During his days as an overt political consultant, Roger Ailes reshaped Republican politics for the era of network television. Now, as chairman of Fox News, he has reshaped a television network as a force for Republican politics. “It’s a political campaign – a 24/7 political campaign,” says a former Ailes deputy. “Nobody has been able to issue talking points to the American public morning after morning, day after day, night after night.” Perhaps the only media figure in history with a greater sway over the American electorate was Father Charles Coughlin, the redbaiting Catholic ideologue whose corrosive radio sermons – laced with anti-Semitism and economic populism – reached nearly a third of the country during the Great Depression.
“Ailes is actually much more sophisticated than Coughlin,” says Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian and author of The Age of Reagan. “Coughlin was only on the air once a week, and it was clear that what he presented was his opinion. Fox News is totalized: It’s an entire network, devoted 24 hours a day to an entire politics, and it’s broadcast as ‘the news.’ That’s why Ailes is a genius. He’s combined opinion and journalism in a wholly new way – one that blurs the distinction between the two.”
The phenomenal political power and economic prowess of Fox News has inspired imitation. In recent years, MSNBC has tried to refashion itself as the anti-Fox, with a prime-time lineup stacked with liberal commentators. Such contortions, say media veterans, only strengthen Fox News, emboldening Ailes to tack even further to the right. “He can say, ‘I’m not doing anything anyone else isn’t doing – I’m just doing it on the other side of the fence,’ ” says Dan Rather.
But Ailes has not simply been content to shift the nature of journalism and direct the GOP’s message war. He has also turned Fox News into a political fundraising juggernaut. During her Senate race in Delaware, Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell bragged, “I’ve got Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money.” Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who tried to unseat Harry Reid in Nevada, praised Fox for letting her say on-air, “I need $25 from a million people – go to SharronAngle.com and send money.” Completing the Fox-GOP axis, Karl Rove has used his pulpit as a Fox News commentator to promote American Crossroads, a shadowy political group he founded, promising that the money it raised would be put “to good use to defeat Democrats who have supported the president’s agenda.”
But the clearest demonstration of how Ailes has seamlessly merged both money and message lies in the election of John Kasich, a longtime Fox News contributor who eked out a two-point victory over Democrat Ted Strickland last November to become governor of Ohio. While technically a Republican, Kasich might better be understood as the first candidate of the Fox News Party. “The question is no longer whether Fox News is an arm of the GOP,” says Burns, the network’s former media critic, “but whether it’s becoming the torso instead.”
The host of a weekend show called Heartland, Kasich made 42 appearances as a contributor on Fox after he announced his interest in running, frequently guest-hosting on The O’Reilly Factor. He also appeared 16 times as an active candidate, using the network as a platform to make naked fundraising appeals. Most striking of all, News Corp. itself chipped in $1.26 million to the Republican Governors Association, making it one of the largest single contributors to the club Kasich was seeking to join. Murdoch made no bones about why he made such a generous donation to the GOP cause: It was driven, he said, by “my friendship with John Kasich.” Since becoming governor, Kasich has repealed collective-bargaining rights for 350,000 state workers and killed a stimulus-funded project to develop high-speed rail for the state.
Fox News stands as the culmination of everything Ailes tried to do for Nixon back in 1968. He has created a vast stage set, designed to resemble an actual news network, that is literally hard-wired into the homes of millions of America’s most conservative voters. GOP candidates then use that forum to communicate directly to their base, bypassing the professional journalists Ailes once denounced as “matadors” who want to “tear down the social order” with their “elitist, horse-dung, socialist thinking.” Ironically, it is Ailes who has built the most formidable propaganda machine ever seen outside of the Communist bloc, pioneering a business model that effectively monetizes conservative politics through its relentless focus on the bottom line. "I’m not in politics," Ailes recently boasted. "I’m in ratings. We’re winning."
The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Ailes can have it both ways: reaching his goal of $1 billion in annual profits while simultaneously dethroning Obama with one of his candidate-employees. Either way, he has put the Republican Party on his payroll and forced it to remake itself around his image. Ailes is the Chairman, and the conservative movement now reports to him. "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us," said David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter. "Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox."
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