Fox: Crazy Like…Ailes?

Roger Ailes's powerful position at the head of Fox News—and the Republican Party—is dangerous, writes Eric Alterman.

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Fox CEO Roger Ailes has little respect for traditional journalism and a profound political mission. (AP/Jim Cooper)
Fox CEO Roger Ailes has little respect for traditional journalism and a profound political mission. (AP/Jim Cooper)

Last October, I published a “Think Again “ column called, “Just What Exactly Is Fox News?” in which I sought to argue that “Fox is something new—something for which we do not yet have a word. It provides almost no actual journalism. Instead it gives ideological guidance to the Republican Party and millions of its supporters, attacking its opponents and keeping its supporters in line. And it does so at a hefty profit, thereby turning itself into the political equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.”

 In recent weeks, we’ve seen a spate of reporting focusing on Fox CEO Roger Ailes that demonstrates just how deeply the contempt for traditional journalism runs in the organization, and how profoundly political its mission truly is. The first of these, New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman revealed that Ailes, unhappy with the potential Republican presidential candidates, including the four he had on his payroll—Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum —had telephoned New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to try to talk him into jumping into the race. 

Ailes is widely recognized to be the most influential person in the Republican Party and it is not surprising to see Gov. Christie suddenly heading to Iowa, undoubtedly (and despite denials) to test the presidential waters. (This kind of naked political intervention reminded Ailes watchers of the time, when, after 9/11, he sent a memo to George Bush through [his now employee] Karl Rove instructing the president, according to Bob Woodward’s account, to use “the harshest measures possible.”)

Sherman reports that in September 2008, Ailes was “intensely interested in Sarah Palin.” He “secretly” met with her during the campaign and made sure that a young Fox News producer named Shushannah Walshe be demoted to off-air status because she reported that McCain’s staff would not allow Palin to answer questions. It’s not that the report was untrue; it was merely, from a Republican political standpoint, inconvenient, and so she quit the network.

Sherman’s article contains additional evidence. For instance Fox Managing Editor Bill Sammon insisted that Fox reporters try to pretend that some now-forgotten Midwest ice storm in 2009 be treated as the equivalent of the Katrina catastrophe because “Bush got grief for Katrina.” Sammon said. This was a piece of Sammon’s regular political edicts, including one, in December 2009, in which he instructed Fox correspondents that, “We should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without immediately pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.”

Sherman only hinted at the story that shocked everyone who read Tim Dickinson’s eye-opening profile of Ailes in Rolling Stone; that of Fox honcho’s remarkable (and self-important) paranoia, noting that in 2008, Ailes told Obama adviser David Axelrod that he believed that the president sought to create a national police force.

Dickinson’s reporting dealt with much more than just Ailes’s paranoia. For instance, Ailes’s journalistic “ethics” apparently did not interfere with his desire to “remain on the take from Big Tobacco, pocketing a $5,000 monthly retainer from Philip Morris ‘to be available,’” while he was head of CNBC. A 1994 internal Philip Morris memo looking to prevent tobacco regulations regarding youth smoking advised: “Ask Ailes to try to prime Limbaugh to go after the antis for complaining.”

But the real story was the craziness Ailes exhibited regarding the alleged plots against him. For instance when Murdoch gave Ailes a corner office on the second floor of News Corp.’s headquarters in Manhattan, it made Ailes nervous. He feared attacks by gay activists. He had “bombproof glass” installed in his windows, explaining “They’ll be down there protesting,” Ailes said. “Those gays.” Ailes’s second home in Garrison, New York, is surrounded by the empty houses Ailes purchased for alleged security purposes as well. When Ailes travels from one place to another, according to a friend who went with him, “We come out of the building and there’s an SUV filled with big guys, who jump out of the car when they see him. A cordon is formed around us. We’re ushered into the SUV, and we drive the few blocks to Fox’s offices, where another set of guys come out of the building to receive ‘the package.’ The package is taken in, and I’m taken on to my destination.” 

Ailes has explained to others that he believes himself to be a high-priority target of Al Qaeda terrorists. “You know, they’re coming to get me,” he insists. Seeing a man in Moslem dress inside the building (through his monitor) he once shouted “What the hell… This guy could be bombing me!” Because of the presence of this janitor, “Roger tore up the whole floor,” recalls a source close to Ailes. And if anyone doubts that Ailes’s nuttiness in this—and in pretty much every respect—drives Fox News, all you need to do is examine its coverage of last year’s New York City mosque controversy. 

Call me naïve, but it strikes me that even conservatives ought to be concerned about the kind of craziness on display in Dickinson’s article. They may appreciate the manner in which news is not only slanted but often invented on behalf of their political prejudices. But who knows where it may lead in the future? ThinkProgress recently carried a report regarding Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who recently told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “We don’t want the West to go and find alternatives, because, clearly, the higher the price oil goes, the more you have incentive to go and find alternatives.” Got that? This man is the second largest stockholder in News Corp., after Rupert Murdoch, and does not want the United States seeking alternatives to Saudi oil. So can we expect Fox News to lie and manipulate the news in the future on behalf of the interests of Saudi princes and against those of potentially cleaner, domestic energy resources? Are always to be vulnerable to the temptation to go to war for oil? For what other interests will they be willing to deliberately deceive their remarkably gullible audience? 

And what happens if Ailes goes even further off his rocker and starts demanding, say, that U.S. Muslims be rounded up in advance? He has already cleaned out the organization of most of its professional journalists and left only yes-men and women behind. Given the station’s lack of professional ethics as well as its hallowed place in the Murdoch empire—given the fact that it is close to earning a billion dollars a year—what, exactly, is to stop it?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

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