NEW YORK -- Around 5 p.m. on Election Day 2012, Fox News chief Roger Ailes realized that Mitt Romney would not make it to the White House. "Thank you, Chris Christie," Ailes groused.
Ailes was frustrated that the New Jersey governor appeared alongside President Barack Obama days earlier to survey the damage of Hurricane Sandy. When Ailes was told polling data suggested the incident hadn't hurt the Republican Party's chances, he responded: "Well, hugging the guy couldn't help people feel good about Romney, either."
This wasn't how the race was supposed to end. During an afternoon meeting before the 2010 midterm elections, Ailes told executives he wanted "to elect the next president."
Fox News already ruled the ratings and boasts annual earnings of around $1 billion. Most network chiefs would be ecstatic. But Ailes isn’t like most –- or really, any -– other top cable news executives. A visionary in the world of political messaging on television, Ailes had advised three past Republican presidents on how to use the medium to their advantage. And now he planned to use his talents for the party once more.
With the exception of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Ailes had privately knocked the 2008 Republican field as the “seven dwarves" and wasn't impressed with the crop of 2012 contenders. He unsuccessfully tried twice to convince Christie to run in 2012 and sent an emissary to Afghanistan with hopes that Gen. David Petraeus would enter the race.
During a meeting at Fox, Ailes told candidate Jon Huntsman, who had a solid conservative record as Utah governor, he was “not of our orthodoxy” because of his views on climate change. He grew frustrated with Fox News contributor Sarah Palin, who ended up sitting out the 2012 race, and had misgivings about the party's eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. Ailes once privately told a Fox host that Romney is "like Chinese food -- 20 minutes after you eat it, you can't remember what you had."
How Ailes tried to get a Republican president elected in 2012 is revealed in The Loudest Voice In The Room, author Gabriel Sherman's sweeping biography of the television luminary, from his humble Warren, Ohio, roots to becoming the “most powerful opposition figure in the country.” The book will be on sale Tuesday.
Sherman recalls Ailes’ early days as a young hot-shot producer on the “Mike Douglas Show” and his entrance into politics in 1968 as a media adviser to then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who had faltered eight years earlier in the first televised president debate against the telegenic John F. Kennedy. Sherman exhaustively covers Ailes’ career, from an upstate New York newspaper war to building the lucrative cable network where his TV instincts, ability to frame political narratives and conservative worldview all coalesced: Fox News.
Controlling Narratives On-Screen And Off
This isn’t the story Roger Ailes wanted told about his life.
Sherman, a contributing editor for New York magazine, wrote a much-discussed October 2010 cover story on the cable news network, and four months later, landed a book deal on Ailes and Fox News. However, he hadn't negotiated access to the Fox News chief.
Fox News employees try to ensure that the network is defined on its own terms and will strike back when it's not. NPR’s David Folkenflik recently revealed how employees used “aliases to post pro-Fox rants” on blog posts and Sherman, in his book, described how Ailes conceived of “The Cable Game.” Fox News contributor Jim Pinkerton anonymously wrote entries for the now-shuttered media blog, which routinely swiped at Fox News critics, rival cable hosts and media reporters.
Last week, Fox News claimed that Sherman's book is inaccurate since the author didn’t fact-check it in advance with the network and because Ailes refused to grant him an interview. Sherman has said he spoke to more than 600 sources for the book and employed two fact-checkers who spent more than 2,000 hours on it. Details in the book are meticulously referenced and it includes over 100 pages of endnotes and bibliography.
Ailes declined interview requests from Sherman and instead selected Rush Limbaugh-biographer Zev Chafets to tell his story. Fox News stars then promoted Chafets' flattering look at Ailes' life when it was released in March. Over the past two weekends, advertisements for Chafets' 10-month-old book have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, though the book's publisher wouldn't reveal who purchased them.
A Times spokesperson told HuffPost that The Dilenschneider Group, a strategic communications firm, purchased the Book Review ads for just over $15,000. Founder Robert Dilenschneider -- who once downplayed the phone hacking scandal that rocked Fox News-parent News Corp. -- did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about why his firm purchased the ads as the less-flattering Ailes biography was hitting the shelves on Jan. 14.
Sherman’s book, however, sheds some light on a possible motive: Dilenschneider, he wrote, is Ailes' "personal PR consultant.”
'If There’s A Fight, We Should Be The One Doing The Shooting'
As Ailes sought to take control of his legacy, he simultaneously kept his eyes on the 44th president.
Fox News dialed up the anti-Obama rhetoric as soon as Obama took office, with Glenn Beck’s 5 p.m. show launching in Jan. 2009. Beck, who turned the network’s afternoon “black hole” into a ratings bonanza, ignited controversy months later by claiming Obama harbored a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Sherman wrote that Ailes privately told executives he agreed with Beck’s remark.
Ailes, who is prone to fits of rage and appears in the book as increasingly paranoid, holds a number of theories about Obama and the Democrats. Sherman wrote how Ailes “told his advisers that if Obama were reelected, he could be prosecuted and jailed, like a political prisoner.” And a Murdoch family intimate told Sherman that Ailes believed the Democratic National Committee "had targeted him [Ailes] for assassination."
In April 2009, Fox News began heavily promoting the conservative tea party movement and hired Palin the following January as an on-air contributor.
Ailes' TV instincts proved correct as the anti-Obama right tuned in and ratings shot up. But some establishment Republicans worried about Ailes' political acumen as polarizing figures on Fox News, such as Palin and Beck, began to define the party.
“Why are you letting Palin have the profile?” veteran Republican operative Karl Rove asked Ailes in a meeting, according to the book. “Why are you letting her go on your network and say the things she’s saying? And Glenn Beck? These are alternative people who will never be elected and they’ll kill us.”
Fox News and Beck -- who started building his own, separate media empire as his popularity soared -– split in April 2011, and five months later, Ailes claimed the network was making a “course correction” away from fiery, anti-Obama programming.
But the raucous Republican primary continued, with some Romney staffers blaming Fox News for the candidate’s loss in the South Carolina primary. Days earlier, then-GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich engaged in a racially charged exchange with Fox News debate moderator Juan Williams that drew cheers from the audience.
Sherman wrote that Romney media strategist Stuart Stevens told campaign advisers that "he thought Ailes put a black newsman onstage as a way of symbolically putting Obama in a room filled mainly with white conservatives" and therefore Gingrich's heated response became "a symbolic smack-down of the president.”
Ailes dismissed internal concerns that the primary circus would hurt Republicans' chances in the general election. “You can create a Reagan through an intra-party fight,” Ailes told an executive, according to the book. “If there’s a fight, we should be the one doing the shooting.”
During Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign in 1984, Ailes was brought aboard to help the president overcome a shaky debate performance. Four years later, Ailes pushed former President George H. W. Bush Sr. when he was running, to overcome his "wimp" reputation. Bush appreciated Ailes' candor, such as telling the candidate he looked "like a fucking clerk" in a short-sleeve shirt he'd planned to wear at a speech. Ailes advised Bush to go on the offense against CBS News anchor Dan Rather in the face of tough questions about the Iran-Contra scandal.
Similarly, Ailes suggested to Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol that Romney should go for the jugular in 2012. According to Sherman's book, Ailes said: "Romney’s gotta rip Obama’s face off. It’s really hard to do. I did this with Bush Sr. He was uncomfortable with ripping Dukakis’s face off. George had to tell Barbara, ‘Look, this is Roger’s thing.’ It made Barbara uncomfortable that George was going to negative, but I had to rip off [Democratic challenger Michael] Dukakis’s face.”
During the final months of the 2012 campaign, Ailes helped prep vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and recommended an adviser to help with his television performance, according to the book.
Any casual Fox News viewer in 2012 could see how the network was pulling for Romney, either by hyping an out-of-context remark from Obama about redistribution, or by distorting a widely covered 2007 campaign speech that addressed issues of race and poverty. The morning after Romney won the hard-fought Republican primary, "Fox & Friends" aired what was essentially a four-minute attack ad against Obama.
But Sherman's book fills in the story with behind-the-scenes details, typically provided by anonymous sources. For instance, Sherman wrote that the "Fox & Friends" video was "Ailes's brainchild," a version of events that conflicts with Fox News' statement at the time that senior management wasn't aware of it.
On Election Night, Rove famously melted down on Fox News as the network announced that Ohio, and therefore the election, was lost. Obama's decisive reelection prompted soul-searching among Republicans, including how the prospect of a Romney victory seemed so likely on Fox News and within the conservative media bubble.
Ailes, 73, has signed on to steer Fox News through 2016. And so whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a presumed frontrunner, or someone else, becomes the Democratic nominee it should be expected that Fox News will be on the attack. Just because Ailes lost a battle, doesn’t mean the war’s over.
(Disclosure: The reporter worked with Sherman at The New York Observer.)