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Why Roger Ailes Watches Fox News on Mute

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"There are no parties that I want to go to, and I didn't go to Columbia journalism school."

Those are Roger Ailes' qualifications to be one of the most important people in media, according to Roger Ailes.  The Fox News chief volunteered his opposition to parties and professors in an interview with Tom Junod, an Esquire reporter who just penned a sprawling, personality-mirroring profile of the most successful media strategist in American politics. Beyond the machinations of mere campaigns -- where he also logged some time -- Ailes led and continues to personify modern conservatives' mastery of TV.  Good television is made of good stories, of course, and Ailes has his down pat.  It was one year and one week ago, in fact, when he told the New York Times why he was fit to run Fox News:  "My first qualification is I didn’t go to Columbia Journalism School. There are no parties in this town that I want to go to.” 



At least the shtick is consistent. 



Whether he wants to or not, however, the real Roger Ailes goes to a lot of parties, as The New Republic once documented, and he even attended the ultimate political media soiree -- the Obama's White House Christmas Party -- where he chatted with Rachel Maddow. The real Roger Ailes, Junod reports, has a few other habits that could leave readers thinking he is a quintessential member of the East Coast media elite.

There is a restaurant in New York City called Michael's... It is not the kind of place an average American goes to. It is not even the kind of place an average New Yorker goes to. It is a clubhouse for media people and for only media people — for exactly the people whose contempt Roger Ailes regards as an inspiration and a reward for a job well done. Does Roger Ailes have a table at Michael's? He has the best table at Michael's... Because he's concerned about his family's safety, and because the problem with America is that there are actually Americans there, he started buying all the houses around him and leaving them empty.

For 15 pages, the profile gives Ailes the Fox treatment -- complete with the conclusory title, "Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?" In an ironic nod, Junod deploys the proto-patriot voice that, prior to Ailes' reinvention of cable news, was largely confined to movie trailers and talk radio.  But the most striking parts of the story are more technical than ideological. 

Ailes comes across as a man completely in touch with his medium.  He often watches shows on mute, because sound -- what people are actually saying -- is always secondary on television.  Ailes used this approach to rate anchors, as he recounted in his 1989 book, "You Are The Message; Getting What You Want By Being Who You Are." (Everyone has an Oprah side.) Basically, Ailes would test talk show hosts by watching them "with the sound turned off" for about ten minutes.

"If there was nothing happening on screen in the way the host looked or moved that made me interested enough to stand up and turn the sound up," he wrote, "then I knew that the host was not a great television performer." Anchors who were boring on mute could get axed. "If nothing moved me toward that sound knob," Ailes warned, "I would often recommend terminating the contract of that performer."

Twenty years later, with more contracts to manage and a very different TV landscape, Ailes is sticking to the mute test:

[Ailes] watches TV, he studies TV, mostly with the sound off, so that he can observe one of the rules he does follow — if someone's doing something to make you turn the sound on, then they're doing something interesting. On a wall in his office, there are screens broadcasting Fox News and Fox Business Network, as well as CNN, HLN, MSNBC, and CNBC. He watches them all, from the corner of his eye, and if you give him three seconds, he'll give you the world... "I tell my people that if they want to be artists of television, the screen is their canvas, but they have to repaint it every three seconds.

Every three seconds.  Indeed, while many media companies are clumsily chasing the faster, cheaper competition online, television is bigger than ever.  Americans now consume more TV than ever before. (The average person watches a galling 4.8 hours per day.)  And today's TV, especially cable, is even fast enough and sensational enough to match the demanding tastes of digital natives, the first generation to grow up with the web.  Ailes always had his eye on programming that popped, even if the audience was not listening, and he has rarely felt restricted by the duties or notions of journalism that bind some of his competitors. 

When Charlie Rose pressed him on the fusion of news with entertainment, back in the calmer days of May 2001, Ailes was pretty straight up about it. "You can't take it for granted that what you're seeing is pure news -- it could be promotion, there could be a lot of things involved with it," he said, adding, "The average news consumer has to be aware that that is going on, so it does trouble me some. But it's like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube. It's not going to happen, so you gotta do your job."

Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this piece first appeared.