A new biography of Roger Ailes, the architect of Fox News Channel, portrays Ailes as the son of abusive parents whose difficult childhood experiences may have helped fuel the drive and aggression that went into the creation of his polarizing news network.
In “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News and Divided a Country,” author Gabriel Sherman recounts Ailes’s early, troubled years in Warren, Ohio, a small, middle-class manufacturing town, and his rise as a Republican media strategist and TV executive.
Ailes didn’t cooperate with Sherman, a writer for New York magazine, and even sought to undermine him by instructing colleagues not to speak to him. He also authorized a more flattering biography that was rushed into publication last year ahead of Sherman’s book, which will be published Tuesday.
Sherman describes Ailes’s father, Robert Sr., as a man with “a cruel edge” who meted out serial beatings to Roger and his older brother, Robert Jr.
If the boys ignored their father’s demands for quiet around the house, “he pulled out his belt, whipping them not until they began to cry, although they did wail, but until they fell silent,” Sherman writes. He quotes Ailes’s brother as saying, “He did like to beat the [expletive] out of you with that belt. He continued to beat and he continued to beat you. . . . It was a pretty routine fixture of childhood. . . . If we stopped crying, he’d go away. He wanted it quiet. . . . If this happened today, we’d be in a foster home, and he’d be in jail.”
Sherman also cites an incident in which the senior Ailes, who worked in blue-collar jobs for an automotive manufacturer in Warren, took his son to a running track to help him regain his mobility after he was injured in a minor auto accident. One day, when Roger fell into some manure by the track, his father snapped, “Don’t fall down and you won’t get that crap on you!”
He describes Ailes’s mother, Donna, as a “competitive [and] overbearing” woman who demanded perfection in the classroom. Ailes has told interviewers that she hugged him sparingly, perhaps because he suffered from childhood hemophilia, a disease in which blood doesn’t clot normally. His parents divorced after Ailes left for college.
One incident became what a colleague later described as Ailes’s “Rosebud” story, a reference to the childhood keepsake that haunted the memories of the title character in the movie “Citizen Kane”:
At one point, the young Roger was standing on the top of his bunk bed, and his father opened his arms wide and urged him to jump. The boy did so, but his father took a step back, and Ailes landed hard on the floor. “Robert leaned down,” Sherman writes, “and picked him up. ‘Don’t ever trust anybody,’ he said.”
Although Ailes had been told by his family that his paternal grandfather had died in World War I, he later discovered that he was living 45 miles away in Akron, Ohio. He was a prominent official in the city’s Health Department with a degree from Harvard who had abandoned his first wife, married another woman and severed connections with Ailes’s father.
Sherman spent almost three years researching his book and spoke with hundreds of Ailes’s associates, friends and family members. He concludes in his prologue that Ailes “has the power, more than any single person in American public life, to define the president” through his manipulation of Fox News.
Among the revelations and assertions scattered throughout Sherman’s book:
●Ailes was behind a four-minute anti-President Obama news video that aired on Fox News’ morning show, “Fox & Friends,” just after Mitt Romney clinched the Republican nomination in 2012. The video, which included dire headlines, drew widespread criticism when it aired. Ailes denied any knowledge of the video through Fox’s public relations department. In fact, Sherman asserts, Ailes laid out the idea for it and was shown clips of it by a Fox executive, Bill Shine, before it aired.
●Ailes used his position as executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” at the age of 27 to convince a prominent guest, Richard M. Nixon, that he should hire Ailes as his media adviser. Nixon did so in 1968, and Ailes helped him polish his TV appearances, which had gone disastrously wrong for Nixon during his unsuccessful 1960 presidential bid, particularly during his televised debate with then-candidate John F. Kennedy.
●As late as 1972, Ailes did media consulting for Democratic candidates. But his most attention-getting work were his attack ads for a series of Republican candidates, including Sens. Dan Quayle (Ind.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Phil Gramm (Tex.).
●When News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch named Ailes to launch the Fox Business Channel in 2007, Ailes opposed the idea. “The world doesn’t need another business network,” he told executives involved in its founding. He took the job, anyway.
●Fox dropped its sponsorship of a Republican candidate debate in 2011 after Ailes feuded with Google, a co-sponsor of the debate. Ailes was upset that one of the most prominent Google search listings for his name was an unflattering blog, rogerailes.blogspot.com. Ailes wanted Google to remove the listing or downgrade it. Google declined. Fox never co-sponsored another debate with Google.