How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory: The onetime Nixon operative has created the most profitable propaganda machine in history. Inside America's Unfair and Imbalanced Network
by Tim Dickinson
At the Fox News holiday party the year the network overtook archrival CNN in the cable ratings, tipsy employees were herded down to the basement of a Midtown bar in New York. As they gathered around a television mounted high on the wall, an image flashed to life, glowing bright in the darkened tavern: the MSNBC logo. A chorus of boos erupted among the Fox faithful. The CNN logo followed, and the catcalls multiplied. Then a third slide appeared, with a telling twist. In place of the logo for Fox News was a beneficent visage: the face of the network’s founder. The man known to his fiercest loyalists simply as "the Chairman" – Roger Ailes.
“It was as though we were looking at Mao,” recalls Charlie Reina, a former Fox News producer. The Foxistas went wild. They let the dogs out. Woof! Woof! Woof! Even those who disliked the way Ailes runs his network joined in the display of fealty, given the culture of intimidation at Fox News. “It’s like the Soviet Union or China: People are always looking over their shoulders,” says a former executive with the network’s parent, News Corp. “There are people who turn people in.”
The key to decoding Fox News isn’t Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. It isn’t even News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch. To understand what drives Fox News, and what its true purpose is, you must first understand Chairman Ailes. “He is Fox News,” says Jane Hall, a decade-long Fox commentator who defected over Ailes’ embrace of the fear-mongering Glenn Beck. “It’s his vision. It’s a reflection of him.”
Ailes runs the most profitable – and therefore least accountable – head of the News Corp. hydra. Fox News reaped an estimated profit of $816 million last year – nearly a fifth of Murdoch’s global haul. The cable channel’s earnings rivaled those of News Corp.’s entire film division, which includes 20th Century Fox, and helped offset a slump at Murdoch’s beloved newspapers unit, which took a $3 billion write-down after acquiring The Wall Street Journal. With its bare-bones newsgathering operation – Fox News has one-third the staff and 30 fewer bureaus than CNN – Ailes generates profit margins above 50 percent. Nearly half comes from advertising, and the rest is dues from cable companies. Fox News now reaches 100 million households, attracting more viewers than all other cable-news outlets combined, and Ailes aims for his network to “throw off a billion in profits.”
The outsize success of Fox News gives Ailes a free hand to shape the network in his own image. "Murdoch has almost no involvement with it at all," says Michael Wolff, who spent nine months embedded at News Corp. researching a biography of the Australian media giant. "People are afraid of Roger. Murdoch is, himself, afraid of Roger. He has amassed enormous power within the company – and within the country – from the success of Fox News."
Fear, in fact, is precisely what Ailes is selling: His network has relentlessly hyped phantom menaces like the planned “terror mosque” near Ground Zero, inspiring Florida pastor Terry Jones to torch the Koran. Privately, Murdoch is as impressed by Ailes’ business savvy as he is dismissive of his extremist politics. "You know Roger is crazy," Murdoch recently told a colleague, shaking his head in disbelief. "He really believes that stuff."
To watch even a day of Fox News – the anger, the bombast, the virulent paranoid streak, the unending appeals to white resentment, the reporting that’s held to the same standard of evidence as a late-October attack ad – is to see a refraction of its founder, one of the most skilled and fearsome operatives in the history of the Republican Party. As a political consultant, Ailes repackaged Richard Nixon for television in 1968, papered over Ronald Reagan’s budding Alzheimer’s in 1984, shamelessly stoked racial fears to elect George H.W. Bush in 1988, and waged a secret campaign on behalf of Big Tobacco to derail health care reform in 1993. "He was the premier guy in the business," says former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins. "He was our Michelangelo."
In the fable Ailes tells about his own life, he made a clean break with his dirty political past long before 1996, when he joined forces with Murdoch to launch Fox News. "I quit politics," he has claimed, "because I hated it." But an examination of his career reveals that Ailes has used Fox News to pioneer a new form of political campaign – one that enables the GOP to bypass skeptical reporters and wage an around-the-clock, partisan assault on public opinion. The network, at its core, is a giant soundstage created to mimic the look and feel of a news operation, cleverly camouflaging political propaganda as independent journalism.
The result is one of the most powerful political machines in American history. One that plays a leading role in defining Republican talking points and advancing the agenda of the far right. Fox News tilted the electoral balance to George W. Bush in 2000, prematurely declaring him president in a move that prompted every other network to follow suit. It helped create the Tea Party, transforming it from the butt of late-night jokes into a nationwide insurgency capable of electing U.S. senators. Fox News turbocharged the Republican takeover of the House last fall, and even helped elect former Fox News host John Kasich as the union-busting governor of Ohio – with the help of $1.26 million in campaign contributions from News Corp. And by incubating a host of potential GOP contenders on the Fox News payroll– including Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum – Ailes seems determined to add a fifth presidential notch to his belt in 2012. "Everything Roger wanted to do when he started out in politics, he’s now doing 24/7 with his network," says a former News Corp. executive. "It’s come full circle."
Take it from Rush Limbaugh, a "dear friend" of Ailes. "One man has established a culture for 1,700 people who believe in it, who follow it, who execute it," Limbaugh once declared. "Roger Ailes is not on the air. Roger Ailes does not ever show up on camera. And yet everybody who does is a reflection of him."
The 71-year-old Ailes presents the classic figure of a cinematic villain: bald and obese, with dainty hands, Hitchcockian jowls and a lumbering gait. Friends describe him as loyal, generous and "slap your mama funny." But Ailes is also, by turns, a tyrant: "I only understand friendship or scorched earth," he has said. One former deputy pegs him as a cross between Don Rickles and Don Corleone. "What’s fun for Roger is the destruction," says Dan Cooper, a key member of the team that founded Fox News. "When the light bulb goes on and he’s got the trick to outmaneuver the enemy – that’s his passion." Ailes is also deeply paranoid. Convinced that he has personally been targeted by Al Qaeda for assassination, he surrounds himself with an aggressive security detail and is licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
Ailes was born in 1940 in Warren, Ohio, a manufacturing outpost near Youngstown. His father worked at the Packard plant producing wiring for GM cars, and Roger grew up resenting the abuse his father had to take from the "college boys" who managed the line. Ailes has called his father a "Taft Republican," and the description is instructive: Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio led a GOP uprising to block the expansion of the New Deal in the late 1930s, and spearheaded passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which beat back the power of labor unions.
Roger spent much of his youth in convalescence. A sickly child – hemophilia forced him to sit out recess at school – he had to learn to walk again after getting hit by a car at age eight. His mother worked out of the house, so he was raised in equal measure by his grandmother and TV. "Television and I grew up together," he later wrote.
A teenage booze hound – "I was hammered all the time" – Ailes said he "went to state school because they told me I could drink." There was another reason: His father kicked him out of the house when he graduated from high school. During his stint at Ohio University, where he studied radio and television, his parents divorced and left the house where he had spent so much of his childhood recovering from illness and injury. "I went back, the house was sold, all my stuff was gone," he recalled. "I never found my shit!" The shock seems to have left him with an almost pathological nostalgia for the trappings of small-town America.
In college, Ailes tried to join the Air Force ROTC but was rejected because of his health. So he became a drama geek, acting in a bevy of collegiate productions. The thespian streak never left Ailes: His first job out of college was as a gofer on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated daytime variety show that featured aging stars like Jack Benny and Pearl Bailey in a world swooning for Elvis and the Beatles. In many ways, Ailes remains a creature of that earlier era. His 1950s manners, martini-dry ripostes and unreconstructed sexism give the feeling, says one intimate, "like you’re talking to someone who’s been under a rock for a couple of decades."
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