This article originally appeared in the June 9, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.
At the Fox News holiday party the year the network overtook archrival CNN in the cable ratings, tipsy employees were herded down to the basement of a Midtown bar in New York. As they gathered around a television mounted high on the wall, an image flashed to life, glowing bright in the darkened tavern: the MSNBC logo. A chorus of boos erupted among the Fox faithful. The CNN logo followed, and the catcalls multiplied. Then a third slide appeared, with a telling twist. In place of the logo for Fox News was a beneficent visage: the face of the network’s founder. The man known to his fiercest loyalists simply as “the Chairman” – Roger Ailes.
“It was as though we were looking at Mao,” recalls Charlie Reina, a former Fox News producer. The Foxistas went wild. They let the dogs out. Woof! Woof! Woof! Even those who disliked the way Ailes runs his network joined in the display of fealty, given the culture of intimidation at Fox News. “It’s like the Soviet Union or China: People are always looking over their shoulders,” says a former executive with the network’s parent, News Corp. “There are people who turn people in.”
The key to decoding Fox News isn’t Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. It isn’t even News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch. To understand what drives Fox News, and what its true purpose is, you must first understand Chairman Ailes. “He is Fox News,” says Jane Hall, a decade-long Fox commentator who defected over Ailes’ embrace of the fear-mongering Glenn Beck. “It’s his vision. It’s a reflection of him.”
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Ailes runs the most profitable – and therefore least accountable – head of the News Corp. hydra. Fox News reaped an estimated profit of $816 million last year – nearly a fifth of Murdoch’s global haul. The cable channel’s earnings rivaled those of News Corp.’s entire film division, which includes 20th Century Fox, and helped offset a slump at Murdoch’s beloved newspapers unit, which took a $3 billion write-down after acquiring The Wall Street Journal. With its bare-bones newsgathering operation – Fox News has one-third the staff and 30 fewer bureaus than CNN – Ailes generates profit margins above 50 percent. Nearly half comes from advertising, and the rest is dues from cable companies. Fox News now reaches 100 million households, attracting more viewers than all other cable-news outlets combined, and Ailes aims for his network to “throw off a billion in profits.”
The outsize success of Fox News gives Ailes a free hand to shape the network in his own image. “Murdoch has almost no involvement with it at all,” says Michael Wolff, who spent nine months embedded at News Corp. researching a biography of the Australian media giant. “People are afraid of Roger. Murdoch is, himself, afraid of Roger. He has amassed enormous power within the company – and within the country – from the success of Fox News.”
Fear, in fact, is precisely what Ailes is selling: His network has relentlessly hyped phantom menaces like the planned “terror mosque” near Ground Zero, inspiring Florida pastor Terry Jones to torch the Koran. Privately, Murdoch is as impressed by Ailes’ business savvy as he is dismissive of his extremist politics. “You know Roger is crazy,” Murdoch recently told a colleague, shaking his head in disbelief. “He really believes that stuff.”
To watch even a day of Fox News – the anger, the bombast, the virulent paranoid streak, the unending appeals to white resentment, the reporting that’s held to the same standard of evidence as a late-October attack ad – is to see a refraction of its founder, one of the most skilled and fearsome operatives in the history of the Republican Party. As a political consultant, Ailes repackaged Richard Nixon for television in 1968, papered over Ronald Reagan’s budding Alzheimer’s in 1984, shamelessly stoked racial fears to elect George H.W. Bush in 1988, and waged a secret campaign on behalf of Big Tobacco to derail health care reform in 1993. “He was the premier guy in the business,” says former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins. “He was our Michelangelo.”
In the fable Ailes tells about his own life, he made a clean break with his dirty political past long before 1996, when he joined forces with Murdoch to launch Fox News. “I quit politics,” he has claimed, “because I hated it.” But an examination of his career reveals that Ailes has used Fox News to pioneer a new form of political campaign – one that enables the GOP to bypass skeptical reporters and wage an around-the-clock, partisan assault on public opinion. The network, at its core, is a giant soundstage created to mimic the look and feel of a news operation, cleverly camouflaging political propaganda as independent journalism.
The result is one of the most powerful political machines in American history. One that plays a leading role in defining Republican talking points and advancing the agenda of the far right. Fox News tilted the electoral balance to George W. Bush in 2000, prematurely declaring him president in a move that prompted every other network to follow suit. It helped create the Tea Party, transforming it from the butt of late-night jokes into a nationwide insurgency capable of electing U.S. senators. Fox News turbocharged the Republican takeover of the House last fall, and even helped elect former Fox News host John Kasich as the union-busting governor of Ohio – with the help of $1.26 million in campaign contributions from News Corp. And by incubating a host of potential GOP contenders on the Fox News payroll– including Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum – Ailes seems determined to add a fifth presidential notch to his belt in 2012. “Everything Roger wanted to do when he started out in politics, he’s now doing 24/7 with his network,” says a former News Corp. executive. “It’s come full circle.”
Take it from Rush Limbaugh, a “dear friend” of Ailes. “One man has established a culture for 1,700 people who believe in it, who follow it, who execute it,” Limbaugh once declared. “Roger Ailes is not on the air. Roger Ailes does not ever show up on camera. And yet everybody who does is a reflection of him.”
The 71-year-old Ailes presents the classic figure of a cinematic villain: bald and obese, with dainty hands, Hitchcockian jowls and a lumbering gait. Friends describe him as loyal, generous and “slap your mama funny.” But Ailes is also, by turns, a tyrant: “I only understand friendship or scorched earth,” he has said. One former deputy pegs him as a cross between Don Rickles and Don Corleone. “What’s fun for Roger is the destruction,” says Dan Cooper, a key member of the team that founded Fox News. “When the light bulb goes on and he’s got the trick to outmaneuver the enemy – that’s his passion.” Ailes is also deeply paranoid. Convinced that he has personally been targeted by Al Qaeda for assassination, he surrounds himself with an aggressive security detail and is licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
Ailes was born in 1940 in Warren, Ohio, a manufacturing outpost near Youngstown. His father worked at the Packard plant producing wiring for GM cars, and Roger grew up resenting the abuse his father had to take from the “college boys” who managed the line. Ailes has called his father a “Taft Republican,” and the description is instructive: Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio led a GOP uprising to block the expansion of the New Deal in the late 1930s, and spearheaded passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which beat back the power of labor unions.
Roger spent much of his youth in convalescence. A sickly child – hemophilia forced him to sit out recess at school – he had to learn to walk again after getting hit by a car at age eight. His mother worked out of the house, so he was raised in equal measure by his grandmother and TV. “Television and I grew up together,” he later wrote.
A teenage booze hound – “I was hammered all the time” – Ailes said he “went to state school because they told me I could drink.” There was another reason: His father kicked him out of the house when he graduated from high school. During his stint at Ohio University, where he studied radio and television, his parents divorced and left the house where he had spent so much of his childhood recovering from illness and injury. “I went back, the house was sold, all my stuff was gone,” he recalled. “I never found my shit!” The shock seems to have left him with an almost pathological nostalgia for the trappings of small-town America.
In college, Ailes tried to join the Air Force ROTC but was rejected because of his health. So he became a drama geek, acting in a bevy of collegiate productions. The thespian streak never left Ailes: His first job out of college was as a gofer on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated daytime variety show that featured aging stars like Jack Benny and Pearl Bailey in a world swooning for Elvis and the Beatles. In many ways, Ailes remains a creature of that earlier era. His 1950s manners, martini-dry ripostes and unreconstructed sexism give the feeling, says one intimate, “like you’re talking to someone who’s been under a rock for a couple of decades.”
Ailes found his calling in television. He proved to be a TV wunderkind, charting a meteoric rise from gofer to executive producer by the age of 25. Ailes had an uncanny feel for stagecraft and how to make conversational performances pop on live television. But it was behind the scenes at Mike Douglas in 1967 that Ailes met the man who would set him on his path as the greatest political operative of his generation: Richard Milhous Nixon. The former vice president – whose stilted and sweaty debate performance against John F. Kennedy had helped doom his presidential bid in 1960 – was on a media tour to rehabilitate his image. Waiting with Nixon in his office before the show, Ailes needled his powerful guest. “The camera doesn’t like you,” he said. Nixon wasn’t pleased. “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like television to get elected,” he grumbled. “Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes said. “And if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”
The exchange was a defining moment for both men. Nixon became convinced that he had met a boy genius who could market him to the American public. Ailes had fallen hard for his first candidate. He soon abandoned his high-powered job producing Westinghouse’s biggest hit and signed on as Nixon’s “executive producer for television.” For Ailes, the infatuation was personal – and it is telling that the man who got him into politics would prove to be one of he most paranoid and dirty campaigners in the history of American politics. “I don’t know anyone else around that I would have done it for,” Ailes has said, “other than Nixon.”
It was while working for Nixon that Ailes first experimented with blurring the distinction between journalism and politics, developing a knack for manipulating political imagery that would find its ultimate expression in Fox News. He knew his candidate was a disaster on TV. “You put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away,” Ailes told reporter Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President 1968. “He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight, and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be president.’ “But the real problem, as Ailes saw it, was a media establishment that he viewed as hostile to Republicans. The “only hope,” he recalled, “was to go around the press and go directly to the people” – letting the campaign itself shape the candidate’s image for the average voter, “without it being interpreted for him by a middleman.”
To bypass journalists, Ailes made Nixon the star of his own traveling roadshow – a series of contrived, newslike events that the campaign paid to broadcast in local markets across the country. Nixon would appear on camera in theaters packed with GOP partisans – “an applause machine,” Ailes said, “that’s all that they are.” Then he would field questions from six voters, hand-selected by the campaign, who could be counted on to lob softball queries that played to Nixon’s talking points. At the time, Nixon was consciously stoking the anger of white voters aggrieved by the advances of the civil rights movement, and Ailes proved eager to play the race card. To balance an obligatory “Negro” on a panel in Philadelphia, Ailes dreamed of adding a “good, mean Wallacite cab driver. Wouldn’t that be great? Some guy to sit there and say, ‘Awright, Mac, what about these niggers?'”
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.”
During the time he spent at TVN, Ailes began to plot the growth of a right-wing network that looked very much like the future Fox News. The network planned to invest millions in satellite distribution that would enable TVN to not just distribute news clips but provide a full newscast with its own anchors – a business model that was also employed by an upstart network called CNN. For Ailes, it was a way to extend the kind of fake news that he was regularly using as a political strategist. “I know certain techniques, such as a press release that looks like a newscast,” he told The Washington Post in 1972. “So you use it because you want your man to win.”
Under Ailes, TVN even signed an open-ended contract to produce propaganda for the federal government, providing news clips and scripts to the U.S. Information Agency – a hand-in-glove relationship with the Ford administration that Ailes insisted created no conflict of interest. But TVN collapsed in 1975, depriving Ailes of the chance to implement his vision for a right-wing news network. “They were losing money and they weren’t able to control their journalists,” says Kerwin Swint, author of the Ailes biography, Dark Genius. Ailes would have to wait two decades to launch another “fair and balanced” propaganda machine – and when he did, he would make sure that the journalists he employed were prepared to toe the party line.
Following the failure of TVN, Ailes rededicated himself to political consulting. Over the next decade, drawing on the tactics he honed working for Nixon, he helped elect two more conservative presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In 1984, after the 73-year-old Reagan stumbled badly in his first debate with Walter Mondale, the campaign tapped Ailes to prep the president for the next showdown. At the time, Reagan was beginning to exhibit what his son Ron now describes as early signs of Alzheimer’s, and his age and acuity were becoming a central issue in the campaign. Ailes – a veteran of Reagan’s media team in 1980 who was overseeing the creation of the legendary “Morning in America” campaign – knew that framing one good shot in a debate could make the difference come Election Day. “Roger had the presence to be a director,” says Ed Rollins, who managed the ’84 campaign. “And Reagan, who had always been around directors, would listen to Roger.”
Ailes – known on the Reagan team as “Dr. Feelgood” – told the Gipper to ditch the facts and figures. “You didn’t get elected on details,” he told the president. “You got elected on themes.” For Ailes, the advice reflected a core belief: People watch TV emotionally. He armed Reagan with a one-liner to beat back any question about his mental agility – and the president’s delivery was pitch-perfect. “I want you to understand that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan winked. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Four years later, Ailes was in such high demand that the entire GOP field, with the exception of Pat Robertson, paid court. After hearing all the pitches, Ailes agreed to work for Bush – an effete New Englander who even Richard Nixon said “comes through as a weak individual on television.” Worse still, Bush had baggage: He was neck-deep in the Iran-Contra scandal that had secretly sent arms to Tehran and used the profits to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua. Ailes saw an opportunity to address both shortcomings in a single, familiar strategy – attack the media.
In January 1988, Ailes rigged an interview about the scandal with Dan Rather of CBS News by insisting on an odd caveat: that the interview be conducted live. That not only gave the confrontation the air of a prizefight – it enabled Ailes himself to sit just off-camera in Bush’s office, prompting his candidate with cue cards. As soon as Rather, who was in the CBS studio in New York, began his questioning, Bush came out swinging, claiming that he had been misled about the interview’s focus on Iran-Contra. When the exchange got tricky for Bush, Ailes flashed a card: walked off the air. A few months earlier, Rather had stormed off camera upon learning his newscast had been pre-empted by a women’s tennis match. Clenching his fist, Ailes mouthed: Go! Go! Just kick his ass!
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.)
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.”
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.”
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.”
After Bush took office, Ailes stayed in frequent touch with the new Republican president. “The senior-level editorial people believe that Roger was on the phone every day with Bush,” a source close to Fox News tells Rolling Stone. “He gave Bush the same kind of pointers he used to give George H.W. Bush – delivery, effectiveness, political coaching.” In the aftermath of 9/11, Ailes sent a back-channel memo to the president through Karl Rove, advising Bush to ramp up the War on Terror. As reported by Bob Woodward, Ailes advised Bush that “the American public would tolerate waiting and would be patient, but only as long as they were convinced that Bush was using the harshest measures possible.”
Fox News did its part to make sure that viewers lined up behind those harsh measures. The network plastered an American flag in the corner of the screen, dolled up one female anchor in a camouflaged silk blouse, and featured Geraldo Rivera threatening to hunt down Osama bin Laden with a pistol. The militarism even seemed to infect the culture of Fox News. “Roger Ailes is the general,” declared Bill O’Reilly. “And the general sets the tone of the army. Our army is very George Patton-esque. We charge. We roll.”
Ailes likes to boast that Fox News maintains a bright, clear line between its news shows, which he touts as balanced, and prime-time hosts like O’Reilly and Hannity, who are given free rein to voice their opinions. “We police those lines very carefully,” Ailes has said. But after Bush was elected, Ailes tasked John Moody, his top political lieutenant, to keep the newsroom in lockstep. Early each morning, Ailes summoned Moody into his office – often joined by Hume from the Washington bureau on speakerphone – and provided his spin on the day’s news. Moody then posted a daily memo to the staff with explicit instructions on how to slant the day’s news coverage according to the agenda of those on “the Second Floor,” as Ailes and his loyal cadre of vice presidents are known. “There’s a chain of command, and it’s followed,” says a former news anchor. “Roger talks to his people, and his people pass the message on down.”
When the 9/11 Commission began investigating Bush’s negligence in the lead-up to the terrorist attacks, Moody issued a stark warning: “This is not ‘What did he know and when did he know it?’ stuff. Do not turn this into Watergate. Remember the fleeting sense of national unity that emerged from this tragedy. Let’s not desecrate that.” In a 2003 memo on Bush’s overtures for Middle East peace, Moody again ordered the staff to champion the president: “His political courage and tactical cunning are worth noting in our reporting throughout the day.” During the 2004 campaign, Moody highlighted John Kerry’s “flip-flop voting record” – a line that dovetailed with the attacks coming out of the White House. In fact, Fox News was working directly with the Bush administration to coordinate each day’s agenda – as Bush’s own press secretary, Scott McClellan, later conceded. “We at the White House,” McClellan said, “were getting them talking points.” (Ailes and Fox News declined repeated requests from Rolling Stone for an interview.)
When Bush was re-elected, Murdoch and Ailes toasted the victory together in the control room of Fox News, celebrating until three in the morning. The network’s relentless GOP boosterism had not only been good for ratings, it also appeared to have paid dividends for the network’s corporate parent. Acting nakedly in Murdoch’s interests, the FCC blocked satellite-TV provider EchoStar’s $27 billion acquisition of DirecTV in 2002 as being anti-competitive. That cleared the way for News Corp. – which had originally been outbid – to buy control of DirecTV for a mere $6.6 billion.
But despite their commercial and political triumphs, the relationship between Murdoch and Ailes has grown rocky. The more profits soared at Fox News, the more Ailes expanded his power and independence. In 2005, he staged a brazen coup within the company, conspiring to depose Murdoch’s son Lachlan as the anointed heir of News Corp. Ailes not only took over Lachlan’s portfolio – becoming chair of Fox Television – he even claimed Lachlan’s office on the eighth floor. In 2009, Ailes earned a pay package of $24 million – a deal slightly larger than the one enjoyed by Murdoch himself. He brags privately that his contract also forbids Murdoch – infamous for micromanaging his newspapers – from interfering with editorial decisions at Fox News.
In recent years, Ailes has increasingly become a headache for News Corp. In 2004, to protect his pal Rudy Giuliani, Ailes apparently interceded in the case of Bernie Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who had been nominated on Giuliani’s recommendation to head the Department of Homeland Security. Kerik proved to be a train wreck: In the most offensive of his indiscretions, he had commandeered an apartment overlooking Ground Zero – intended for rescue and recovery workers – as a love shack for trysts with his book editor, News Corp.’s own Judith Regan. Acting more like a political consultant than a news executive, Ailes appears to have resorted to Watergate-style obstruction of justice. According to court documents, the Fox News chairman “told Regan that he believed she had information about Kerik that, if disclosed, would harm Giuliani’s presidential campaign.” The records reveal that Ailes “advised Regan to lie to, and to withhold information from, investigators concerning Kerik.” The allegation featured prominently in a wrongful-termination lawsuit brought by Regan, which reportedly cost News Corp. more than $10 million to settle.
Many within Murdoch’s family have come to viscerally hate Ailes. Murdoch’s third wife, Wendi, has worked to soften her husband’s politics, and his son James has persuaded him to embrace the reality of global warming – even as Ailes has led the drumbeat of climate deniers at Fox News. Matthew Freud, Murdoch’s son-in-law and a top PR executive in Britain, recently told reporters, “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’ horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to.”
“Rupert is surrounded by people who regularly, if not moment to moment, tell him how horrifying and dastardly Roger is,” says Wolff, the Murdoch biographer. “Wendi cannot stand Roger. Rupert’s children cannot stand Roger. So around Murdoch, Roger has no supporters, except for Roger himself.”
Ailes begins each workday buffered by the elaborate private security detail that News Corp. pays to usher him from his $1.6 million home in New Jersey to his office in Manhattan. (His country home – in the aptly named village of Garrison – is phalanxed by empty homes that Ailes bought up to create a wider security perimeter.) Traveling with the Chairman is like a scene straight out of 24. A friend recalls hitching a ride with Ailes after a power lunch: “We come out of the building and there’s an SUV filled with big guys, who jump out of the car when they see him. A cordon is formed around us. We’re ushered into the SUV, and we drive the few blocks to Fox’s offices, where another set of guys come out of the building to receive ‘the package.’ The package is taken in, and I’m taken on to my destination.”Ailes is certain that he’s a top target of Al Qaeda terrorists. “You know, they’re coming to get me,” he tells friends. “I’m fully prepared. I’ve taken care of it.” (Ailes, who was once arrested for carrying an illegal handgun in Central Park, now carries a licensed weapon.) Inside his blast-resistant office at Fox News headquarters, Ailes keeps a monitor on his desk that allows him to view any activity outside his closed door. Once, after observing a dark-skinned man in what Ailes perceived to be Muslim garb, he put Fox News on lockdown. “What the hell!” Ailes shouted. “This guy could be bombing me!” The suspected terrorist turned out to be a janitor. “Roger tore up the whole floor,” recalls a source close to Ailes. “He has a personal paranoia about people who are Muslim – which is consistent with the ideology of his network.”
Ailes knows exactly who is watching Fox News each day, and he is adept at playing to their darkest fears in the age of Obama. The network’s viewers are old, with a median age of 65: Ads cater to the immobile, the infirm and the incontinent, with appeals to join class action hip-replacement lawsuits, spots for products like Colon Flow and testimonials for the services of Liberator Medical (“Liberator gave me back the freedom I haven’t had since I started using catheters”). The audience is also almost exclusively white – only 1.38 percent of viewers are African-American. “Roger understands audiences,” says Rollins, the former Reagan consultant. “He knew how to target, which is what Fox News is all about.” The typical viewer of Hannity, to take the most stark example, is a pro-business (86 percent), Christian conservative (78 percent), Tea Party-backer (75 percent) with no college degree (66 percent), who is over age 50 (65 percent), supports the NRA (73 percent), doesn’t back gay rights (78 percent) and thinks government “does too much” (84 percent). “He’s got a niche audience and he’s programmed to it beautifully,” says a former News Corp. colleague. “He feeds them exactly what they want to hear.”
From the time Obama began contemplating his candidacy, Fox News went all-out to convince its white viewers that he was a Marxist, a Muslim, a black nationalist and a 1960s radical. In early 2007, Ailes joked about the similarity of Obama’s name to a certain terrorist’s. “It is true that Barack Obama is on the move,” Ailes said in a speech to news executives. “I don’t know if it’s true that President Bush called Musharraf and said, ‘Why can’t we catch this guy?’” References to Obama’s middle name were soon being bandied about on Fox & Friends, the morning happy-talk show that Ailes uses as one of his primary vehicles to inject his venom into the media bloodstream. According to insiders, the morning show’s anchors, who appear to be chatting ad-lib, are actually working from daily, structured talking points that come straight from the top. “Prior to broadcast, Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson – that gang – they meet with Roger,” says a former Fox deputy. “And Roger gives them the spin.”
Fox & Friends is where the smear about Obama having attended a madrassa was first broadcast, with Doocy – an Ailes lackey from his days at America’s Talking – stating unequivocally that Obama was “raised as a Muslim.” And during the campaign, the show’s anchors flogged Obama’s reference to his own grandmother as a “typical white person” so relentlessly that it even gave Fox News host Chris Wallace pause. When Wallace appeared on the show that morning, he launched a rebuke that seemed targeted at Ailes as much as Doocy. “I have been watching the show since six o’clock this morning,” Wallace bristled. “I feel like two hours of Obama-bashing may be enough.”
The Obama era has spurred sharp changes in the character and tone of Fox News. “Obama’s election has driven Fox to be more of a political campaign than it ever was before,” says Burns, the network’s former media critic.“Things shifted,” agrees Jane Hall, who fled the network after a decade as a liberal commentator. “There seemed suddenly to be less of a need to have a range of opinion. I began to feel uncomfortable.” Sean Hannity was no longer flanked by Alan Colmes, long the network’s fig-leaf liberal. Bill Sammon, author of At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election, was brought in to replace Moody as the top political enforcer. And Brit Hume was replaced on the anchor desk by Bret Baier, one of the young guns Ailes hired more than a decade ago to inject right-wing fervor into Fox News.
Most striking, Ailes hired Glenn Beck away from CNN and set him loose on the White House. During his contract negotiations, Beck recounted, Ailes confided that Fox News was dedicating itself to impeding the Obama administration. “I see this as the Alamo,” Ailes declared. Leading the charge were the ragtag members of the Tea Party uprising, which Fox News propelled into a nationwide movement. In the buildup to the initial protests on April 15th, 2009, the network went so far as to actually co-brand the rallies as “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties.” Veteran journalists were taken aback. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a news network throw its weight behind a protest like we are seeing in the past few weeks,” said Howard Kurtz, the then-media critic for The Washington Post. The following August, when the Tea Party launched its town-hall protests against health care reform, Fox & Friends urged viewers to confront their congressmen face to face. “Are you gonna call?” Gretchen Carlson demanded on-air, “or are you gonna go to one of these receptions where they’re actually there?” The onscreen Chyron instructed viewers: HOLD CONGRESS ACCOUNTABLE! NOW IS THE TIME TO SPEAK YOUR MIND.
Fox News also hyped Sarah Palin’s lies about “death panels” and took the smear a step further, airing a report claiming that the Department of Veterans Affairs was using a “death book” to encourage soldiers to “hurry up and die.” (Missing from the report was any indication that the end-of-life counseling materials in question had been promoted by the Bush administration.) At the height of the health care debate, more than two-thirds of Fox News viewers were convinced Obamacare would lead to a “government takeover,” provide health care to illegal immigrants, pay for abortions and let the government decide when to pull the plug on grandma. As always, the Chairman’s enforcer made sure that producers down in the Fox News basement were toeing the party line. In October 2009, as Congress weighed adding a public option to the health care law, Sammon let everyone know how Ailes expected them to cover the story. “Let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option,’” he warned in an e-mail. “Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance’ … whenever possible.” Sammon neglected to mention that the phrase he was pushing had been carefully crafted by America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s largest lobbying organization, which had determined that the wording was “the most negative language to use when describing a ‘public plan.’”
The result of this concerted campaign of disinformation is a viewership that knows almost nothing about what’s going on in the world. According to recent polls, Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers. They are 12 percentage points more likely to believe the stimulus package caused job losses, 17 points more likely to believe Muslims want to establish Shariah law in America, 30 points more likely to say that scientists dispute global warming, and 31 points more likely to doubt President Obama’s citizenship. In fact, a study by the University of Maryland reveals, ignorance of Fox viewers actually increases the longer they watch the network. That’s because Ailes isn’t interested in providing people with information, or even a balanced range of perspectives. Like his political mentor, Richard Nixon, Ailes traffics in the emotions of victimization.
“What Nixon did – and what Ailes does today in the age of Obama – is unravel and rewire one of the most powerful of human emotions: shame,” says Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. “He takes the shame of people who feel that they are being looked down on, and he mobilizes it for political purposes. Roger Ailes is a direct link between the Nixonian politics of resentment and Sarah Palin’s politics of resentment. He’s the golden thread.”
During his days as an overt political consultant, Roger Ailes reshaped Republican politics for the era of network television. Now, as chairman of Fox News, he has reshaped a television network as a force for Republican politics. “It’s a political campaign – a 24/7 political campaign,” says a former Ailes deputy. “Nobody has been able to issue talking points to the American public morning after morning, day after day, night after night.” Perhaps the only media figure in history with a greater sway over the American electorate was Father Charles Coughlin, the redbaiting Catholic ideologue whose corrosive radio sermons – laced with anti-Semitism and economic populism – reached nearly a third of the country during the Great Depression.
“Ailes is actually much more sophisticated than Coughlin,” says Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian and author of The Age of Reagan. “Coughlin was only on the air once a week, and it was clear that what he presented was his opinion. Fox News is totalized: It’s an entire network, devoted 24 hours a day to an entire politics, and it’s broadcast as ‘the news.’ That’s why Ailes is a genius. He’s combined opinion and journalism in a wholly new way – one that blurs the distinction between the two.”
The phenomenal political power and economic prowess of Fox News has inspired imitation. In recent years, MSNBC has tried to refashion itself as the anti-Fox, with a prime-time lineup stacked with liberal commentators. Such contortions, say media veterans, only strengthen Fox News, emboldening Ailes to tack even further to the right. “He can say, ‘I’m not doing anything anyone else isn’t doing – I’m just doing it on the other side of the fence,’ ” says Dan Rather.
But Ailes has not simply been content to shift the nature of journalism and direct the GOP’s message war. He has also turned Fox News into a political fundraising juggernaut. During her Senate race in Delaware, Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell bragged, “I’ve got Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money.” Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who tried to unseat Harry Reid in Nevada, praised Fox for letting her say on-air, “I need $25 from a million people – go to SharronAngle.com and send money.” Completing the Fox-GOP axis, Karl Rove has used his pulpit as a Fox News commentator to promote American Crossroads, a shadowy political group he founded, promising that the money it raised would be put “to good use to defeat Democrats who have supported the president’s agenda.”
But the clearest demonstration of how Ailes has seamlessly merged both money and message lies in the election of John Kasich, a longtime Fox News contributor who eked out a two-point victory over Democrat Ted Strickland last November to become governor of Ohio. While technically a Republican, Kasich might better be understood as the first candidate of the Fox News Party. “The question is no longer whether Fox News is an arm of the GOP,” says Burns, the network’s former media critic, “but whether it’s becoming the torso instead.”
The host of a weekend show called Heartland, Kasich made 42 appearances as a contributor on Fox after he announced his interest in running, frequently guest-hosting on The O’Reilly Factor. He also appeared 16 times as an active candidate, using the network as a platform to make naked fundraising appeals. Most striking of all, News Corp. itself chipped in $1.26 million to the Republican Governors Association, making it one of the largest single contributors to the club Kasich was seeking to join. Murdoch made no bones about why he made such a generous donation to the GOP cause: It was driven, he said, by “my friendship with John Kasich.” Since becoming governor, Kasich has repealed collective-bargaining rights for 350,000 state workers and killed a stimulus-funded project to develop high-speed rail for the state.
Fox News stands as the culmination of everything Ailes tried to do for Nixon back in 1968. He has created a vast stage set, designed to resemble an actual news network, that is literally hard-wired into the homes of millions of America’s most conservative voters. GOP candidates then use that forum to communicate directly to their base, bypassing the professional journalists Ailes once denounced as “matadors” who want to “tear down the social order” with their “elitist, horse-dung, socialist thinking.” Ironically, it is Ailes who has built the most formidable propaganda machine ever seen outside of the Communist bloc, pioneering a business model that effectively monetizes conservative politics through its relentless focus on the bottom line. “I’m not in politics,” Ailes recently boasted. “I’m in ratings. We’re winning.”
The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Ailes can have it both ways: reaching his goal of $1 billion in annual profits while simultaneously dethroning Obama with one of his candidate-employees. Either way, he has put the Republican Party on his payroll and forced it to remake itself around his image. Ailes is the Chairman, and the conservative movement now reports to him. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” said David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter. “Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.”