Book Review: Fox’s Ailes is hard as nails, hard to nail down

BOOK REVIEW

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEFebruary 2, 2014 

  • THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM: HOW THE BRILLIANT, BOMBASTIC ROGER AILES BUILT FOX NEWS — AND DIVIDED A COUNTRY

    by Gabriel Sherman; Random House ($28)

Tucked away at the end of Gabriel Sherman’s disingenuous Roger Ailes biography, there is a note on sources that should have opened the book. Sherman has done a lot of interviewing, but there are so many citations of “author interview with a person familiar with the matter” that “The Loudest Voice in the Room” may set a record for blind items and the untrustworthiness they engender. It would have helped to know right from the get-go why Sherman found this kind of journalism necessary.

What he finally provides, by way of explanation, is a Kafkaesque account of how bizarre his brief Ailes sightings were.

Ailes refused to be interviewed for this book.

The book begins with a vignette set at the White House on Dec. 7, 2011, as Ailes attends a Christmas party. “I see the most powerful man in the world is here,” President Barack Obama says, according to an “author interview with a person familiar with the matter” — really, was this story sensitive enough to threaten anyone’s safety or livelihood? Here and throughout the book, the page notes are worth checking out, since while Ailes genially attended the party, Fox News’ on-the-air talent groused that no one from Fox had been invited. Reputation notwithstanding, Ailes comes across here as a convivial character whose social life has been a lot less partisan than his political pronouncements.

Sherman then flashes back to the Ailes boyhood, greatly helped by the garrulousness of Roger’s brother, Robert, who now says he didn’t realize he was talking to a biographer when speaking so expansively about the Ailes family. T

ales of their Ohio childhood plant the Aileses firmly in the working-class conservatism to which Fox News would later speak, as Sherman pieces together the basic ingredients of Ailes’ formula for success. They are surprising, and they give the early part of the book more energy than the rote second half about fully formed Fox.

In any case, Ailes showed great skill as a producer on Mike Douglas’ variety show, not only as a talent wrangler but as an ambitious corporate climber. He sold himself as an image consultant to the 1968 Nixon campaign even before that was a real profession, and Joe McGinniss’ “The Selling of the President” colorfully recorded his exploits for posterity.

Getting away from Richard M. Nixon’s team while the getting was good, he became a stage producer, finding that he liked actresses as much as he liked politicians.

The second half of “The Loudest Voice in the Room” is mostly devoted to recent and familiar news, beginning with the moment Fox began getting thrills up its leg over Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky debacle. That sent Fox’s popularity through the roof, and the 2008 presidential election, then the photogenic Tea Party, kept it there. A late part of the book follows Ailes; his wife, Elizabeth; and their young son to their home in Garrison, N.Y., where they seem to have isolated themselves on a hilltop, shown signs of extreme paranoia and antagonized a small, formerly peaceable population.

The book ends damningly with the intimation that Ailes found great TV in the circus that was the 2012 Republican primary by giving the inordinate amounts of airtime to candidates like Rick Perry and Herman Cain.

The upshot, as Sherman sees it, is that Ailes may have cost his party the election and has been left in a weakened state because of it.

“I don’t care about my legacy,” Ailes has said. “It’s too late. My enemies will create it, and they’ll push it.”

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