“The news is like a ship. If you take hands off the wheel, it pulls hard to the left.” – Roger Ailes
“Viewers don’t want to be informed; they want to feel informed” – Chet Collier, Roger Ailes mentor and boss at the Mike Douglas Show, commenting on his job as the first programming director at Fox News.
Those two quotes are pretty much all you need to know if you want to understand why Fox News is both successful, ridiculously partisan, and yet still believes it can call itself “Fair and Balanced”.
The book “The Loudest Voice in the Room” by Gabriel Sherman (Amazon, iTunes), is a biography both of Roger Ailes and Fox News. It follows Roger through his childhood, to his first real experience doing TV with the Mike Douglas Show, his activities in Republican Politics, his time on Broadway (!) and finally, as the man who created Fox News and turned it into a ratings behemoth (in the cable news arena, anyway).
It is a well written narrative that gets right to the core of who Roger is, which is basically a guy driven to win, and a man who is incredibly paranoid. Several examples of both of these traits are shown throughout the book, and they are pretty jaw dropping. One example of his paranoia is that he wanted bomb proof glass installed in his office windows when Fox started, because “homosexual activists are going to be down there every day protesting.… And who knows what the hell they’ll do.”
The book is replete with stories of Ailes holding grudges, such that after he won a battle over some perceived slight, he would then send out Fox News employees to destroy the character of the person he just defeated.
Many aspects of the book were not new to me, as I knew many of these tales of Ailes over the years. However, even these were pretty amazing, because the pettiness of Roger is on full display. One example of this I think helps explain Fox’s popularity. Early on, Roger and Chet Collier recognized when working at the Mike Douglas show, that you have to work very hard to keep people watching. If you start to lose them in a segment, they might flip the channel during the commercial and not come back. For the Mike Douglas show, they developed the idea of a each segment ending with a “payoff”. Thus, when producing a show, it wasn’t enough to say you were going to talk about some topic for the next 7 minutes. That topic had to have a beginning, middle, and end, and the end had to be something that was so entertaining that the person would stay through the commercial, because they wouldn’t want to miss anything in the next segment. This kind of thing was just not done with TV news prior to Fox News. The idea of a payoff just makes no sense in the construct of “news”. That, right there, was the game changer Ailes brought when he built Fox, and helps explain why they have such ratings success.
The very last section of the book threw me for a loop. In it, Gabriel describes how Roger bought a home in a small community in New York, and then proceeded to buy its local newspaper and turn it into a partisan, conservative rag. He fired or scared off all the people who worked there, hired conservative ideologues to run it, and began going hard after his “enemies”, namely a local man who became the zoning commissioner. The stories of how far he would go, using “news”, to destroy a small-town zoning commissioner were astounding. And it was for no other reason than he just didn’t like the guy.
If you love Roger Ailes, you won’t like this book. If you hate Roger Ailes, the stories may make you madder than you ever thought possible, like the story of the 2000 election and Florida debacle. If you are just curious how a network could start from nothing while going up against CNN and then beat it, sort of a business angle story, you will learn a lot.
But I keep coming back to that quote from Roger about the news pulling “hard to the left.” I think this sums up Roger and his paranoia pretty well. You hear conservatives all the time talking about “liberal” bias in the media. Such statements imply a conscious bias by reporters in the “mainstream” media, and thus one needs to actively combat that to be “fair and balanced”. However, this quote by Roger belies that fact. He basically admits that the media isn’t “biased” – it’s the news itself that is biased. And the only way to deal with that bias is to keep paying attention and keeping a firm grip on ensuring that a conservative bias is applied as a counter-weight. To me, that’s stunning. When a bomb goes off during the Boston Marathon, that’s just a bomb going off. It isn’t a “liberal” bomb. It isn’t a “conservative” bomb. You just report on it as a “bomb”. Yes, you editorialize on talk shows about what the bombing means, and you can apply liberal or conservative spin on what you think it means, but a bomb is a bomb. The idea that the event itself is “liberal biased”, is simply bizarre.
One final point, near the end of the book it becomes clear that the higher ups at NewsCorp (Fox News’ parent), don’t really like Roger Ailes that much. They may be conservatives in nature, but Murdoch has shown that he will back liberals if it makes sense for his business. I truly believe that once Roger Ailes goes, the thing that is “Fox News” will go with him. The station will change once he departs.
And that would be a very good thing for us all…