Interview: Zev Chafets Discusses Roger Ailes: Off Camera
Veteran author and columnist Zev Chafets drops by to discuss his latest book, Roger Ailes: Off Camera, which, as its title implies, is a biography of the Fox News impresario, and a history of how dramatically the media and political landscape has changed since Ailes cut his teeth producing the venerable Mike Douglas syndicated talk show in the mid-1960s. His chance meeting with Richard Nixon while producing Douglas set in motion a series of career events, including advising the campaigns of multiple Republican presidents. From the late 1980s through the mid-'90s, Ailes launched CNBC, produced Rush Limbaugh's syndicated TV series, and created the immediate predecessor to MSNBC. All of which were the prelude to Ailes being tapped by Rupert Murdoch in 1996 to build Fox News and give it an iconoclastic worldview. As Chafets writes in his book:
Murdoch, whose trajectory had taken him from his native Australia to London and then to the United States, already owned a string of broadcast stations, but wanted to go into the cable news business. He had an intuition that a large portion of the public was unhappy with the tone of mainstream TV news and would respond to a more patriotic, socially conservative, and less parochial sort of information. He and Ailes had met only once, briefly, on the Twentieth Century Fox movie lot years before, but they knew each other by reputation. “Roger had great success at CNBC and I heard that he was unhappy there,” Murdoch says. “I asked him to come see me.”
Ailes listened silently as Murdoch laid out his idea. “The question,” Murdoch said, “is whether it can be done.”
Ailes said that it could, but only if it could get on the air within six months, to beat MSNBC (and perhaps also ABC’s new cable venture) to the punch. Ailes would be working from scratch. There were no studios, no equipment, no staff, and no infrastructure. Essentially he would be creating a network from nothing.
“How much will it cost me?” Murdoch asked. “Nine hundred million to a billion,” Ailes responded. “And you could lose it all.”
“Can you do it?” Murdoch asked.
“Yes,” said Ailes. “Then go ahead and do it.”
“I thought, either this man is crazy or he has the biggest set of balls I’ve ever seen,” Murdoch says. Ailes was thinking pretty much the same thing about his new boss.
As John Podhoretz recently noted, after the 2012 election, conservatives spoke frequently about finding some way of changing the media landscape; in the mid-1990s, Ailes did just that. The result was a godsend for conservatives who longed for a TV channel whose tone matched theirs. Concurrently the channel would cause many self-described liberals to jettison their platitudes about free speech, tolerance and diversity, as they descended into apoplexy every time they got near channel #360 on their DirecTV dial.
During our interview, Chafets will explore:
● How did Ailes become an advisor to the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush?
● How does Ailes compare to previous Chafets biography subject Rush Limbaugh, whose TV series Ailes produced in the early 1990s?
● How Ailes crafted Fox's signature slogans "We Report, You Decide" and "Fair and Balanced" to be counterweights to the pretensions of the MSM on the opposite side of the aisle.
● How do Rush and Ailes cope with being such demonized figures by the left? (QED: this 2011 Esquire headline: "Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?")
● How Ailes' past careers have allowed to find and recruit new talent, and how crossing Ailes is frequently a quick trip to television Siberia for Fox hosts.
● What does Ailes think of new media impresarios such as the late Andrew Breitbart, and former Fox hosts Matt Drudge and Glenn Beck?
● What will happen to Fox News when the 72-year old Ailes one day departs the organization?
And much more. Click here to listen:
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MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJMedia.com, and we're talking with Zev Chafets, veteran columnist, the author of 2010's Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One and the author of the brand new book, Roger Ailes: Off Camera. It's published by Sentinel Books and available from Amazon.com and your local bookseller.
And Zev, thank you for stopping by today.
MR. CHAFETS: Well, thank you for having me.
MR. DRISCOLL: Zev, how did you gain sufficient access to Roger Ailes to write his biography?
MR. CHAFETS: So you want to know how I got access to Roger Ailes?
The answer is, I asked him. I was looking for a project after I finished the Rush Limbaugh book, and it seemed to me that Roger Ailes would be a logical continuation, especially because Roger and Rush are close. Roger was the producer of Rush's TV show.
So I got in touch with -- I didn't really know him, but I got in touch through his office. And he told me that he didn't want to do a book; he was not interested. And then I proposed that maybe he would be interested in an article for The New York Times Magazine, which is a place where I write from time to time. And he got back to me and said he's not interested in The New York Times Magazine, but he would be willing to revisit the idea of a book. And I went to see him, and he said, go ahead and do it. So that was the genesis of the project.
MR. DRISCOLL: How much time did you get to spend with Ailes interviewing and observing him?
MR. CHAFETS: Well, I spent really a lot of time with him over the course of a year. We traveled together around the country when he had various speaking engagements. I spent time with him in his home in Garrison New York -- a little bit upstate, across from West Point, and many, many hours with him at Fox News, both one-on-one and also in meetings -- editorial meetings and private meetings that he held, which I was able to, sort of, be a fly on the wall at. And then, on election night, at Fox headquarters with him, and Rupert Murdoch was there and some of the other Fox people I had met during the course of the year. So I don't know how -- I haven't totaled up the hours, but it certainly would be in the hundreds of hours.
MR. DRISCOLL: After spending all of time with Ailes, what impressions did you take away about the man?
MR. CHAFETS: Well, I came to Ailes with some impressions of him which I came to see are, in large part, cartoonish. A lot of books have been written about Roger and a lot of -- I think all of them have been clip jobs -- and there's a lot of articles written about him and so on over the years. And a lot of people don't like him; some people admire him very much. But one way or another, they didn't really represent who the guy is, at least the guy that I saw and found and spent time with.
My first impression of Roger is that he is extremely connected to his roots. He comes from a factory town in Ohio, and I come from a factory town in Michigan -- Pontiac, Michigan; he's from Warren, Ohio, which are very similar places. And he's a few years older than I am, but only a few. And I recognized right away that this is a middle-Western guy, raised in the '50s and '60s. I'd say that that is who he was when I met him at first, and that's who he remained throughout the time that I was working on this book.
MR. DRISCOLL: Zev, as you mention in the book, in the mid-1960s, Ailes was producing The Mike Douglas Show -- which I remember watching as a kid growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I think it aired on KYW channel 3. At one point, Ailes found two very, very different people sitting in dressing rooms waiting to go on Mike’s show. Could you talk about what happened next?
MR. CHAFETS: Yeah, they had two guests. One of them was Little Egypt, who was a stripper who -- exotic dancer who danced with boa constrictors, and the other one was Richard Nixon, who was trying to restart his political career after the loss in 1960 and then the loss in the gubernatorial race in California. And each one needed to be in a green room, and Ailes got Nixon instead of Little Egypt. He told me that if he had gotten Little Egypt, he would probably have wound up as an entrepreneur of exotic dancers.
But instead he got Nixon, and they were chatting. And Nixon, who famously lost the '60 -- 1960 race, partly because of his poor performance in the debates, said to Ailes, it's a shame that you can't win an election without a gimmick like TV.
And Ailes said, if you think TV is a gimmick, you're never going to win an election again. At that time, Roger was in his mid-twenties, and it made a big impression on Nixon, who hired him to be his television producer in the 1968 election. And in that election, Ailes came up with a formula which has more or less been the formula for televising candidates ever since, which is to try to tightly constrict the audiences and to give the candidate as much control as possible over his public appearances, which is very much the playbook that Obama used in the last election.
MR. DRISCOLL: In the 1980s, Ailes was an advisor to, first, President Reagan and then to Vice President George Bush. How did those roles prepare him for running Fox News?
MR. CHAFETS: Well, Roger was called in in '84, after President Reagan had a very bad first debate against Walter Mondale. And people were saying that Reagan had lost his game, and he lost his memory and so on; I mean, he sounded confused. And Roger came in and sort of talked him through the second debate, which everybody thought that Reagan won.
In '88, Bush had Ailes in charge of his commercials, making his campaign ads. And those campaign ads were devastatingly effective against Dukakis.
So in both of those ways, Ailes was demonstrating his mastery of television. And those qualities landed him a job, when he left politics, at CNBC -- running CNBC. And then when he left CNBC, he went to see Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch was interested in a television network, a news network that would present an alternative point of view on the news. And he wanted it within six months. And Ailes said, I can do that. And Murdoch said, what will it cost? And Ailes said, it'll cost about a billion dollars. And Murdoch said, and you could do it in six months? And Ailes said, yes, I can. And Murdoch said, okay, go ahead and do it.
MR. DRISCOLL: Your previous book was about Rush Limbaugh; how do the two men compare, and what is Ailes’ relationship with Rush?
MR. CHAFETS: Well, Rush and Ailes are close friends. They get together every year down in Palm Beach, at Rush's place, with a few other conservative figures, and they have what's called the "Spring Fling,” and they talk about the state of the world. And I think those discussions get distilled into a lot of the media wisdom on the right. So he and Rush are very close personally.
The difference between them -- I mean, the biggest difference is that Rush is a solo character. He is down there in Palm Beach in his studio; he has a couple of people working with him in the studio, and he's like a one-man show.
Roger is a leader. Roger is like -- I compare him in the book to Red Auerbach. He's a coach. He takes talent, and he aggregates it, and he gives it a game plan, and he diagrams the plays, and he critiques the performances. I'd say that -- and Roger, of course, is far less of a performer than Rush is. So Rush is the talent and Roger is the producer, in television terms.
MR. DRISCOLL: When Ailes created the slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide,” did he give any thought to just those simple phrases would drive journalists at other networks and at newspapers basically into a state that I think approaches apoplexy?
MR. CHAFETS: Yeah, in my experience, Roger gives thought to everything that he says and does. He sometimes sounds like he's saying things off the top of his head, but I think that just about everything that Roger has ever said is planned out in advance. And he certainly understood that these slogans -- because they mocked the pretensions of the mainstream media. You know, The New York Times is "all the news that's fit to print." Well, okay, we're, we report, you decide; we're fair and balanced. These are things that conservatives were not supposed to be.
And Ailes knew that it would sound arrogant, and he wanted it to sound arrogant. And he wanted it to hold up a mirror to the mainstream media. He wanted to show people, by using these slogans that -- and the reactions of the mainstream media to them, who he was dealing with.
MR. DRISCOLL: One thing that Ailes and Rush share is the ability to drive liberals insane seemingly just through their sheer existence. Do the two men share similar coping mechanisms for being magnets for such intense hatred?
MR. CHAFETS: You know, that's a very good question. Rush is pretty isolated. As I say, he's down in Palm Beach; he goes between the studio and his house. He has a circle of friends which is pretty largely people in his ideological world.
Roger is in New York. And he's in broadcasting. Roger is very, very well connected with liberals that you would not imagine. He's close to Ethel Kennedy. In fact, he, last year, went down to Palm Beach for two days. He had dinner one night at Limbaugh's house and the next night at Ethel Kennedy's house.
He's close to Jesse Jackson; Jesse Jackson's daughter works for him. So did Chris Cuomo, Mario Cuomo's son, for many years. And Roger is at home in the world of liberals. Barbara Walters is a close friend, and on and on. And I think that his mechanism for coping is to give as good as he gets and at the end of the day, to sit down and have a good laugh about it.
MR. DRISCOLL: In Roger Ailes: Off Camera, you talk quite a bit about how Ailes finds on-air talent, many of whom came from Ailes’ previous network gigs or were political consultants and politicians on both sides of the aisle that Roger Ailes had known. What causes an on-air personality to succeed or to fail on Fox News?
MR. CHAFETS: Well, Roger, first of all, has a fantastic eye for talent. Everybody says that, and -- his friends and his enemies alike. And a lot of these talented people, I found as I was interviewing them for the book, were people that came from damaged careers or they had had a problem or they weren't doing as well as they might be doing. And Roger knew how to take them and to fit them into a grand scheme.
Fox is -- unlike the other networks, news networks, is programmed like a show. There's the quarterback -- the good looking high school quarterback, who's Sean Hannity, and there's the forbidding teacher, or principal, who's Bill O'Reilly, and there's the beautiful coed, who's Megyn Kelly, and there's the smartass, Shep Smith.
He has a -- he gives people roles on that network, and one show flows into the next. And in that sense, Roger has been able to take talent which succeeded but succeeded at various levels or was a new talent, and to blend them into the Fox brand in a way -- in the same way that a good coach will take players and use them in the right roles and create a team. And Fox is very much a team effort.
MR. DRISCOLL: But based on your book, it sounds like if an on-air personality crosses Ailes, he’s not going to stick around for long afterwards.
MR. CHAFETS: I think that that's very true. I mean, it's not a pleasant experience to cross Roger Ailes. He's a combatitive guy; he's a very tough guy. He's full of Warren, Ohio. He's full of a blue-collar upbringing. The first time I met him, he said, if this ever doesn't work, I can go dig ditches again. It's unlikely that Roger Ailes is going to have to dig any ditches, but that's the mentality.
And he was a very successful political fighter. He knows where the bodies are buried, and he knows how to bury a body. So that -- he gets what he wants at Fox. Fox is a -- people have a certain degree of autonomy there, but in the end of the day, Fox, as a network, is Roger's product.
MR. DRISCOLL: What does Ailes think about new media, such as Matt Drudge, or the late Andrew Breitbart, or, say, former Fox host Glenn Beck's Internet TV venture?
MR. CHAFETS: Well, I probably ought to let Roger talk about what he thinks. I mean, he eased Glenn Beck out of Fox when he felt that Beck was not paying sufficient attention to his show and that he was engaged in a lot of other things, and especially the March on Washington that he led, and so on. I think that Roger found that to be somewhat grandiose and inappropriate.
But he did it in a collegial way. He told Beck that breaking up would probably be good for both of them. And in the event, Beck has made such a fortune in his own venture, I guess Roger was right about that. Especially because The Five -- the show at 5 o'clock, the panel show that Roger -- panel discussion that Roger put together has been a great success.
I was at Fox on the day that Andrew Breitbart died. And Roger's reaction was -- first of all, he was sad about that, and secondly, he was suspicious because Breitbart was a young guy. And Roger instructed his -- I was at an editorial meeting, and he instructed one of the bureaus to take a look and make sure that it had actually been natural causes, which I guess is not disputed at this point.
Who else did you ask me about?
MR. DRISCOLL: Matt Drudge, who briefly had a show on Fox in the late 1990s.
MR. CHAFETS: He worked at Fox, and Ailes fired him because he did a spot on abortion, which Ailes had asked him not to do and cautioned him against. And Drudge did it anyway, and so they parted ways. But as far as I know, he and Drudge are on good terms.
Ailes is really on good terms with almost everybody. Even people -- in the book I write about Jim Cramer, who is somebody else that Ailes fired. And Jim said to me, look, Roger fired me, and he was right to fire me. And I admire Roger. That's kind of a typical reaction.
Now, there are a few people that resent Ailes and people who were fired by him who don't like him. That's also true. But by and large, he manages to find a way to rebuild relationships that get damaged.
MR. DRISCOLL: On the day we’re recording this interview I saw items at the Drudge Report and at Newsbusters that apparently, there’s another conservative news channel coming to cable, with a planned launch date of July 4th. According to the reports, it will be called One News Network, and has some of connection with the Washington Times. Do you think they can succeed, and are you surprised that it’s taken so long for any serious competition for Fox News to appear from the right on cable TV?
MR. CHAFETS: Well, I saw what you saw. I see the guy who's behind it is named Herring, and it sounds -- not to be corny, but it sounds fishy to me. I doubt that -- well, I shouldn't say I doubt it because I don't know anything about this venture.
Fox is, as Roger and I discussed in the book, Fox is less to the right than Roger is personally. Fox can be quite far toward the center on a lot of issues, and various shows have different points of view or different flavors, but many of them are certainly to the left of Roger, personally.
So I guess there's room on the right for a more doctrinaire right point of view. I don't know if that's what this new network is contemplating, but there's certainly room for competition.
MR. DRISCOLL: As Ailes himself says in your book, he knows that he's 72 years old; his days are numbered. Do you have any thoughts on how Fox News will change after Roger Ailes leaves the building?
MR. CHAFETS: Yeah. I mean, Roger is a hemophiliac. He's been vulnerable his entire life, and he's lived with a sense of his own mortality.
He has a young son, and that weighs on him, also. I write quite a bit about his relationship with his son, and it's, in a way, quite moving. He has a box where he collects memorabilia for Zac -- his son's name is Zac -- so that when he's gone, Zac will remember him and have advice to follow. Roger writes letters and notes and so on and leaves them for Zac.
As far as the network is concerned, I think that Ailes believes that once he's gone -- and he told me -- he made a point of telling me that he has a succession plan -- a written succession plan. He knows that the Murdochs are not necessarily going to follow it, but at least he has it. He didn't tell me who he thinks his successor will be. But he's pretty confident that it's going to continue along the lines that it is now, simply because it makes such a fabulous amount of money that it's improbable that somebody would, for ideological reasons -- even, let's say, some liberal members of the Murdoch family, if they were to become the heads of News Corp -- would want to kill a goose that lays that many golden eggs every year.
MR. DRISCOLL: This has been Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’ve been talking with Zev Chafets, the author of 2010’s Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, and the brand new book, Roger Ailes: Off Camera. It’s published by Sentinel Books, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookseller. And Zev, good luck with the new book, and thank you once again for stopping by today.
MR. CHAFETS: Well, thank you, Ed. Thanks for having me on.
(End of recording)
Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll.