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TPM Interview: Roger Ailes May Have Spied On Biographer Gabriel Sherman

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AP Photo / Patrick McMullan Co.

TPM: You’ve come under some criticism for the book’s thesis that Roger Ailes and Fox News “divided” America. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Gabriel Sherman: Well, I’ll start by explaining a fascinating experience I had reporting this book, which reveals the larger truth. The most common question I got when I told someone I was working on this book — from my interview subjects to my friends to just random people on the street – was, “Are you pro-Fox or anti-Fox? Is your book going to be positive or negative?” It happened over and over again, and I was really struck by that. Even just mentioning the words “Fox News” elicits a polarized response of positive or negative, there was no middle ground. And obviously as a reporter my answer is that I’m trying to just report the story and understand how Ailes built this empire. Wherever that story goes is based on the facts, not my desire to dictate an outcome.

But in the answer – are you pro-fox or anti-Fox? – you see the style of politics that Ailes has made mainstream in America through the use of wedge issues, divisive issues of class, race, religion, geography. And Fox, being the loudest and most dominant cable news network, has surfaced all of these resentments in the culture that existed all the way back to the culture wars of the 1960s.

But those two factions are really just an extension from those who support conservative ideas and those who are against them. Ailes simply exploited existing partisan divisions, right?

These divisions in American life have existed. These are the deep chasms that mark the fault line in our culture. But what Ailes has done better than anyone else is to surface these divisions and to exacerbate them. If you look at his political campaigns, which I document in the book, I tell some wonderful stories about his use of wedge issues, especially if you look at his work in the 1988 campaign on behalf of George H.W. Bush. He ran what even Republicans describe as a sideshow campaign. There’s a great scene in the book when George H.W. Bush the candidate said to Ailes, “I don’t want to talk about [Michael] Dukakis anymore. I want to talk about the issues.” And I’m paraphrasing here, but Ailes says something to the effect, “Listen, Mr. Vice President, you can start talking about the issues on the day after Election Day.”

So, what this book argues is that Roger Ailes, through his use of crass distortion, his humor, his wit, his aggression, has brought to the surface all of these resentments and grievances that have existed in American life since the culture wars.

Do you think it’s the extreme partisanship that’s deepened the schism or is it rather, as Erik Wemple argued, the flood of misinformation disseminated by Fox that’s systematically chipped away at once widely held facts? And once you get to that point, it renders it impossible to have a civilized discourse when basic, fundamental things are suddenly disputable.

I think it’s possible to look at that as the combination of the two. The one thing that my book shows is that for Ailes’s audience, news has become viewed as another weapon in a fight about partisan politics. Take the recent news cycle. The fact that Fox covers Benghazi and the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal wall-to-wall, and the fact that they are not hammered relentlessly by the rest of the news media to the degree that Fox does, makes Fox’s audience feel like the media is covering up for Democrats because they’re not hitting stories that hurt the White House.

So, what Ailes has done through Fox is condition his audience to view news as another form of politics. It’s politics by another means. And it’s done through misinformation, it’s done through some of the crass distortions that Fox is so well-known for. But he also does it because he has carved out a reliable niche of several million conservatives who watch his network every single day. The people who only watch Fox — as I say in the prologue — Roger Ailes defines Barack Obama to these people.

Your book really lays out the case that Ailes is every bit as conservative as Fox’s rhetoric and programming would suggest. It’s not just some cynical ploy for ratings. You quote a few people in the book who are somewhat surprised to learn that he's as partisan as he is and you said in a recent interview that he’s actually "more extreme than Glenn Beck." So is this just a serendipitous marriage, his worldview comporting with what generates ratings? Is there any indication that he would shelve his politics if it resulted in bigger ratings?

I think one of the big reveals in the book is that it finally answers the question that has endured from the very beginning since Ailes launched Fox News in 1996. Is it cynical television or is it real? And what I show is that it is real. Ailes is a conservative true believer. He has conspiratorial, extreme views on foreign policy, immigration, the environment, labor law — you can just go down the line. That said, he is willing to deploy cynical means to achieve his ends. The “War on Christmas” is an example that I unpack that shows how he knows that it’s a perennial ratings win, so he’ll put that on the network. But the bottom line is that the politics on Fox are very real.

I think it’s important to look at the evolution of Fox News throughout the network’s history. When Ailes launched Fox in 1996, the blueprint was more populist and tabloid than it was strictly conservative. This is a result of two things. One, Ailes did not have the corporate power that he does now inside Murdoch’s empire. And secondly, Ailes was surrounded by news executives who would challenge him when he would try to push his baldly conservative propaganda.

But what happened over the years is that as Ailes’s power grew, those executives stopped fighting him as much. Some of them retired. And now, really in the last five or six years since 2007 or so, Fox has been a pure reflection of Ailes’s worldview. And what has happened is that Fox’s audience has grown more conservative, it’s grown older and it’s grown whiter. So, as the network has become more extreme to reveal his own worldview, he is speaking to people who largely share that worldview. Fox used to have a larger audience of kind of blue collar Democrats, kind of the working class Reagan Democrats, the factory guys who supported Nixon in ’68 against the counterculture. There is this strain of American politics of blue collar union guys who are also kind of conservative on certain issues — especially foreign policy and social issues. Bill O’Reilly often talks to those people. But more broadly, Fox is now speaking to a more conservative, whiter, older audience. And that is because the network is speaking with Roger Ailes’s voice.

But it’s still getting massive ratings.

Yes, but it’s important to point out that the ratings are down from some of the 2012 peaks. And also it’s important to point out that the demographics continue to skew older. Fox’s demographics are older than its cable news rivals. All of the networks have an older demographic, but Fox is older than the others.

And that’s always been the elephant in the room, it seems. Eventually this is going to run out and come to a head, especially with a guy like Rupert Murdoch, who seems fundamentally concerned with profit.

You could look at Fox as an actuarial game. Not to be morbid about it, but the audience they are appealing to is not replacing itself with younger viewers at a fast enough rate to keep the median age at a certain level. It’s continuing to trend upwards. As one very senior person I quote in the book told me, at the highest levels of 21st Century Fox — which is the parent company that used to be News Corp. — they don’t view Fox News as a growth business. It’s a very mature business. It spins off an incredible amount of money. It generates $1 billion profit. And the distribution deals to put Fox into homes with the cable services are very stable. But it is not a growth business the way it was from 1998 to 2006 or so. It was exploding as a business. And that’s a function of Ailes finding his audience and speaking to his audience.

There’s a quote from Ted Turner in your book about how he anticipated a right-wing network for a long time. Ed Rollins said it had been a long time coming. There were seeds of Fox News in TVN [Television News Inc., an ill-fated conservative news network where Ailes worked in the 1970s]. And there are studies showing that many conservatives and Republicans get their news from Fox more than other outlets, while liberals just don’t show anywhere near the level of loyalty to any outlet, not even MSNBC. It’s just much more spread out on the left. I wonder how much credit Ailes deserves as an innovator when he had such fertile ground to work with.

That’s a great question, and I’ve thought a lot about it. And it’s one of the reasons why I wanted my book to have an historical sweep because Fox really needs to be seen in a larger context. It is the endpoint of a four-plus decades dream by conservatives to have a counter-media establishment of their own going back to the post-war era. It accelerated after Watergate. There was this feeling that the mainstream media was essentially running Republicans out of office. There was this dream to create a voice of their own. So, to that extent, Ailes fits into a long line of entrepreneurs who have tried to achieve this goal.

The way I would think about Roger Ailes is that he is the Steve Jobs of television and politics. Steve Jobs came around and created Apple at a time when many other people were experimenting with personal computers and when Apple really found its success with the first iPod around the beginning of the last decade there were many other mp3 players in the marketplace. But Steve Jobs came along and because of his deep understanding of how people relate to technology, he was able to make this package work and it became this irresistible product.

So, Ailes in his own way, although he’s a very different man than Steve Jobs politically and philosophically, he did the same thing with conservative media. He wasn’t the first. There had been these ideas percolating on the right for decades. But he came along and unlocked the secret because Ailes has this intrinsic understanding of how to talk to people and how to move people within the network to do his bidding. It took a charismatic personality like Ailes to unlock the secret in the same way Steve Jobs with Apple unlocked the secret of personal technology. Sometimes being the real visionary and the pioneer is not about being first. It’s about seeing what other people can’t see.

You’ve been criticized — notably by Michael Wolff and Janet Maslin — because you wrote this biography about an individual who you didn’t even interview. Is that a fair criticism?

Listen, there have been a lot of reviews about this book. The interest this book has sparked really shows me that it’s touched a nerve. I’ve been working this for three years, I interviewed more than 600 people. There was an intense amount of interest and speculation about what was going to be in the book, which shows me that it’s such a rich topic that people want to know about. By that standard, we wouldn’t have biographies of Thomas Jefferson if that was your standard to write a deep portrait of a consequential figure. So that’s all I’ll say about that.

Wolff seemed to express some disbelief that Ailes wouldn’t agree to talk to you. Why do you think you weren’t able to get an interview? Was it because of the story you had written previously?

I can only tell you what I’ve been told by my many sources. My dealings with Roger Ailes throughout these three years were a battle for control. I reached out to Ailes at the very beginning of my reporting process. I told his top public relations lieutenants that I was going to be doing this book and that I wanted his participation, but it was going to happen either way. And throughout the process, Ailes tried to put conditions on who I could and couldn’t talk to. As a reporter, my responsibility is to my readers and to be as fair and accurate as possible.

So I was not going to put restrictions on my reporting just to cut a deal to get some form of access to him. And at the end of the day, as I write in the “Note On Sources” that opens up the more than 100 pages of endnotes, Roger Ailes has amassed power by controlling the images of his Republican political candidates — from Mitch McConnell to Phil Gramm to George H.W. Bush — so it would make perfect sense that he would seek the same measure of control over his own story. And fundamentally a reporter like me is seeking to talk to everyone, and document his life with the camera from all different angles, that would be a threat to his desire for control. That ultimately is my sense of why he did not want to sit down with me.

You wrote about how Ailes harbored some animosity toward the Wall Street Journal, even barring the paper's reporters from Fox’s newsroom. What’s his relationship with other Murdoch assets like the New York Post?

Ailes’s connection to the New York Post is similar to other divisions of Murdoch’s media empire. He’s intensely competitive. He’s a corporate infighter. My sources told me how Ailes and the Post’s then-editor Col Allen were rivals for Murdoch’s attention. It bothered Ailes, my sources said, that Murdoch is a newspaper guy. He has ink in his veins and the Post was his pet toy. The Post loses on the order of $50-plus million a year and if you’re Roger Ailes and you’re running the most profitable division of the company and you see Murdoch spending all his money on something, it’s going to make you resentful. But that said, Ailes is a very savvy corporate operator. I have been told by my sources that he and his surrogates use the Post to punish Fox’s rivals. If you look at the Post’s coverage of CNN’s Jeff Zucker and other television executives, you get an indication that Ailes, even though he is a rival of the New York Post at least internally at News Corp., he’s willing to use it savvilly to advance his larger agenda.

What did you make of the allegations that Ailes had [Gawker editor] John Cook tailed?

Well, I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of John’s situation. I heard from a very credible source that Ailes had me followed in the summer of 2012 by private investigators. And that fit with what many sources told me, that they suspected I was being followed and that my phone may be bugged. So, reading that John Cook and [Gawker writer] Hamilton Nolan were followed by PIs, that would fit with my own experience with Ailes. I just want to add, just for context to point out to your readers, I did not see any private investigators directly myself. I only know what I was told by someone who had very good knowledge of Ailes’s plans.

Were you given any indication what his ultimate goal was there? Was he just trying to dig up dirt on you?

I assume all of the above.

Did you ever get a sense of who Ailes’s favorite Fox host may be?

There are different hosts that have very close relationships with him for different reasons. I write in the book how his lawyer, Peter Johnson Jr., is a frequent guest host on “Fox & Friends” and is also a legal analyst. He is someone who will go on Fox News and speak Ailes’s talking points. He will inject Ailes’s message directly into the Fox News cycle because he’ll do what Roger tells him to do.

Another Fox host who’s very close to Ailes is Neil Cavuto, the business anchor. They are longtime friends, very close personal friends. Their days go back to Ailes’s time as president of CNBC. Cavuto was really the most high-profile anchor who left CNBC back in 1996 to join Ailes at Fox, so there is a deep sense of loyalty there. Ailes and Cavuto are very close personally.

How would you describe the Ailes who’s portrayed in your book? He seems paranoid and mean-spirited, but you also have people who work for him who are just fiercely loyal. There’s a lot of complexity there.

From the very beginning, I set out to tell this epic story with Ailes at the center of it. He really is an American icon and I came away from it seeing him as a man at war with himself. He is driven by contradiction. As I write, he fashions himself as a scrapper from a flyover state, and yet he’s a consummate Manhattan insider who has a table at the Four Seasons restaurant. He’s both deeply cynical but deeply earnest about the greatness of America. He is a man at war with himself that creates this larger than life persona that has changed the world of politics and television.

And at the very end of the book, I write with a certain sadness about where Roger Ailes has come to in his life because it’s a deeply human story. He’s a man who grew up at a time in the mid-century, the 1940s and ‘50s, when white Christian men ruled America. The country has changed in many different ways, and he’s clinging to a vision of America that doesn’t exist now and never really existed in the past. And his relevance is slipping. At the end of the book, I have a deep sadness for him because he’s sitting atop an empire that has a crumbling foundation. No matter what your politics are, I think there’s a sort of universal humanness to his story that you see someone who had this incredible rise and now is facing a world that is very different than the one who made him powerful. And that’s ultimately why he’s nearing the end of his story.

About The Author

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Tom Kludt is a News Writer for Talking Points Memo based in New York City. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, Tom served as assistant polling editor for TPM Media's PollTracker during the 2012 campaign. Before joining TPM, he worked on political campaigns and wrote for various publications in Minnesota and his native South Dakota. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at tom@talkingpointsmemo.com.

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