Missing Roger Ailes

Two recent magazine profiles completely fail to capture the essence of the Fox News chairman

Jennifer S. Altman/Contour by Getty Images

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.)

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