On Superbowl Sunday, President Obama granted an interview to Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly. True to form, O’Reilly pressed the president for answers on the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, the botched rollout of the HealthCare.gov website and the IRS’s targeting of conservative organizations.
In the ten-minute exchange, the President said little that was new, yet O’Reilly pressed the president for answers on these controversies that will likely be centerpieces of the 2014 elections. The president characterized the interview as “unfair.”
The interview represents the style of Fox News since it first went on the air in 1996. The unflinching posture of the network can be traced to its CEO Roger Ailes.
New York magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman’s widely discussed new book, The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes built Fox News and Divided a Country, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the life and career of one of the most influential news executives in history.
Born and raised in working class Warren, Ohio, Ailes had a less-than-perfect childhood. He was diagnosed with hemophilia in an era when such children often did not live past the age of twelve.
Ailes’ father worked for the Packard Electric Company, a division of General Motors. He was good at his job, but did not receive the respect of the company’s college educated executives. The young Roger refused to accept a similar fate and enrolled in Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
After graduation, Ailes found himself working for “The Mike Douglas Show,” a daily variety show based in Cleveland, and later, Philadelphia. Sherman attributes “The Mike Douglas Show” with making Ailes a master television producer. He did everything from wrangling high-profile guests to understanding what would get an audience reaction.
During his tenure, he met Richard Nixon, who was preparing for a run for the 1968 Republican nomination. In Ails’ view, Nixon did not fully appreciate the influence television was having on national politics.
Once Nixon took office, Ailes was hired as an outside consultant at a rate of $100 per day ($600 in today’s dollars). Ailes wrote a detailed memo on the uses of television for the new administration. He made numerous proposals, including having Nixon emulate Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats. He also suggested making public policy speeches and vowing to end pollution by 1980, just as John F. Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960’s. Nixon, Ailes reasoned, would not be in office, but could claim credit when it happened.
It was during this time, Sherman writes, that Ailes developed a knack for self-promotion as he was featured as a central character in journalist Joe McGinnis’ seminal book, The Selling of the President 1968.After leaving “The Mike Douglas Show,” Ailes had several different careers including political media consultant and producer of the critically and commercially successful off-Broadway play, “Hot l Baltimore.”
Once Sherman delves into the founding of Fox News Channel, he describes Ailes in a way that vacillates between megalomania and paranoia. It is also at this time that the book ceases to be an Ailes biography and becomes a gossipy look at the inside of Fox News. Sherman re-hashes such episodes as costly lawsuits involving Bill O’Reilly and Judith Regan, as well as the icy relationship between Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes.
Sherman interviewed six hundred and fourteen people for this book. Ailes himself and many other Fox employees declined to be interviewed. After reading The Loudest Voice in the Room, they will be relieved they did not participate.
The biggest failing of this book is that it does not prove the second part of its subtitle, how Ailes supposedly “divided the country.” The country had been divided for decades. Ailes successfully tapped into that and made the most watched and most profitable cable network.
Sherman would have done better to focus on the secrets of Ailes' success rather than trafficking in previously reported gossip.
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Kevin P. McVicker is Account Supervisor with Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Va. He reviewed League of Denial - The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth in November 2013.