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How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory

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Befitting his siege mentality, Ailes also housed his newsroom in a bunker. Reporters and producers at Fox News work in a vast, windowless expanse below street level, a gloomy space lined with video-editing suites along one wall and an endless cube farm along the other. In a separate facility on the same  subterranean floor, Ailes created an in-house research unit – known at Fox News as the “brain room” – that requires special security clearance to gain access. “The brain room is where Willie Horton comes from,” says Cooper, who  helped design its specs. “It’s where the evil resides.”

If that sounds paranoid, consider the man Ailes brought in to run the brain room: Scott Ehrlich, a top lieutenant from his political-­consulting firm.  Ehrlich – referred to by some as “Baby Rush” – had taken over the lead on Big Tobacco’s campaign to crush health care reform when Ailes signed on with CNBC. According to documents obtained by Rolling Stone, Ehrlich gravitated to the dark side: In a strategy labeled “Underground Attack,” he advised the tobacco giants to “hit hard” at key lawmakers “through their soft  underbelly” by quietly influencing local media – a tactic that would help the firms “stay under the radar of the national news media.” 

At Fox News, Ehrlich kept up a relentless drumbeat against the Clinton administration. A reporter who joined the network from ABC promptly left in horror after a producer approached him, rubbing her hands together and saying, “Let’s have something on Whitewater today.” Ailes mined the Monica  Lewinsky scandal for ratings gold, bringing Matt Drudge aboard as a host,  and heaped rumor on top of the smears. Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard –  the News Corp. property with the most direct crossover on Fox News –  trafficked in gossip “that there’s a second intern who was sexually involved  with the president. If there is, that will certainly be dynamite.”

But it was the election of George W. Bush in 2000 that revealed the true power of Fox News as a political machine. According to a study of voting patterns by the University of California, Fox News shifted roughly 200,000 ballots to Bush in areas where voters had access to the network. But Ailes, ever the political operative, didn’t leave the outcome to anything as dicey as the popular vote. The man he tapped to head the network’s “decision desk”  on election night – the consultant responsible for calling states for either  Gore or Bush – was none other than John Prescott Ellis, Bush’s first cousin.  As a columnist at The Boston Globe, Ellis had recused himself from covering  the campaign. “There is no way for you to know if I am telling you the truth about George W. Bush’s presidential campaign,” he told his readers, “because in his case, my loyalty goes to him and not to you.”

In any newsroom worthy of the name, such a conflict of interest would have immediately disqualified Ellis. But for Ailes, loyalty to Bush was an asset.  “We at Fox News,” he would later tell a House hearing, “do not discriminate  against people because of their family connections.” On Election Day, Ellis  was in constant contact with Bush himself. After midnight, when a wave of late numbers showed Bush with a narrow lead, Ellis jumped on the data to  declare Bush the winner – even though Florida was still rated too close to  call by the vote-tracking consortium used by all the networks. Hume  announced Fox’s call for Bush at 2:16 a.m. – a move that spurred every other network to follow suit, and led to bush wins headlines in the morning papers.

“We’ll never know whether Bush won the election in Florida or not,” says Dan  Rather, who was anchoring the election coverage for CBS that night. “But  when you reach these kinds of situations, the ability to control the narrative becomes critical. Led by Fox, the narrative began to be that Bush had won the election.”

Dwell on this for a moment: A “news” network controlled by a GOP operative  who had spent decades shaping just such political narratives – including those that helped elect the candidate’s father – declared George W. Bush the victor based on the analysis of a man who had proclaimed himself loyal to  Bush over the facts. “Of everything that happened on election night, this was the most important in impact,” Rep. Henry Waxman said at the time. “It immeasurably helped George Bush maintain the idea in people’s minds that he was the man who won the election.”

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