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How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory

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Rupert Murdoch had long been obsessed with gaining a foothold in the TV news business. He made a failed run at buying CNN, only to see Time Warner scoop up the prize. Even before he hired Ailes, Murdoch had several teams at work on a germinal version of Fox News that he intended to air through News Corp. affiliates. The false starts included a 60 Minutes-style program that, under the guise of straight news, would feature a weekly attack-and-destroy piece targeting a liberal politician or social program. “The idea of a masquerade was already around prior to Roger arriving,” says Dan Cooper, managing editor of that first iteration of Fox News. Like Joseph Coors before him at TVN, Murdoch envisioned his new network as a counterweight to the “left-wing bias” of CNN. “There’s your answer right there to whether Fox News is a conventional news network or whether it has an agenda,” says Eric Burns, who served for a decade as media critic at Fox News. “That’s its original sin.” 

Murdoch found Ailes captivating: powerful, politically connected, funny as hell. Both men had been married twice, and both shared an open contempt for the traditional rules of journalism. Murdoch also had a direct self-interest in targeting regulation-­minded liberals, whose policies threatened to interfere with his plans for expansion. “Rupert is driven by a twofold dynamic: power and money,” says a former deputy. “He had a lot of business reasons to shake up Washington, and he found in Roger the perfect guy to do it.” 

But Ailes was determined not to repeat what he saw as the mistakes of TVN, the ideological forerunner of Fox News. Before signing on to run the new network, he demanded that Murdoch get “carriage” – distribution on cable systems nationwide. In the normal course of business, cable outfits like Time Warner pay content providers like CNN or MTV for the right to air their programs. But Murdoch turned the business model on its head. He didn’t just give Fox News away – he paid the cable companies to air it. To get Fox News into 25 million homes, Murdoch paid cable companies as much as $20 a subscriber. “Murdoch’s offer shocked the industry,” writes biographer Neil Chenoweth. “He was prepared to shell out half a billion dollars just to buy a news voice.” Even before it took to the air, Fox News was guaranteed access to a mass audience, bought and paid for. Ailes hailed Murdoch’s “nerve,” adding, “This is capitalism and one of the things that made this country great.” 

Ailes was also determined not to let the professional ethics of journalism  get in the way of his political agenda, as they had at TVN. To secure a pliable news staff, he led what he called a “jailbreak” from NBC, bringing dozens of top staffers with him to Fox News, including business anchor Neil Cavuto and morning host Steve Doocy – loyalists who owed their careers to Ailes. Rounding out his senior news team, Ailes tapped trusted Republicans  like veteran ABC correspondent Brit Hume and former George H.W. Bush  speechwriter Tony Snow. 

Ailes then embarked on a purge of existing staffers at Fox News. “There was  a litmus test,” recalled Joe Peyronnin, whom Ailes displaced as head of the network. “He was going to figure out who was liberal or conservative when he came in, and try to get rid of the liberals.” When Ailes suspected a journalist wasn’t far enough to the right for his tastes, he’d spring an accusation: “Why are you a liberal?” If staffers had worked at one of the major news networks, Ailes would force them to defend working at a place  like CBS – which he spat out as “the Communist Broadcast System.” To replace the veterans he fired, Ailes brought in droves of inexperienced up-and-comers – enabling him to weave his own political biases into the network’s DNA. To oversee the young newsroom, he recruited John Moody, a  conservative veteran of Time. As recounted by journalist Scott Collins in Crazy Like a Fox, the Chairman gave Moody explicit ideological marching orders. “One of the problems we have to work on here together when we start this network is that most journalists are liberals,” Ailes told Moody. “And  we’ve got to fight that.” Reporters understood that a right-wing bias was hard-wired into what they did from the start. “All outward appearances were  that it was just like any other newsroom,” says a former anchor. “But you  knew that the way to get ahead was to show your color – and that your color  was red.” Red state, that is.

Murdoch installed ailes in the corner office on Fox’s second floor at 1211  Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. The location made Ailes queasy: It was  close to the street, and he lived in fear that gay activists would try to  attack him in retaliation over his hostility to gay rights. (In 1989, Ailes had broken up a protest of a Rudy Giuliani speech by gay activists, grabbing demonstrator by the throat and shoving him out the door.) Barricading himself behind a massive mahogany desk, Ailes insisted on having “bombproof glass” installed in the windows – even going so far as to personally inspect samples of high-tech plexiglass, as though he were picking out new carpet. Looking down on the street below, he expressed his fears to Cooper, the editor he had tasked with up-armoring his office. “They’ll be down there protesting,” Ailes said. “Those gays.”

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