Everyone who has ever met Roger Ailes has a Roger Ailes story — not all of them bad or apparently actionable either. (Ailes, who resigned Thursday as chairman of Fox News Channel, is being sued by former host Gretchen Carlson for sexual harassment). As anyone who ever met him also knows, he can be funny, and effortlessly quotable.
Here’s my story. I first met him in person in 1996, just as he was setting up the October launch of FNC from its Sixth Avenue headquarters. Far from your average cable television executive at the outset of yet another cable television launch, Ailes came with a reputation — a fearsome one — and a style — equally fearsome. His career had already been fully formed, and fully documented in books like Joe McGinniss’ “The Selling of the President,” published in 1969, where he was essentially characterized as the invisible hand guiding Richard Nixon’s reluctant embrace of TV.
Eight years before this day, Ailes had also been implicated in one of the most famous incidents in television news history — the so-called “shouting match” between Dan Rather and George H.W. Bush, who said to the “Evening News” anchorman during a live interview, ‘’I want to talk about why I want to be president. It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?’’
Rather was momentarily stunned. Bush bore in: “How would you like that?”
The interview was a turning point for Bush, accused of being a “wimp” by some. Ailes, Bush’s media adviser, was suspected of having written both the “how would you like it?” line and having set up the ambush. He denied it (denied it to me that day, too).
But still, the master media manipulator was now in charge of a network that had the Rupert Murdoch billions behind it. What would he do with those billions?
That day, just hours before launch, Ailes was angry, and not just angry, but infuriated. There was a lot to be angry about — Manhattan’s Time Warner Cable had refused to pick up FNC, depriving it of the most important market in the country, while much of the punditocracy had been lamenting the entrance of a Rupert Murdoch-empowered news network.
But what was really bugging Ailes was The New York Times, which (he claimed) had essentially dismissed the start-up as both irrelevant and (worse) a minor annoyance. Ailes, as the world would soon learn, didn’t like to be dismissed. It would also learn that he never forgot a slight, or never let one go to waste either: Anger motivated him, drove him, even seemed to inspire him.
Impressions linger and that one has for 20 years. In time — in short order, in fact — Ailes had built a fortress and on its battlements were fellow travelers like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity who had also been dismissed (or worse, ridiculed) by the “Mainstream Media” (like The Times) that Ailes took every opportunity to ridicule in turn. An “us versus them” culture was established on Sixth Avenue, in the heart of the world’s communications capital, where (in Ailes’ mind) cherished liberal orthodoxies has become encrusted at institutions like The Times and CBS News, like so many barnacles on rusting ships.
Here’s what he told me that day:
“The words ‘left wing’ never appear in the media, but the words ‘right wing’ appear. . . . If you look at Ted Kennedy, you never see him described as ‘the left-wing senator from Massachusetts.’ There’s a little problem here, and I’m just saying it’s out of balance. Maybe the words ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ are more terrifying than we realize.”
Campaigns needs logos — this one got it with “Fair and Balanced” — and generals need headquarters.
Sixth Avenue was the perfect place to wage this particular war — close enough to see the enemy just down the street, at Times Square to the south or Columbus Circle to the north.
That’s where CNN would eventually move. That’s where Ailes would train his focus.
In the days and years to come, CNN was to be Ailes’ piñata. There were weekly, then daily faxes (later emails) about incremental ratings growth at FNC, and incremental ratings erosion at CNN. Ailes attacked CNN when any opportunity presented itself, and when the opportunity didn’t present itself, he’d manufacture one — like taking out a billboard ad across from CNN reminding it of its diminishing fortunes.
CNN didn’t know how to respond and therefore didn’t. CNN chief Tom Johnson — a congenial man who, like Ailes, came from the political world, albeit from the opposite end of the spectrum (he had been an LBJ aide) — was puzzled by Ailes’ assaults. He also pretended to ignore them.
But behind the scenes, both CNN and MSNBC were furiously scrambling to halt that erosion. MSNBC flipped through hosts and formats, while CNN was effectively plunged into an existential crisis by the FNC gains. For CNN — and for its founder Ted Turner — “news was the star.” But if “news” wasn’t the star, then what was? Or who was? Why weren’t more people watching? What was Ailes doing right and CNN doing wrong?
CNN’s urgent soul search turned up nothing. Ailes had triumphed. The war had been won. But Ailes didn’t stop. Wars need enemies and — with CNN vanquished — he turned on other targets, including media reporters, or even his own stars (like Paula Zahn, who jumped to CNN; a “dead raccoon” could get better ratings than her; remember?)
Books have been written on Ailes — including one, with the title “Dark Genius” — and more will come. The Carlson suit hasn’t gone to trial yet (Ailes has sought to have it go into arbitration). And revenge is at this very moment being served — hot, as opposed to cold. CNN and its “Reliable Sources” anchor Brian Stelter have been relentlessly covering Ailes’ fall. The Times’ TV critic, James Poniewozik, surveyed the Ailes legacy with one brutal put-down, calling him the “J. Edgar Hoover” of TV news.
But Ailes’ legacy is far more complicated than that, more nuanced, too. Good journalism actually did and does happen at Roger Ailes’ FNC — Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace are just two standouts, but there were and are others. His presentation of news revolutionized the look of cable journalism as much as ABC’s Roone Arledge had revolutionized the presentation of network news journalism. He injected a conservative perspective into that presentation, but not always (ask Smith or Wallace). His Fox News was doubtless often “right wing,” but MSNBC was (and is) undoubtedly “left wing.” Was it his fault that far more viewers wanted to watch FNC than MSNBC?
Joe Peyronnin, the first president of Fox News — and a former executive at CBS News — told me Thursday that he resigned at FNC after Ailes was named chairman back in ’96 because “I felt I could not work under the conditions he set. I believed in treating everyone with respect and not undermining the basic tenets of journalism. He ruled with an iron fist and with fear, and fostered the rise of op-ed programming. He regularly undermined the basic principles of journalism.”
But Peyronnin conceded that “he also built a hugely profitable business, and changed cable news forever.”
No nuance in that observation, and no argument either.