There are only two truly revealing sentences in Zev Chafets’s new biography of Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News and message minder for a host of Republican presidents. They serve as bookends of sorts. The first, in the preface, informs us that the project at hand will be superannuated: “He intends to write an autobiography someday, and I imagine he is holding something in reserve.” The second appears 249 pages later, in the acknowledgments: “I am indebted to Brian Lewis, Fox News executive vice president for corporate communications, who was always willing to answer just one more question.”
In other words, this is a book at once unnecessary and compromised by its subject: a superfluous hagiography.
It’s a shame, because Ailes, who went from a purportedly hardscrabble Ohio upbringing to producing Richard Nixon’s television performances to almost single-handedly remaking America’s politico-journalism map with Fox News, is a fascinating man. His capacity for mythmaking is robust, and one hopes for a book that attempts to disentangle some of Ailes’s self-inflating legend-spinning from the truth. Unfortunately, Chafets’s biography is not that book. It is the diary of a hanger-on, the recollections of a striver who was granted a few audiences with Ailes (“I picked Zev” was how Ailes put it to the Daily Beast). Chafets is an awed pal on the outskirts of Ailes’s social circle, watching transfixed as the great man holds court at a corner bar, obnoxiously nudging you in the ribs at every joke to make sure you got it.
Matters aren’t helped by Chafets’s inability to muster a basic command of his subject matter. A brief survey of errors:
• Ailes did not, as he told Chafets, refuse payment for his work with the Nixon White House because he “didn’t want to have to tell [his] kid someday that [he] had been on the government payroll.” According to records from the Nixon Library, which have been available online since June 2012 and are at the top of the results when one enters “Richard Nixon Roger Ailes” into Google’s search engine, Ailes earned a $150 per diem (roughly $900 today) from the administration and asked for more money and office space.
• Lou Dobbs, the nativist fake-blond newscaster Ailes hired at Fox Business at the end of 2010, did not, as Chafets has it, lose his CNN gig after his “vocal opposition to illegal immigration” led to clashes “with the network’s president, Rick Kaplan.” Dobbs did leave CNN in 1999, during Kaplan’s tenure at the network. But he subsequently returned, and his blowup over illegal immigration was with Jon Klein, who ran CNN from 2004 to 2010.
• When Ailes called the New York Times a bunch of “lying scum” at a speech to Ohio University students and later apologized, he was not, as Chafets writes, reacting to a Times story about his role in encouraging Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators who were looking into Bernard Kerik’s background. Ailes’s misguided snipe at the Times was actually provoked by a blog post from a Wall Street trader named Barry Ritholtz, who had claimed Ailes was on the verge of indictment. Ailes falsely attributed that claim to the Times, which had reported no such thing.
These careless, misreported facts stem more from sloppiness than mendacity, but they are just a few of the wrong-footed assertions that Chafets drags out to support his contention that Ailes is an amalgam of Machiavelli, Horatio Alger, Will Rogers, and Charles Bronson. Chafets sees fit, for example, to mention Bill O’Reilly’s hissy fit of a lawsuit against Al Franken over his book lampooning Fox News (the case was dismissed almost immediately), but not to discuss a far more serious episode in which O’Reilly was sued by his former producer Andrea Mackris for a lengthy campaign of lewd sexual harassment. After a defensive disquisition about racial diversity (or the lack thereof) at Ailes’s network that essentially lists every nonwhite person in the employ of Fox News—did you know that Kimberly Guilfoyle’s mother was Puerto Rican?—Chafets uncritically quotes one source who declares, without elaboration, that “Fox News is postracial.” At least Chafets isn’t gullible enough to make the case that Fox News lives up to its “Fair and Balanced” claim—but not by much. He insists that the network is dignified in its effort to undermine the very notions of objectivity that it cynically peddles to its viewers: “But if Fox had rooted for Romney during the campaign, it was dispassionate and professional.”
None of this is to say that Roger Ailes: Off Camera offers no insight into the subject’s character; it is, in fact, a testament to the epic proportions of Ailes’s capacity for self- delusion. A crucial part of the Nixonian anti–“establishment media” posture that Ailes has adopted is the notion that “the media” are a bunch of egghead, Ivy League, wealthy coastal elites. Conservatives, like Ailes, are real Americans. “He doesn’t give a good goddamn about fancy parties, political correctness, or the esteem of the Manhattan media bien-pensants,” Chafets writes early in the biography. “Ailes often dines on tuna sandwiches and potato chips at working lunches.”
He’s just a kid from the streets of Warren, Ohio, Chafets tells us. He puts on no airs and suffers no fools. As Ailes himself has put it elsewhere, “I don’t see myself at the Beverly Wilshire hotel or at Le Cirque here in New York. Those are people who aspire to different things—the chattering class.”
These poses sit uneasily alongside the Ailes who is actually portrayed by Chafets. The tuna-noshing lunch-pail schlub first met Rush Limbaugh at 21, a Manhattan celebrity hangout that features eighty-dollar steaks on the menu. So Le Cirque is out, but 21 is in (though actually, according to New York magazine, Ailes was known to have a “taste for dinners at Le Cirque” in the 1990s).
“A lot of people in our situation would have had a team of decorators,” Ailes’s third wife, Beth, told Chafets during a tour of their weekend home in Putnam County, New York (the Aileses have another home in New Jersey). But not the unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth Aileses. When their son, Zac, had his ninth birthday, what did this bien-pensant-eschewing couple who don’t give a damn about fancy parties do?
On Zac’s ninth birthday, they threw a bash for 150 guests. The kids rode festively decorated ponies around the estate while Irish tenor Ronan Tynan serenaded guests including Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, and other luminaries and friends.
What nine-year-old wouldn’t be thrilled to hear his favorite tenor live and in person?
And then there is Ailes’s legendary courage. “Roger has a lot of physical courage and it gives him his swagger,” Geraldo Rivera told Chafets. When the praise was relayed to Ailes, he replied, “Damn right.” During a televised debate with Paul Begala, one of his Democratic counterparts, “Begala called Ailes a ‘Madison Avenue blowhard.’ Ailes responded by inviting Begala to step outside.” When Ailes first got an e-mail account, “he couldn’t resist responding to nasty critics with offers to meet him in Manhattan and settle things like men. He offered to pay the airline ticket for one online heckler.”
Ailes is a hemophiliac. He grew up constantly in danger of bleeding to death at the slightest injury, so this truculent streak is something of a surprise. It’s also something of a surprise coming from a man who has obtained a license to carry a concealed firearm in New York City and who has secured the protection of an around-the-clock security guard. Not to mention someone who, according to Rolling Stone, has bombproofed his office for fear of gay terrorists and once put Fox News on “lockdown” after he spotted a dark-skinned man on his floor (he turned out to be a janitor). Or who once, based on my own reporting for Gawker, dispatched an editor of a newspaper he owns to clear his house in Putnam County after the burglar alarm had gone off.
These do not announce themselves as signifiers of personal valor and bravery. They do, however, signal paranoia. One such paranoid episode documented in the book had a happy ending, at least from Ailes’s point of view. In 2012, I was involved in a series of posts at Gawker under the byline of “the Fox Mole,” a producer for Bill O’Reilly who was eventually identified as Joseph Muto. For a period of roughly thirty-six hours, Muto wrote anonymously about life at Fox News, and he published some previously unaired internal video that was mildly embarrassing to Mitt Romney and others. Fox quickly identified and fired him for what it regarded as treason. At this writing, Muto is under investigation by the Manhattan district attorney for larceny and computer tampering.
Chafets was with Ailes as Fox frantically tried to track down its mole, and he reports that Muto was located on a hunch that he was connected somehow with Joseph Lindsley, the editor of one of the Ailes Putnam County newspapers—the same person Ailes had dispatched to take care of that burglar alarm—whom he suspected of disloyalty after reports that Ailes had had some of his Putnam County newspaper employees tailed turned up on Gawker.
Lindsley had attended Notre Dame. Some suggested checking the Fox staff for other alumnae of the Fighting Irish. Perhaps it was a coincidence but one turned up.
Maybe there’s a Notre Dame cell. This bit of wild-eyed dot connecting did lead to Muto, a Notre Dame graduate. But it was purely a coincidence. Muto had no idea who Lindsley was until I asked him about it after I’d read Chafets’s account.
As amusing as it is to see the dissonance between the man Roger Ailes is and the man he imagines himself to be displayed so cluelessly on the page, little in Chafets’s book threatens to diminish Ailes’s core asset—his reputation, corroborated by the undeniable triumph of Fox News, as a shrewd and cunning storyteller. A man who knows how to package and sell an idea. A political genius. Even his fiercest enemies grant him this much.
And yet. Toward the end of the book, Chafets recounts the scene when Ailes learned that Herman Cain’s presidential ambitions had been derailed by a story about an affair.
Ailes’s antennae went up. He wondered if the scoop might have come from someone close to the White House, to get Cain out of the race.
“The last thing the president wants is a black candidate going around saying he’s against entitlements,” he said. . . .
“She allegedly got $ 200,000 from somebody close to Obama,” said Ailes. He turned to me and said, “Write ‘allegedly.’” (The story didn’t pan out and Fox didn’t report it.)
What a thing to see those billion-dollar antennae of his in action! Anyone who would for a moment consider that the Obama White House believed (a) that a buffoon like Herman Cain had a chance at securing that GOP nomination and (b) that Cain would be an undesirable presidential hopeful for Obama to face, relative to the other candidates in the field, is a fool. That it would be worth $200,000 to anyone with Obama’s interests at heart to sideline Cain defies logic and sense for anyone who was paying attention to what was happening in 2012.
But here is Ailes, the master, the guru, the dark lord, repeating this clearly baseless fabrication in front of a reporter. He is a genius or a fool, or both—but it doesn’t occur for a moment to Chafets to entertain the notion that Ailes is in turn playing him for a fool. Then again, that’s not the sort of intelligence that a biographer is likely to glean from the Fox executive vice president for corporate communications.
John Cook is the editor in chief of Gawker.