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.”
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.