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How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory

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Bush proceeded to hit Rather below the belt. “It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran,” he said. “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set?” It was the mother of all false equivalencies: the fleeting petulance of a news anchor pitted against the high crimes of a sitting vice president. But it worked as TV. “That bite of Bush telling Rather off played over and over and over again,” says Roger Stone, an infamous political operative who worked with Ailes on the Nixon campaign. “It was a perfect example of Roger understanding the news cycle, the dynamics of the situation and the power of television.”

Ailes became the go-to man on the Bush campaign, especially when it came to taking down the opposition. “On any campaign you have a small table of inside advisers,” says Mary Matalin, the GOP consultant. “Roger always had the clearest vision. The most robust, synthesized, advanced thinking on things political. When you came to a strategy impasse, he’d be the first among equals. I can’t remember a single incident where he lost a fight.” As usual, Ailes knew how to use television to skew public perception. His dirtiest move came during the general election – a TV ad centering on Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had  escaped from a Massachusetts prison during a weekend furlough when Michael Dukakis was governor and later assaulted a couple, stabbing the man and raping the woman. “The only question,” Ailes bragged to a reporter, “is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand – or without it.”

Knowing that such an overt move could backfire on the campaign, Ailes instead opted to evoke Horton by showing a line of convicts entering and exiting a prison through a revolving door of prison bars. An early take of the ad used actual prisoners. “Roger and I looked at it, and we worried there were too many blacks in the prison scene,” campaign manager Lee Atwater later admitted. So Ailes reshot the ad to zero in on a single black prisoner – sporting an unmistakably Horton-esque Afro. The campaign also benefited from a supposedly “independent” ad that exuberantly paraded Horton’s mug shot. The ad was crafted by Larry McCarthy – a former senior vice president at Ailes Communications Inc.

After the ’88 campaign, ailes kept on playing the Willie Horton card against Democrats. Working for Rudy Giuliani in 1989, he even tried the tactic against David Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York, running ads that exploited the criminal record of a Dinkins staffer who had  served time for kidnapping. But this time, the tactic backfired. Dinkins made Ailes himself the issue, labeling him “the master of mud.” Giuliani lost the race, and Ailes went into a deep political slump. In 1990, he tried to take out bow-tied Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and whiffed. The following year, he blew a special election in Pennsylvania. One political observer at the time declared that Ailes was becoming “an albatross.”

A few months later, Ailes made a show of exiting the political arena. “I’ve been in politics for 25 years,” he told The New York Times in 1991. “It’s always been a detour. Now my business has taken a turn back to my entertainment and corporate clients.” But instead of giving up his work as a political consultant, Ailes simply went underground. Keenly aware that his post-Horton reputation would be a drag on President Bush, Ailes took no formal role with the re-election campaign. But he continued to loom so large behind the scenes that campaign allies referred to him as “our Deep Throat.”

He quietly prepped the president for his State of the Union address in 1992, and he served as an attack dog for the campaign, once more blasting what he saw as the media’s liberal bias. “Bill Clinton has 15,000 press secretaries,” Ailes blared. “At some point, even you guys will have to get embarrassed.” (Last November, Ailes deployed the same line against President Obama, reducing the number of press secretaries to only 3,000.)

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