March 6, 2013
Roger Ailes
Roger Ailes (Jim Cooper / Associated Press)

Vanity Fair has just published online an excerpt from Zev Chafets’s upcoming book, “Roger Ailes: Off Camera.” Its subject has to be pleased with the result, if only because of a single line.

To explain: The excerpt runs through several episodes in the life of the Fox News boss, including a famous 2008 meeting between then-presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch and Ailes, along with Obama aides. From Chafets’s excerpt:

After some pleasantries, Obama got to the point. He was concerned about the way he was being portrayed on Fox, and his real issue wasn’t the news; it was Sean Hannity, who had been battering him every night at nine (and on his radio show, which Fox doesn’t own or control). Ailes didn’t deny that Hannity was anti-Obama. He simply told the candidate not to worry about it. “Nobody who watches Sean’s going to vote for you anyway,” he said.

Bolded text added to highlight the full-gulp swallowing of Fox News propaganda.

Whenever Fox News is attacked for dividing the country politically, it summons this very distinction — between Fox News’s “straight news” reporting and its editorializing. Have a look at the dialogue between Bob Woodward and Sean Hannity just last week on this very question:

WOODWARD: Let’s get this out on the table, because it’s important. We live in a hyperpartisan era, extreme partisanship. Let’s face it, Fox News is a cornerstone of part of that partisanship and there are also a group of people, MSNBC, a lot of people who support Obama who just believe he can do no wrong. …
HANNITY: I would say this though in defense. I am like the “Washington Post” has an opinion page. On the opinion page and there is opinion programming and there is objective news reporting. And I’ll be honest, I’m very proud to work with great reporters here at Fox that do dig in to issues like fast and furious, our reporting on Benghazi. And I wouldn’t even argue, you know, the fact that the president was never asked a lot about the 6 trillion in debt that he accumulated prior to this election, in this first election wasn’t asked about his association with Bill Ayers was troublesome to me. I think we’ve got a media that is not as critical as perhaps it once was in the days for example, Watergate.

The news-editorial distinction does wonders for Fox News, enabling it to aver that everything that’s not “Fox & Friends,” everything that’s not “Hannity,” everything that’s not “The O’Reilly Factor” rides that millimeter-wide strip up the middle of the American political spectrum.

Those of us who’ve watched such hard-news programming know better, as does Ted Koppel, who clashed last year with Fox host Bill O’Reilly on this question:

O’Reilly: But there’s a big difference between Fox News and MSNBC. You know what that difference is?

Koppel: Tell me.

O’Reilly: No, but do you know what it is?

Koppel: I’m asking you. What do you think it is?

O’Reilly: So you concede you don’t know what it is.

Koppel: I don’t know what it is, no.

O’Reilly: We actually do hard news here from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. Eight hours of hard news. MSNBC doesn’t do one hour of hard news. It’s all, let’s push the liberal Democratic agenda from sign-on to sign-off. So this is a news agency here…

Koppel: I don’t think anyone is going to be confused as to the ideological belief of most of the people who appear on Fox.

In Chafets’s defense, perhaps Obama walked into that killer meeting and made the news-editorial distinction himself. However, a 2008 account by Michael Wolff, also in Vanity Fair, doesn’t mention such a scenario:

Then, after he said his piece, Murdoch switched places and let his special guest, Roger Ailes, sit knee to knee with Obama.

Obama lit into Ailes. He said that he didn’t want to waste his time talking to Ailes if Fox was just going to continue to abuse him and his wife, that Fox had relentlessly portrayed him as suspicious, foreign, fearsome—just short of a terrorist.

Ailes, unruffled, said it might not have been this way if Obama had more willingly come on the air instead of so often giving Fox the back of his hand.

A tentative truce, which may or may not have vast historical significance, was at that moment agreed upon.

And in another roughly contemporaneous account of the meeting, this one from The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, it was Ailes himself who flogged Fox’s flagship distinction:

Upon joining the meeting, Ailes shook Obama’s hand and sat down next to him. As Ailes recalls it, he responded to Obama’s concern about fairness by saying that “there are opinion shows and there are news shows.” Some of the criticism, Ailes told him, has come from conservative commentator and co-host Sean Hannity — whom he likened to MSNBC’s more liberal pundits Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.