Liberals have had a thrill up their leg over the Rolling Stone report that Fox News boss Roger Ailes is paranoid about Muslim and gay enemies and insisted on bomb-proof glass in his office. Ailes responded to Howard Kurtz of Newsweek: “Ailes can still get riled by personal criticism, dismissing as ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction’ a Rolling Stone report that he travels with a large security detail and has blast-resistant office windows. He invited me to throw a rock at the glass—and promised security would arrest me.”
In AdWeek, liberal author Michael Wolff asserts both Rolling Stone and New York magazine profiles of Ailes failed to nick their target. Wolff said Ailes is an "epochal figure" in TV, a network news legend:
Both are kick-off articles for the 2012 presidential campaign: Ailes being somehow responsible for the extreme politics of the Republican candidates.
I am the lurking source in both stories, quoted by name, or quoted by other attributions, or having my biography of Murdoch provide the background to Ailes’ place in the Murdoch universe. The pervasive sense in both articles is that this is Ailes’ last act—which as far as I can tell has no other sourcing but me—that the Murdoch family has had it up to here with him. Both articles are, also, write-arounds: They have no access to Ailes himself. Ailes, from the distance of both pieces, is not only a ruthless and terrifying specter undermining our democracy but an awfully unappealing one too.
So a few corrections.
Ailes, in fact, is wonderfully charming. If you’re outside his circle, he seems forbidding. But inside, he’s amusing, seductive, smart—frankly, an irresistible companion. My one regret about the fallout from my Murdoch book is that I don’t have lunch with Roger anymore. His is the world of the raconteur—it’s a tale told well, and one you wish would not end. He’s gimlet-eyed, never earnest, attuned to personalities rather than issues, and with a fine sense of the ridiculous. Also, he’s a dedicated gossip. One reason he has been so successful at projecting such a coherent world view at Fox is that he is, as well as a puppeteer (what both articles ultimately accuse him of being), a brilliant narrator.
In this, he has become an epochal figure in television news—certainly on the level of Edward R. Murrow and Roone Arledge.
I’d argue that the Ailes story is entirely about the Ailes personality and, so, impossible to tell without seeing him up close. That is, you end up just telling a story about the reactions he provokes instead of about his deep delight and extraordinary talent for provoking them.
Wolff summarizes on what the future holds for Ailes and Murdoch:
First, it is important to understand how successful Ailes has been at News Corp. If he is an existential figure—as both articles appear to interpret my characterization of Ailes’ present position—it is because he has vanquished all of his antagonists: the News Corp. liberal, Peter Chernin, and Gary Ginsberg, along with Murdoch’s own son, Lachlan. He’s won. He stands alone. Not only is Ailes the master of the medium, but he’s also the ultimate corporate player—curiously, the least corporate, ultimate corporate player. That’s because he understood—a background in politics was helpful here—that it wasn’t a corporation with which he was dealing but a court.
In the end, he alone has the king’s ear (gossip is the secret to Murdoch’s ear).
The articles are right in seeing Ailes in a losing position, but only because there is nothing left to win. For both Murdoch and Ailes, the next generation is an inevitable, if also a distracted and uncertain, force—which will show them to the door.
Ailes ought to be a figure of awe, as much as opprobrium. If you don’t get the singularity of the man, you don’t get the man, the likes of whom, for better or worse, we won’t see again.