Roger, and out
As Septembers go, that month in 1970 was pretty hectic. I had officially told my boss at Philadelphia magazine that I was leaving to get involved with a magazine in Florida. I was also helping Philadelphia magazine take over a chamber of commerce magazine in Boston.
Between trips to Florida, I spent several days in Boston to help my boss get started in what was to prove a long but ultimately successful effort to make Boston magazine the excellent publication it is today.
That same month I was also working on a major freelance piece for The New York Times Sunday magazine, an assignment I had taken on before knowing about events in Florida and Boston. I spent nights traveling the bad streets of West Philadelphia with the city’s elite highway patrol, following a weekend in which one police officer had been killed and three others wounded in what seemed like an organized assault on the cops by a group called the Black Panthers. It turned out that wasn’t the case, but that wasn't known until later. In the meantime, The New York Times wanted a piece on the war on cops. It was too good a credit to pass up.
And somehow in that memorable pinball September, there was time to go to New York to do a piece for Philadelphia on Roger Ailes. Ailes, who died last week in Palm Beach, was decades away from becoming one of the most powerful men in American media, but he already had serious visibility in Philadelphia. At a young age he had become a very successful producer of the popular “The Mike Douglas Show,” and had moved with it from Ohio to Philadelphia.
But what put him on the national map was his starring role in Joe McGinniss’ best-selling book, The Selling Of The President 1968. McGinniss had been a hot, young columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer when he quit to get an insider’s look at the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. It was a gamble to give up an enviable newspaper job to follow the campaign, hoping for a unique book. It was a gamble that paid off richly, not only for McGinniss but also for Roger Ailes.
Ailes, at only 27, had met Nixon when he appeared on the "Douglas Show." He had brashly told Nixon, who considered television a “gimmick,” that he would never be president if he did not learn to use TV. Nixon took him seriously, hiring him as a media consultant, in the process inventing a new business. With Joe McGinniss lurking in the background, Ailes went on to produce a dramatic victory. As I wrote in 1970:
“The Selling of a President was the bombshell of the non-fiction season, heading the best-seller list for four months and earning Joe McGinniss an estimated $500,000. Revealing the callous Madison Avenue techniques behind the Nixon campaign, the book portrayed Richard Nixon as an image carefully constructed from the wreckage of the old Richard Nixon. It described how protectively his managers kept their candidate insulated from the public in a germ-proof tent, waging a television campaign with live, rigged audiences who did not expose Nixon to the turmoil and harangue that characterized the hapless campaigns of Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. If you disliked Richard Nixon to begin with, the book made you hate the man.”
But we added: “Not so Roger Ailes. If there was a hero in McGinniss’ book, it was Roger Ailes. Ailes came across as a driving, intelligent professional who ran the guts of the campaign, the television appearances, and provided moments of amusement with his irreverent and profane observations.”
Here’s one example. Keep in mind that Ailes is describing the man he was working for in the campaign, who by then had been elected president of the United States:
“Let’s face it,” Ailes is quoted in the book, “a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was 42 years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it. He’d always have his homework done and he’d never let you copy.”
Ailes was understandably surprised when he saw such quotes in the book.
“Oh, I laughed like hell the first time I read it,” he told me. “But I was also shocked. I thought, 'That dirty bastard. He really screwed me.'”
Nixon never commented to Ailes on the book. Instead, two months after its publication, he hired him again. Joe McGinniss turned out to have launched Roger Ailes’ ship of fame. The men became friendly; Ailes gave McGinniss some coaching for his TV appearances, even when they appeared jointly when McGinniss was promoting his book. Ailes realized McGinniss was also promoting himself. They remained in touch until McGinniss’ death in 2014. By then Ailes had 20 years experience as an expert political consultant, and another two decades as the celebrated and feared co-founder of Fox News.
His years of studying political figures and molding their television personas led him to make some savvy personnel choices. He hired Chris Matthews, who had little TV experience at the time, for the predecessor cable network to MSNBC. Ailes did not stay long after he could not control its programming. He had a lot more success at Fox, where he had total command. Among his hires was Bill O’Reilly.
I did not emphasize it in the 1970 story, but even then it was known that Ailes considered the media too liberal. He only worked for Republicans and it was known for years that his goal was to balance what he considered Democratic dominance of the media by establishing a Republican network. There was just a hint of that in my story.
“Ailes now goes out of his way to portray television as the most honest medium, the one in which the essential man comes through. He likes the phrase “truth television” and he insists that President Nixon’s 1968 successful television campaign was the real Nixon, expertly directed and counseled, of course."
We know now that that was an outrageous lie, and it foreshadowed his “fair and balanced” slogan for Fox News. That is only believed by those for whom Fox is the one true church.
In last week’s obituary, The Palm Beach Post summed up Fox News’ reputation among the rest of the lying media: “From its debut on Oct. 7, 1996, the network, under his (Ailes) tutelage, did its share of straightforward reporting but also unmistakably filtered major news stories through a conservative lens. Evening programming, which embodied the Fox News brand, was dominated by right-wing commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who hurled opinions and vented resentments with a pugnacity that reflected their boss’s own combativeness.”
That combativeness was not so obvious in 1970. Ailes at 30 looked nothing like the shambling corpulent tyrant of later years who has been described as crudely dominating, and who lost his powerful position when accused of sexual harassment. A pipe smoker in his early years, he came off more as a reflective professorial type, except for his self-description:
“I’d say that more people dislike me than like me,” he says with a trace of pride. “A lot of people think I’m a little bastard. I’m aggressive, I’m hard driving, I’m impatient. I’ve found that I work best with these qualities.”
It is the irony of ironies that in the week Roger Ailes died, Fox News had one of its worst weeks ever. It has always been a clear winner in the evening ratings, but for the first time in more than a decade both MSNBC and CNN led Fox in the prime time. The reason is that Fox was at its biased worst. When stories were breaking daily about President Trump firing an FBI director who was investigating his possible ties with Russia, Fox chose not only to downplay that major event, but actually to have its commentators and guests bemoaning the leaks in Washington and accusing its competing networks and prominent newspapers of a conspiracy to destroy President Trump with biased reporting.
Apparently, a number of its viewers abandoned Fox’s fair and balanced presentation to switch channels to the rival lying media, simply to find out what was going on in the real world. Roger Ailes must be turning over in his freshly dug grave.