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Book Fest: Crazy like a Fox (News)
Gabriel Sherman on the twisted genius of Roger Ailes

Gabe Sherman at the Savannah Book Fest

9 a.m. Sat. Feb. 15, Lutheran Church sanctuary, Wright Square

BILL O'REILLY, Sean Hannity, and Rupert Murdoch are probably the first people you think of when you think of Fox News.

But as Gabriel Sherman writes in his best-selling tell-all, The Loudest Voice in the Room, the real power behind the throne at the still-influential Fox News Channel is its first and current president, Roger Ailes. According to Sherman, Ailes is as brilliant a figure as he is a divisive and controversial one.

CS: Most liberals probably blame Rupert Murdoch for Fox News, but you say differently.

Gabe Sherman: Rupert Murdoch is a newspaper man at heart. He has ink in his veins, and his first loves are his newspapers. He relies on Ailes to program Fox in a way that delivers ratings and profits. Fox News is a complete expression of Roger Ailes's worldview. He has ultimate editorial control over what does or doesn't get on the air.

I do explore the rise and eventual decline of Ailes's career — which is multidecade, in politics, show business and TV. I argue that Fox News reached its limit in the 2012 election. They fought very hard to get Mitt Romney elected, and it was partially a reflection of Fox's weakness that he was unable to deliver a national majority. The truth is that Fox's audience is continuing to age, and Ailes hasn't demonstrated an ability to recruit younger viewers.

CS: Yet MSNBC seems to have completely reinvented itself in the Fox News's template, except as the left-wing mirror image.

GS: Yes and no. I agree that MSNBC counterprograms to Fox News and carves out a progressive niche. But where I take issue with you is that, number one, MSNBC is not as good at Ailes at developing narratives and storylines. Partially as a result, MSNBC's audience is about half of Fox's at any given hour.

Secondly, MSNBC is a business created by execs at NBC basically to market to a particular type of viewer. Fox News, however, is a political organization which is run to advance Roger Ailes's personal political agenda. MSNBC was not created for explicit political purposes. But everything at Fox flows out of the morning editorial news meeting that Ailes runs. It's his show, and everyone in the building is constantly taking cues from him.

CS: That said, Fox News is undeniably great TV from an entertainment aspect.

GS: Definitely. It's a testament to Ailes's long career in show business and TV. He even had an interlude in the '70s as a Broadway producer, where he learned about drama and theatricality. He learned you need to create suspense and conflict and excitement to keep people's attention.

Well, what's interesting is that was Ailes's mission all along. To achieve that mission he needed to hide behind the mantra of "fair and balanced." He has his audience conditioned to believe they're getting not conservative propaganda but legitimate news. In fact Ailes's actual agenda was to counterprogram to the rest of the media, which he saw as liberal.

I write that Fox News is the culmination of four decades of the attempt to deliver a conservative countermedia establishment. I trace the seeds from the late 1960s to the Nixon White House, where Roger Ailes was a consultant to Nixon. You fast forward two decades to 1996, when he finally teamed up with Murdoch and got the capital to do what he'd been working towards all that time.

CS: So what is Roger Ailes's true legacy?

GS: Ailes and Fox News are actually part of a long American tradition of partisan media, going back to the founding of the country, when every political party in every big city had its own newspaper. It wasn't until after World War II when you got this notion of objective journalism. Ailes is essentially taking us back to an earlier age when media outlets were megaphones for political parties.

The big difference is that Ailes claims Fox News isn't involved in politics and that they're a straight news network. My book reveals the subterfuges he's used to obscure the true agenda that makes Fox a new kind of influence in our democracy. It's the first time a TV network has surpassed a major political party in terms of influence and control over the political agenda. It's a testament to Roger Ailes's genius that he was able to pull this off. He'll always be remembered as a pioneer of his time.