seems to be making a specialty of larger-than-life conservative figures. For some on the left, he says, Limbaugh and Ailes are the “two Great Satans.” For others, of course, they are more like folk heroes.
Actually, Chafets is a writer without specialty. He has written a range of books, including novels. Among his topics are Detroit, Israel, baseball, and the Mob. He has a love of American culture, and he handles racial topics especially well, I would say. In any event, he has an eye for an interesting story and an interesting person.
As for his politics, they appear to be centrist — maybe even moderately conservative. I suspect he is a birth Democrat whom the flow of events has dragged right. He speaks of the “liberalism” of CBS News as though he were stating a simple fact — as though he were saying that Topeka is the capital of Kansas. Which it is.
In writing his latest book, he had the cooperation of Ailes, he tells us, but not his authorization. The book is “not a formal biography,” Chafets says; it’s “a record of almost a year spent watching Roger Ailes in action.” That it is, but it also serves as a biography, whatever we call it.
Ailes is president of Fox News, and a king of media. But he’s also, says Chafets, a “blue-collar guy from a factory town in Ohio who has stayed close to his roots.” At their first meeting, Chafets found his subject “plainspoken, wryly profane, caustic, and anxious for me to know that he doesn’t give a good goddamn about fancy parties, political correctness,” and so on.
His previous subject, Limbaugh, and his current subject have a lot in common, as Chafets writes. They grew up in similar places with similar values, and came to similar conclusions. They both have buccaneering, joyful personalities. Neither shies from a fight. The author quotes Limbaugh as saying, “Ideologically and culturally, we are two peas in a pod.”
The town in Ohio Ailes is from is Warren, in the northeast, near Youngstown. He was born there in 1940. His family, like other families, experienced much drama: war, divorce, loss of social station. This makes for fascinating reading. The chapter on Warren is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Roger was afflicted with hemophilia, in and out of hospitals, but he was hardly stopped. He charged at life. His brother, a doctor, says, “It’s very well known in the medical literature that hemophiliacs tend to be daredevils, the kind of guys who wind up jumping over canyons on motorcycles. Roger fit that bill.” His mother saw to it that he had some of the graces: piano, elocution, and ballet.
After graduating from Ohio University, Ailes went into television. Before he was an éminence grise, he was a wunderkind. “Roger Ailes was a legend at a very young age,” says Marvin Kalb, the veteran newsman. Ailes went to work on The Mike Douglas Show. “It was the best hire I’ve ever made,” says the producer who hired him, Woody Fraser. Other employers have had reason to feel the same.
Everyone and his brother appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, from a variety of fields. Showbiz types, yes, but also Martin Luther King Jr. “He came on three or four times,” Ailes says. “He’d sit in my office waiting to go on and we’d smoke cigarettes and chat about personal things or what was happening politically. I really don’t remember anything specific. I wish I could.” Not a few reminiscers would make something up.
One day, Nixon came on. This was during his “wilderness years,” when he was out of office but trying to come back. (You could never rule him out, till you could.) Also booked that day on Douglas was an exotic dancer with a boa constrictor. Says Ailes, “I figured I better not put her and Nixon in the same greenroom. I didn’t want to scare him, or the snake.”
Ailes went on to do some work for Nixon, and for Reagan, and for Bush 41, and for many another politician. He was a consultant greatly in demand. I thought I had heard every Reagan story worth hearing, but I learned another one from Ailes, through Chafets. I like this one because it illustrates a point too seldom made: Reagan was not putty in his wife’s hands, at least not always. He could speak sharply to her.
The two were doing an anti-drug commercial together. She kept instructing him — sort of sniping at him. Finally, he said, “You know, I’ve actually done this before.” She stomped off. Reagan told Ailes, “She’ll be back in 15 minutes.” They watched some football. Mrs. Reagan returned about 14 minutes and 58 seconds later.
Ailes headed two NBC channels: CNBC and America’s Talking (the forerunner to MSNBC). Then came the marriage of Rupert Murdoch and Ailes, and its offspring, Fox News. Chafets quotes some pooh-poohing of this new project by the New York Times. He also quotes Jack Welch, who was the chairman and CEO of General Electric, NBC’s parent company: “You put a creative genius together with a guy with the guts and wallet of Rupert Murdoch and you have an unbeatable combination.”
The question of Fox News is perpetually debated: Is it a news network, “fair and balanced,” or a right-wing propaganda outfit? Chafets explores this question in absorbing detail. I will relay a tidbit: In 2011, the CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry was contemplating a jump to Fox. (A jump he made.) He was worried he’d be stigmatized as a right-winger. He encountered Stephen Breyer, the liberal Supreme Court justice, who told him something interesting, and reassuring: He watched Fox’s Special Report every night, because he valued its reporting as straight.
There is no doubt Ailes is right when he says, “The first rule of media bias is selection” — what you choose to cover, what you choose to ignore. Probably the oldest of the conservative media watchdogs is AIM, whose initials stand for “Accuracy in Media.” Accuracy is indeed a problem. But it is possible to be perfectly accurate and at the same time loaded with bias. Any journalist knows this, and consumers of journalism should know it too.
Last year, Les Moonves did something that a lot of us found sort of refreshing: He attended an Obama fundraiser in Hollywood. If you’re a CBS honcho, why not? Moonves remarked, “Partisanship is very much a part of journalism now.” He could have done without the “now,” for it has long been thus, particularly at his network.
The reaction of establishment media to Fox News has been a wonder to behold. Some winters ago, I was at Davos, listening to a PBS figure speak to the head of al-Jazeera. He said, “If you want to know why the American public is so ignorant and belligerent, you have to understand Fox News. People sit in front of it all day, and it gives them war fever.” I have paraphrased, but very closely. At the beginning of this year, Al Gore sold his Current TV to al-Jazeera. He said that he and Jazeera shared the same mission: “to speak truth to power,” etc.
It is a melancholy and significant fact that many of our leading liberals feel a greater affinity with al-Jazeera than with Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox.
After 9/11, some of the Fox personalities began to wear American-flag lapel pins. They didn’t have to, but it was their choice. The choice did not sit well with some in the media world: They regarded these pins as unprofessional and uncouth. One of the critics was Morley Safer, the 60 Minutes stalwart, who let Ailes know what he thought. Ailes answered, “I’m a little bit squishy on killing babies, but when it comes to flag pins I’m pro-choice.”
Ailes is indeed anti-abortion, and I might mention too that he is pro-Israel. Chafets tells us there are two framed photographs in his office: One is of Patton; the other shows Ailes shaking hands with Netanyahu. If you know where a man stands on abortion and Israel, you know a lot about him.
I have been quoting Ailes freely, and so does Chafets — so would anyone. Ailes is a quote machine, a fount. I have about 15 I’d like to share with you — 15 more — but I’ll settle for one. In the tony, liberal community where Ailes lives — Garrison, N.Y. — there used to be a restaurant down by the river. The establishment was torn down in favor of a “passive-use park.” Says Ailes, “They took a place where a guy could sit and look at the water and drink a beer or eat a cheeseburger and turned it into a place for dogs to sh**. How the hell is that an improvement?”
At this point in a review — positive, like mine — you say what you think the author did wrong. I will bring up an issue: Chafets writes, “The use of music intros and outros to the news is now so common that it goes unnoticed. Roger Ailes started it.” Maybe I have misunderstood Chafets — but The Huntley-Brinkley Report used a portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. John Williams wrote his music for NBC News in the mid-1980s.
No matter. Chafets does his usual intelligent, illuminating, and stylish job.
About ten years ago, we at National Review were interested in doing a feature piece on Ailes. I requested an interview and he declined, jovially. He said he wanted to save his material — his life story — for his memoirs. Chafets writes that he is indeed planning to write those memoirs, and has undoubtedly held some things in reserve. A book to look forward to.