Rolling Stone: Roger Ailes, Fox News Chief, 'Selling Fear'
NEW YORK -- Roger Ailes' week isn't over yet.
Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson digs deep into Ailes' past, chronicling his journey from hotshot television producer to media-savvy political strategist for three Republican presidents (with a stint producing off-Broadway shows thrown in). But Dickinson focuses primarily on how Ailes launched Fox News with media titan Rupert Murdoch and led it to become the most successful cable news network and a major, if controversial, force in American politics.
While Dickinson notes Fox News' success in the medium, he's clearly no fan of its message. Dickinson describes the network as a "giant soundstage created to mimic the look and feel of a news operation, cleverly camouflaging political propaganda as independent journalism." It's not too surprising that a Rolling Stone reporter is critical of Fox News, but Dickinson reports that Murdoch may not be such fan of the network's programming either. He writes:
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."
Here we go again! As with the New York profile, Ailes didn't speak on the record, leaving the reporter to seek out individuals close to the Fox News chairman for insight into the inner-workings and power dynamics at the network. Given Ailes' influential position, such sources are understandably fearful of retribution for talking to the media.
Indeed, it was a Republican source "close to Ailes" who told New York that Ailes thinks former Alaska Governor and Fox News contributor Sarah Palin is "stupid" and "an idiot." Fox News executive vice president Bill Shine shot back the next day, saying that Ailes thinks Palin is smart and that "members of the left-wing media are extremely terrified and threatened by her." Shine added that Ailes would figure out the source's identity and that person would "no longer be 'close to Ailes.'"
Such anonymous quotes play directly into Palin's and Fox News' ongoing narrative that there's a liberal -- or "lamestream" -- media elite out to get the network. On his show Tuesday night, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly argued that the liberal media will work to re-elect President Obama in 2012 and bash Fox News in the process.
We'll see if Fox News pushes back on any of the provocative, anonymous quotes in the Rolling Stone piece, too. But Dickinson isn't the first journalist to describe Murdoch as having issues with Fox News programming. Michael Wolff, in his biography of the media baron, described Murdoch as being embarrassed by the network. And yet, despite such claims, Murdoch has stuck with Ailes since the beginning and pays him over $20 million a year to lead the top-rated cable network.
In the profile, Dickinson recalls how Ailes built up Fox News. He poached Neil Cavuto and Steve Doocy from his former bosses at NBC and hired ABC News veteran Brit Hume and former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Tony Snow. (Snow, who died of cancer in 2008, had left the network to become press secretary to George W. Bush two years earlier). Joe Peyronnin, the head of the earlier incarnation of Fox News, told Rolling Stone that Ailes used a political "litmus test" for already existing staff as he took over the nascent network. "He was going to figure out who was liberal or conservative when he came in, and try to get rid of the liberals," Peyronnin said.
A critical moment in the history of Fox News (and the country) came four years later. Dickinson describes how Ailes selected John Prescott Ellis, a former Boston Globe columnist and first cousin of George W. Bush, to run the network's "decision desk" on the night of the 2000 presidential election. "In any newsroom worthy of the name, such a conflict of interest would have immediately disqualified Ellis," Dickinson writes. "But for Ailes, loyalty to Bush was an asset."
Fox News, with Ellis analyzing the precinct numbers coming in, was first to call Florida for Bush -- thus tipping the election in his favor. Other networks, which still considered Florida as too close to call, eventually followed Fox News' lead.
"We'll never know whether Bush won the election in Florida or not," former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather told Rolling Stone. "But when you reach these kinds of situations, the ability to control the narrative becomes critical. Led by Fox, the narrative began to be that Bush had won the election."
And after the 2000 election? A "source close to Fox News" tells Dickinson that Ailes was regularly in touch with Bush after he took office and gave him "the same kind of pointers he used to give George H.W. Bush - delivery, effectiveness, political coaching."