The Right Man For Fox News
Monday, October 2, 2006
NEW YORK -- Ten years after he created Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes says he still avoids mentioning his place of employment in certain circles.
"It's just not worth going through the hassle at an elite party," he says. And: "The only reason I know we're doing the right thing is that we're widely criticized." And: "I've never felt out of the mainstream in America. I've felt out of the mainstream at Le Cirque."
If the paunchy 66-year-old executive sounds as though he still harbors sharp resentments toward a liberal-leaning world, that bristling attitude is embedded in his network's genetic code as well. Ailes says he recently considered retiring but rejected the idea because, well, there are too many things that still tick him off.
Never mind that he got a big promotion last year, with owner Rupert Murdoch putting him in charge of Fox's local television stations as well as what has become the top-rated cable news channel. The onetime Republican operative remains acutely sensitive to any slights, pulling out of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences after Fox News was repeatedly shut out in Emmy nominations. Ailes wrote the academy head in 2002 that the award-winning stories were "those that reinforce the views and prejudices of your judges. . . . Earth to academy: your bias is showing."
Vanity Fair recently pegged Ailes as No. 44 on its New Establishment list, calling him "the most powerful news executive in America." But it also called him "the man who gives the Bush administration a major media outlet" and described Dick Cheney -- who demands that his hotel TVs be preset to Fox -- as his "big loyal friend."
"Vanity Fair is a left-wing rag," says Ailes, adding a moment later that its editor, Graydon Carter, is a friend. Ailes says the magazine's item is "just blatantly false" because he has met Cheney only a half-dozen times. Responds Carter: "Roger is the smartest guy in TV. Unfortunately, he's working for the wrong side."
The Cheney reference was based on the vice president's decision to grant his only interview after accidentally shooting a hunting companion to Fox's Brit Hume. Ailes says Hume asked all the necessary questions, and "the only thing he didn't do was be disrespectful to him, which is what the left wants."
The liberal view was crystallized last week when Bill Clinton unloaded on "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace, who had pressed him about his record in fighting al-Qaeda. Clinton defended his tenure and accused Wallace of conducting "a nice little conservative hit job."
"I wouldn't want to be a waiter in a restaurant and bring him the wrong dish," Ailes says. "When you lean in and poke at journalists and try to intimidate them, it's a mistake."
While Fox remains No. 9 among all cable networks, some slippage in the ratings over the past year has Ailes concerned. For the last three months, Fox is down 28 percent from the same period last year, compared with declines of 21 percent for CNN and 12 percent for MSNBC.
Ailes responded with a recruitment ad that included such lines as "Can You Work Well With People Without Being a Territorial Jerk?" and "When You're Tired, Can You Keep Going Without Whining or Making Mistakes?" He also summoned executives to a 5 a.m. meeting to critique morning programming. "Sometimes we get ourselves thinking our job is to send memos to each other. I wanted to make them justify their paycheck."
Fox executives have been touting a proposed business channel, but Ailes has resisted the idea unless the new network can get distribution in at least 30 million homes. Fox has now cut a deal with YouTube to provide the Web site with video of "the craziest moments in news."