Ailes had essentially replaced professional journalists with everyday voters he could manipulate at will. "The events were not staged, they were fixed," says Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. "People were supposed to ask tough questions. But asking a tough question – let alone knowing how to follow up – is a skill. Taking that task out of the hands of reporters and putting it into the hands of inexperienced amateurs was brilliant in itself."
As for actual journalists? "Fuck 'em," Ailes said. "It’s not a press conference – it’s a television show. Our television show. And the press has no business on the set." The young producer forced reporters to watch the events backstage on a TV monitor – just like the rest of America. "Ailes figured out a way to bring reporters to heel," Perlstein says.
After Nixon was elected, Ailes was soon fired by the White House. He had brazenly insulted his boss in the McGinniss book while playing up his own talent as an image-maker, and Nixon, as always, took the snub personally. "In the television field, we have made the move that we should have made long ago," the president sniffed to his chief of staff in a memo uncovered by Rolling Stone, adding that Ailes was not among "the first-rate men that we could have in this field."
Out on his own, Ailes briefly returned to the passion for the theater he discovered during his college days. In perhaps the oddest chapter of his professional life, he formed a partnership with Kermit Bloomgarden – the famed producer of Death of a Salesman – and set out to conquer Broadway. Their first production: an environmental-themed musical called Mother Earth. When the show flopped, folding after just a dozen performances in 1972, it nearly bankrupted Ailes. The next year, though, he was back in the game, scoring an edgy off-Broadway hit with The Hot L Baltimore, which the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named Best American Play of 1973. He was later nominated for an Emmy for a documentary on Federico Fellini, and produced a TV special from the Fantasy Suite at Caesars Palace for Liberace, whom Ailes knew fondly as "Lee."
But Ailes couldn’t stay away from the theater of politics. In 1974, his notoriety from the Nixon campaign won him a job at Television News Incorporated, a new right-wing TV network that had launched under a deliberately misleading motto that Ailes would one day adopt as his own: "fair and balanced." TVN made no sense as a business. The project of archconservative brewing magnate Joseph Coors, the news service was designed to inject a far-right slant into local news broadcasts by providing news clips that stations could use without credit – and for a fraction of the true costs of production. Once the affiliates got hooked on the discounted clips, its president explained, TVN would "gradually, subtly, slowly" inject "our philosophy in the news.” The network was, in the words of a news director who quit in protest, a "propaganda machine."
But TVN’s staff of professional journalists revolted over the ideological pressure by top management. So the fledgling operation purged 16 staffers and brought in Ailes to command the newsroom. "He was involved in the creation of the effort," recalled Paul Weyrich, a leading figure in the New Right who had close ties to Coors. "He was sort of the godfather behind the scenes."
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