A soft-focus look at tough guy of Fox News

New York TimesMarch 30, 2013 

"Roger Ailes Off Camera" by Zev Chafets.

  • Nonfiction Roger Ailes Off Camera Zev Chafets

    Sentinel, 258 pages

He’s been called “one of the few visionaries in the television business” and the “most successful executive” in TV; a Republican kingmaker who would become “the sharpest thorn in the side of Barack Obama” and a pit-bull political strategist with only “two speeds: attack and destroy.”

Many of the clues to how Roger Ailes helped Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush capture the White House, and how he would make Fox News into the planet’s most popular cable news network, can be found not in Zev Chafets’ slapdash new portrait of him, but in Ailes’ own book from the late 1980s, “You Are the Message” – a book in which he frankly and presciently talked about the efficacy of appealing to an audience’s emotions, staying on offense and embracing television’s love of brevity, speed and colorful language.

Ailes used his his showbiz savvy and his political strategist’s understanding of creating narratives to build Fox News (started in 1996) into a huge profit machine for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., while helping to steer the country’s conversation to the right.

Ailes has become one of the most powerful – and debated – figures in media and politics: an evil genius in the eyes of the many liberals who regard Fox News as a megaphone for Republican propaganda and a prophetic hero to the many conservatives who applaud him for providing balance to what they see as the liberal mainstream news media.

He is famous for his combative swagger, his tough-guy tough talk, his reputation as a hard-boiled guy who once smashed a hole in the wall of a control room.

Chafets was given considerable access to Ailes and Fox News. And his book is regarded by some media watchers as an effort by Ailes to get out in front of another book about Fox by Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine (tentatively titled “The Loudest Voice in the Room: Fox News and the Making of America”) due out in late May.

When Ailes is center stage in this volume, he certainly commands attention, whether he’s discussing political strategy and the show-business lessons he learned working for the talk-show host Mike Douglas, offering McLuhan-esque musings about TV, or dispensing acid apercus about today’s political landscape. He’s quoted as saying Obama is “lazy, but the media won’t report that,” that he has “a soft spot for Joe Biden” but thinks “he’s dumb as an ashtray,” and that Newt Gingrich was “a sore loser” in the Republican primaries who would have been “a sore winner” if he’d won.

The overall book, however, reads like a long, soft-focus, poorly edited magazine article. For the most part Chafets serves as little more than a plastic funnel for Ailes’ observations – much as he did for Rush Limbaugh in his 2010 book “Rush Limbaugh: Army of One.” Although Chafets supplies a tiny bit of context here and there, he doesn’t ask his subject many tough questions about Fox News’ relationship with the Republican Party, its role in accelerating partisanship in our increasingly polarized society or the consequences of its often tabloidy blurring of the lines between news and entertainment.

There is little cogent analysis about how Fox News frames its reports from a conservative point of view or the effect that this has had on the national conversation.

And while Chafets suggests that Ailes’ “impulse to present himself to the world as a nasty, ruthless leg breaker” might have roots in his childhood, there is little analysis of how this “master image maker” has shaped his own image or shaped a network that mirrors his own pugnacious style.

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