In anticipation of the release of Gabriel Sherman’s book on Fox News chief Roger Ailes, the network issued a preemptive statement dismissing the author’s findings. It read, in part, “While we have not read the book, the only reality here is that Gabe was not provided any direct access to Roger Ailes and the book was never fact-checked with Fox News.”
And so Sherman’s biography — “The Loudest Voice in the Room” — lacks fresh, on-the-record quotations from the subject. On one level, that’s a disaster: Ailes is one of the great quote givers of his time. Where most media executives make like NFL coaches with their platitudes, Ailes speaks with the freshness and candor of a remarkable talent with supreme job security, sitting atop the No. 1 cable news network, which has a market value once estimated at $12 billion. Last year, for example, Ailes spoke with the New Republic about his network’s outreach efforts to Latinos. Along the way, he said this: “The president likes to divide people into groups. He’s too busy getting the middle class to hate rich people, blacks to hate whites. He is busy trying to get everybody to hate each other.”
No such goodies for Sherman, which is just as well. With 22 chapters and 500 pages of exacting prose and protracted source notes, Sherman, a contributing editor at New York magazine, delivers a portrait of a manipulating, conniving, controlling, petty and fear-mongering man — which suggests that the only worthwhile biography of Roger Ailes is an unauthorized biography of Roger Ailes. When Sherman attempted to secure Ailes’s cooperation for the book, Fox News PR honcho Brian Lewis, who has since left the network, stipulated that the author must “refrain from using any background quotes or anecdotes that Ailes could consider ‘negative,’ ”according to the book. No deal, said Sherman.
Ailes’s cooperation, as we’ve seen, yields mush. Zev Chafets’s 2013 book, “Roger Ailes: Off Camera,” relied on extensive cooperation from his subject and many others who’d gotten word that Ailes had signed off on the project. The hagiographic result was viewed as a patent attempt by Ailes and Fox News to get out in front of the story, to cement Ailes’s image before Sherman could come in and wreck it. It didn’t work.
Although Ailes can muzzle himself and most all of his subordinates at Fox News, he lacks that power over others. Sherman exploited that opening: He interviewed 614 people, according to his note on sources.
Sherman shapes those interviews — along with documents and previous work on his subject’s life — into a detailed Ailes chronology, starting with his upbringing in the northeastern Ohio town of Warren, home to Packard Electric Co., employer of Ailes’s father, Robert Ailes. Dad could be a cruel character, as when a young Roger was standing on the top bunk in his bedroom: “His father opened his arms wide and smiled. ‘Jump Roger, jump,’ he told him. Roger leapt off the bed into the air toward his arms. But Robert took a step back. His son fell flat onto the floor. As he looked up, Robert leaned down and picked him up. ‘Don’t ever trust anybody,’ he said.” Although it is possibly apocryphal, Ailes spread a variation of this story, perhaps as an excuse for his legendary paranoia.
In the 1960s, Ailes worked on “The Mike Douglas Show.” He started out as a “$68-a-week prop boy” and eventually ascended to executive producer, something of a coup that infuriated some co-workers. Sherman fact-checks the account of the promotion that Ailes puts forth in his 1988 book, “You Are the Message.” The way Ailes told it, he challenged the senior editor’s bullying ways and got into a “brawl” with him. Although he figured that the violence would ruin his career, “actually it had quite the opposite effect,” Ailes had written. Sherman reports: “When asked about the story, a half dozen staff members on The Mike Douglas Show could not recall such a brawl ever occurring.”
Over the course of his book, Sherman documents a number of such little fictions and embellishments propagated by Ailes and his associates, none more consequential than the one that took place at Fox News in May 2012. The media world blew up in outrage when the network’s morning show “Fox & Friends” aired a four-minute anti-Obama video that had all the hallmarks of a GOP campaign spot. Under the gun, Fox News told the New York Times that Ailes wasn’t aware of the video. Sherman reports that it was Ailes’s “brainchild.”
Yet deception isn’t the theme that knits together the key Ailes epochs documented in “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” Loyalty is. Sherman says that when Ailes was running “The Mike Douglas Show,” he told a fellow manager, “You can come in anytime and yell and scream ‘Stupid!’ behind closed doors. But if you do it in front of the staff, I’ll kill you.”
At Fox News, which launched in 1996, reporter David Shuster found himself in a pickle, according to Sherman: “When he pursued Clinton, Ailes personally congratulated him. When he pursued Bush, his bosses questioned not only his objectivity, but his loyalty.” Fox News anchors routinely gush over their devotion to the boss.
The book excels at compiling data establishing Ailes’s control freakishness and authoritarian nature. It falls a bit short, however, tracing those values to the product that spills from Fox News studios. The ideal in any news organization is that the journalists care more about journalistic values — fairness, accuracy, honesty — than about the whims and agendas of the guy in the corner office. An environment in which no one crosses Roger explains, for instance, why Fox News consistently fillets President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a law that Ailes has publicly thrashed.
In its subtitle, “The Loudest Voice in the Room” promises an account of how Ailes has “divided a country.” This promise goes unfulfilled. A veteran of the New York media-reporting scene, Sherman nails the Fox News palace intrigue and brings to light interactions that Ailes clearly never wanted to go public. But exploring how Fox News has driven people apart requires digging in far-flung places — like the halls of Congress, state houses, governor’s mansions, tea party rallies, town hall meetings — digging that Sherman bypassed. When he was asked in a TV interview Friday just how the subject of his book had divided the United States, Sherman looked almost stunned by the inquiry: “Because of his ability to drive a message: He has an unrivaled ability to know what resonates with a certain audience.”
Erik Wemple is a media critic at The Washington Post.
THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM
How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country
By Gabriel Sherman
Random House. 538 pp. $28