By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Despite its "fair and balanced" mantra, Fox is widely viewed as conservative, with nearly seven in 10 national journalists in a 2004 survey citing it as an especially conservative news outlet.
And Fox sometimes puts its thumb on the scale. When Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was attacking President Bush, the network ran such on-screen graphics as "Chavez Insults U.S.: Where's the Outrage?" "Taking Cheap Oil From Hugo Chavez: Act of Treason?" and "New York Audience Gives Chavez Standing Ovation . . . Why?"
Fox gets its ideological sheen not from its reporters but from its high-profile conservative hosts, such as Sean Hannity, John Gibson and Bill O'Reilly, who regularly complains about the "left-wing press." And while the network has some liberal commentators, none has the prominence of Newt Gingrich.
But Fox may have moderated its journalistic approach a bit in recent years, with Ailes hiring Wallace from ABC News, former CNN anchor Bill Hemmer and Harvard analyst Marvin Kalb.
From where Ailes sits -- he says he gets asked for autographs in the real America, if not at Le Cirque -- the issue is the rest of the media. After the 9/11 attacks, he says, some journalists "ridiculed" him for wearing a flag pin.
"The New York Times had to fire a person for making up news," he says. "We haven't taken down a major story. If we make a mistake, we correct it in an hour."
Ailes believes he has helped discredit the notion that conservatism is "a freak point of view" in the media, noting that Rush Limbaugh, whose television show Ailes once produced, recently did a "Free Speech" commentary on the "CBS Evening News."
"We have forced a dialogue into the news business that didn't exist before we got here," Ailes says.Foley's Showdown With ABC
On Friday afternoon, a strategist for Rep. Mark Foley tried to cut a deal with ABC's Brian Ross.
The correspondent, who had dozens of instant messages that Foley sent to teenage House pages, had asked to interview the Florida Republican. Foley's former chief of staff said the congressman was quitting and that Ross could have that information exclusively if he agreed not to publish the raw, sexually explicit messages.
"I said we're not making any deals," Ross recalls. He says the Internet made the story possible, because on Thursday he posted a story on his ABC Web page, the Blotter, after obtaining one milder e-mail that Foley had sent a 16-year-old page, asking for a picture. Within two hours, former pages had e-mailed Ross and provided the salacious messages. The only question then, says Ross, was "whether this could be authenticated."
The St. Petersburg Times last fall obtained the earlier e-mail, asking the 16-year-old for a picture, and interviewed the boy, who wrote a friend that he considered the message "sick." But the boy would not go on the record.
Executive Editor Neil Brown says the paper's policy against making accusations based on unnamed sources was a factor. "We just didn't feel like we had the story," he says. "We had a lot of stuff implied. . . . If I had it to do over again, I think we probably would have been more organized about pursuing it. But hindsight is 20/20."
The paper did interview Foley, who assured a reporter that the e-mail exchange was innocent, Brown says.Delivering a Verdict?
Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times' Supreme Court reporter for three decades, has no shortage of opinions.
She aired some of them in June when she was honored at Harvard, saying that "our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world. And let's not forget the sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism."
Don't those remarks, publicized last week by National Public Radio, go too far for a beat reporter covering such issues at the high court? Greenhouse says her comments were "statements of fact," not opinion, as underscored by the court striking down the administration's policy of holding terror suspects without charges.
"The notion that someone cannot go and speak from the heart to a group of college classmates and fellow alums, without being accountable to self-appointed media watchdogs, means American journalism is in danger of strangling in its own sanctimony," Greenhouse says.
Tom Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's journalism school, calls Greenhouse's remarks "ill-advised," saying that while she can "still report objectively on contentious issues before the Supreme Court, the average person can reasonably ask, how can that not color her stories?" But former Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent says it is impossible "to find any trace of her views in her work."