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:

(22 minutes long; 20MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this segment to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 6.22MB lo-fi edition.)

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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, including our interview earlier this month with Monica Crowley of Fox News, start here and keep scrolling.