Dan Rather on Roger Ailes: He's a 'Master' of Propaganda

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Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather has a long and complicated history with Fox News founder and chairman Roger Ailes, as I detail here. What follows are outtakes from my interview with Rather on Ailes' evolution from ace political consulant into the nation's propagandist in chief.

When did you first cross paths with Roger Ailes?

I’ve known Ailes since sometime in the early '70s. Whether one likes him or doesn't like him, this guy is really smart. He is a first-class political slugger. It needs to be said. It’s a combination of business smarts and street and political smarts. He repeatedly has shown himself willing to take apart the reputation of anybody who crosses him. It has the effect of intimidating a lot of people – including a lot of people in the press. If you take him on, he’s going to come after you tigerishly and very effectively.

The story Ailes tells about himself is that his career as a political operative ended in the early 1990s – do you buy that?

Did his career as a political operative and propagandist ever end? No. "Propaganda" is a loaded word. But Ailes is a master of it. Those who don’t like him can blow a gasket about it. Those who do like him can blow a trumpets about it. The fact of the matter is he is a master of it, and he has been a master of it for a very long time. It is part and parcel of what has made Fox News into the money-making machine that it is.

Do you remember a television service from the 1970s called TVN?

It was short lived. I do remember there was an effort funded almost entirely by the Coors operation to get started a version of what’s now Fox News. 

Were you aware that Ailes was brought in as a vice president to run the newsroom?

I didn’t know Ailes worked there. It’s logical to assume he came out of that thinking, "This is a good idea. The idea was not put into action very well, but down the road somebody may be better financed and smarter running the whole place .... I could make a go of this kind of thing."

When you look back on your infamous interview with George H.W. Bush where you pressed him about his involvement in Iran/Contra – an interview we now know was stage-managed by Ailes, sitting off camera with cue cards – what comes to mind?

The line of questioning was entirely appropriate for someone running for president. And, subsequently, more information has come out about Iran/Contra. Bush's story was that he’d only been peripherally involved in it. It’s taken a while for the record to come out, but it’s clear he had a much bigger role in it than he was ever willing to acknowledge. We were right with the story. What we were asking about was absolutely true. 

The way Ailes spins that exchange is that CBS had laid a trap for the vice president, and the campaign's only choice was to hit back.

He knows that isn’t true. The record clearly shows there wasn't any trap to be sprung. I know that this goes into urban myth – that they counter-trapped us. All of that is what’s known in Louisiana as "alligator dung." 

Looking at Fox News today, what do you make of Ailes putting all these prospective GOP candidates on payroll, and having Sean Hannity and even folks like Chris Wallace lob them softballs. 

It is theater. It’s about furthering the partisan, political and ideological interests of Ailes and his allies and the Murdoch empire. Hey, it’s a free country; they’re entitled to do that. You have to see that for what it is, but it’s not an indictable offense.

Any closing thoughts?

Ailes is 70 years old. I don’t see anyone around who is the logical and effective successor to him in the way he’s had success. Without Ailes is Fox News still Fox News?