Missing Roger Ailes

Roger Ailes is the current subject of two major profiles in two liberal-leaning magazines—Rolling Stone and New York. Both profiles are of the shocked-shocked, Fox-is-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it variety. Both are about Ailes’ purported job, politics, rather than his real job, television—that is, television is the subterfuge and what Roger is really up to at Fox News is taking over the nation. Both are kick-off articles for the 2012 presidential campaign: Ailes being somehow responsible for the extreme politics of the Republican candidates.

I am the lurking source in both stories, quoted by name, or quoted by other attributions, or having my biography of Murdoch provide the background to Ailes’ place in the Murdoch universe. The pervasive sense in both articles is that this is Ailes’ last act—which as far as I can tell has no other sourcing but me—that the Murdoch family has had it up to here with him. Both articles are, also, write-arounds: They have no access to Ailes himself. Ailes, from the distance of both pieces, is not only a ruthless and terrifying specter undermining our democracy but an awfully unappealing one too.

So a few corrections.

Ailes, in fact, is wonderfully charming. If you’re outside his circle, he seems forbidding. But inside, he’s amusing, seductive, smart—frankly, an irresistible companion. My one regret about the fallout from my Murdoch book is that I don’t have lunch with Roger anymore. His is the world of the raconteur—it’s a tale told well, and one you wish would not end. He’s gimlet-eyed, never earnest, attuned to personalities rather than issues, and with a fine sense of the ridiculous. Also, he’s a dedicated gossip. One reason he has been so successful at projecting such a coherent world view at Fox is that he is, as well as a puppeteer (what both articles ultimately accuse him of being), a brilliant narrator.

In this, he has become an epochal figure in television news—certainly on the level of Edward R. Murrow and Roone Arledge. 

He has achieved the mastery of his particular form—viewpoint- and personality-driven news—because of the happenstance of having Murdoch as his owner and of Murdoch being entertained and captivated by Ailes. This is one of those media examples, of which we will not find too many more, of men who have no patience for research or testing or quasi-scientific marketing logic and who are moved and motivated most of all by a sense of showmanship. (What’s more, Murdoch is a television owner who knows nothing about television and was therefore pleased to hand the medium to Ailes.)

Both men love politics, but for both, politics is a show—sound and fury that is not only entertaining but monitizeable. They both see politics as a set of actions designed to provoke reactions. You set a fire not so much to see the house burn down but to attract the fire trucks. Ailes’ cast of Republican actors is not meant to win elections; it’s meant to incite his audience. This is an old-fashioned idea of journalism—and Ailes’ may be the last gasp of it. (He may, too, be the last expression of journalism as a profit-making form.)

I’d argue that the Ailes story is entirely about the Ailes personality and, so, impossible to tell without seeing him up close. That is, you end up just telling a story about the reactions he provokes instead of about his deep delight and extraordinary talent for provoking them.

As for what happens now, with Ailes at 71 and Murdoch at 80:

First, it is important to understand how successful Ailes has been at News Corp. If he is an existential figure—as both articles appear to interpret my characterization of Ailes’ present position—it is because he has vanquished all of his antagonists: the News Corp. liberal, Peter Chernin, and Gary Ginsberg, along with Murdoch’s own son, Lachlan. He’s won. He stands alone. Not only is Ailes the master of the medium, but he’s also the ultimate corporate player—curiously, the least corporate, ultimate corporate player. That’s because he understood—a background in politics was helpful here—that it wasn’t a corporation with which he was dealing but a court.

In the end, he alone has the king’s ear (gossip is the secret to Murdoch’s ear).

The articles are right in seeing Ailes in a losing position, but only because there is nothing left to win. For both Murdoch and Ailes, the next generation is an inevitable, if also a distracted and uncertain, force—which will show them to the door.

Ailes ought to be a figure of awe, as much as opprobrium. If you don’t get the singularity of the man, you don’t get the man, the likes of whom, for better or worse, we won’t see again.