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How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory

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Ailes also pushed Bush campaign manager James Baker to “get on the fucking offensive” and “go for the red meat.” From his office in Manhattan, Ailes advised the campaign to spin Clinton’s graduate-school train trip to Moscow into a tale of a Manchurian candidacy. “This guy’s hiding something,” Ailes barked over a speakerphone in Baker’s office. Clinton’s public fuzziness about the trip was proof enough, insisted Ailes: “Nobody’s that forgetful.” President Bush soon appeared on Larry King Live, following the redbaiting advice to the letter. “I don’t have the facts,” the president insinuated, “but to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, and not remember who you saw – I think the answer is, level with the American people." 

In advance of the final debate of 1992, Bush called in his two closest confidants, Baker and Ailes, to help him prepare at Camp David. The advice Ailes offered could serve as a mission statement for Fox News. “Forget all the facts and figures,” he said, “and move to the offense as quickly as possible." 

After Bush lost to Clinton, Ailes kept right on claiming that he was through with politics. In 2001, as part of a House hearing into election night news coverage, Ailes submitted biographical materials to Congress under oath that made the break explicit: “In 1992, Ailes retired completely from political and corporate consulting to return full-time to television.”

That is a lie. At the time, Ailes was certainly becoming a force in tabloid TV. He had helped launch The Maury Povich Show in 1991, and – in his first brush with the News Corp. empire – he consulted on A Current Affair. But in 1993 – the year after he claimed he had retired from corporate consulting – Ailes inked a secret deal with tobacco giants Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds to go full-force after the Clinton administration on its central policy objective: health care reform. Hillarycare was to have been funded, in part, by a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes. To block the proposal, Big Tobacco paid Ailes to produce ads highlighting “real people affected by taxes.”

According to internal memos, Ailes also explored how Philip Morris could create a phony front group called the “Coalition for Fair Funding of Health Care” to deploy the same kind of “independent” ads that produced Willie Horton. In a precursor to the modern Tea Party, Ailes conspired with the tobacco companies to unleash angry phone calls on Congress – cold-calling smokers and patching them through to the switchboards on Capitol Hill – and to gin up the appearance of a grassroots uprising, busing 17,000 tobacco employees to the White House for a mass demonstration.

But Ailes’ most important contribution to the covert campaign involved his new specialty: right-wing media. The tobacco giants hired Ailes, in part, because he had just brought Rush Limbaugh to the small screen, serving as executive producer of Rush’s syndicated, late-night TV show. Now they wanted Ailes to get Limbaugh onboard to crush health care reform. “RJR has trained 200 people to call in to shows,” a March 1993 memo revealed. “A packet has gone to Limbaugh. We need to brief Ailes." 

Ailes and Limbaugh were more than co-workers. The two jocular, balding right-wingers had met carousing in Manhattan a few years earlier and had become fast friends: Both were reviled for the virulence of their politics, and both saw themselves as victims of what Ailes would call “liberal bigots.” In a 2009 speech, Limbaugh credited Ailes for teaching him “how to take being hated as a measure of success.” Ailes, in fact, would become a father figure to the king of right-wing talk. “The things I’ve learned from him about being a man, about the country, about how to be a professional, nobody else taught me,” Limbaugh said. “When Roger Ailes is on your team, you do not lose.”

In August 1993, Ailes made his biggest foray into television since his days as a producer for Mike Douglas: He became the head of CNBC, America’s top business network. In his three years as boss, he more than quintupled profits and minted stars like Chris Matthews and Maria Bartiromo. He also helped launch a new cable network called America’s Talking, an odd mash-up of television and talk radio. “The lineup really comes out of my head,” Ailes said. Shows on the new network included Bugged! (about things that irritate people), Pork (a takedown of pork-barrel spending) and Am I Nuts? (a call-in psychiatry hour).

Then in his early fifties, Ailes had shed 40 pounds by curbing his Häagen-Dazs habit, and he had shaved off the salt-and-pepper goatee he sported during his days as a GOP operative. But what he refused to give up was politics. As head of CNBC, he continued to produce Limbaugh’s TV show on the side – and he remained on the take from Big Tobacco, pocketing a $5,000 monthly retainer from Philip Morris “to be available.” In 1994, when the tobacco giant tried to stave off harsher regulation by unveiling a voluntary initiative to curb youth smoking, it once again called on Roger to activate Rush: “Ask Ailes to try to prime Limbaugh to go after the antis for complaining.” 

But despite his success at CNBC, Ailes wasn’t being given the power he craved to shape public opinion. In a move that took him by surprise, his bosses at NBC decided to shut down America’s Talking and hand its channel over to an all-news venture called MSNBC. Ailes felt that his creation had been hijacked. The man who imagined himself the king of political infighters had been cut off at the knees.

Ailes responded as he always did to setbacks: by throwing himself into another political battle. This time, though, he would do things on his own terms. Securing release from his NBC contract without a noncompete agreement, he immediately joined forces with a media giant who was equally unabashed in using his news operations as instruments of political power. As Jack Welch – then the CEO of NBC’s parent company GE – put it at the time, “We’ll rue the day we let Roger and Rupert team up.”

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