One April day in 1981, Roger Ailes, then the executive producer of a late-night talk show on NBC, was approached by a pair of FBI agents.
It was four days after John W. Hinckley Jr. had shot President Ronald Reagan during an attempted assassination at a D.C. hotel, and the agents wanted to ask Ailes about something that had come up during the investigation.
Hinckley had been found with two tickets to the March 2 taping of “The Tomorrow Show,” which Ailes produced, and the agents wanted to know whether any of Hinckley’s purported celebrity obsessions had been guests on the program.
Hinckley had told investigators that he had repeatedly viewed the Martin Scorsese film “Taxi Driver” and that he had shot Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, who acted in the movie alongside Robert De Niro.
“Ailes stated that Jodie Foster or Robert De Niro have never been guests on the Tomorrow Show. This information was verified by the Program Analysis Department, NBC,” an FBI report on the inquiry reads.
The curious detail is one of many that emerged in files released by the FBI that were kept on Ailes during his many years in the public light.
The records, some 114 pages, consist of material the FBI gathered on Ailes from the late 1960s, when he was a 20-something about to go work for the Richard Nixon White House, to the 1990s, when he was being considered for a post on an arts committee by President George H.W. Bush.
In documents related to that inquiry, the FBI noted that Ailes was arrested by police in 1974 for possession of a “weapon bomb/silencer,” a felony. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for the case a few months later and was given a conditional discharge, the documents show.
News of the incident appears to have first emerged in reporter Gabriel Sherman’s biography of Ailes in 2014, “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” Sherman wrote that Ailes was arrested for the illegal possession of a handgun after returning from a trip to Africa with Robert Kennedy Jr.
“When news of the arrest surfaced years later,” Sherman wrote, “colleagues of Ailes claimed that he had been using the weapon to protect a Kennedy. It felt like an excuse to Bobby Jr. ‘If I had known he was actually carrying a gun to protect me, I would have told him to get rid of it. It wasn’t plausible,’ he recalled.”
One background check was conducted in 1969 as Ailes’s television-related campaign work for Nixon spun into a role as a consultant after he was elected.
“President Nixon has been very favorably impressed with the appointee’s work in T.V. and requested that Ailes be consulted on all matters which involved the President’s appearance on T.V,” one of the memos reads.
Federal agents interviewed more than 30 people about Ailes, including former professional contacts, neighbors and former teachers. Nearly all had positive things to say about Ailes, who was then 29.
On July 15, 1969, agents interviewed a pair of people from a firm where Ailes once worked.
The two, whose names, like most others in the documents, have been redacted, spoke glowingly of Ailes.
“She described the appointee as an extremely bright, personable, eminently successful, productive and talented professional, ‘a wonderful young dynamo’, the antithesis of the show business stereotype, always considerate and pleasant, mature, unaffected, even-tempered, and, in general, ‘a delightful, a real nice man,’ ” the FBI’s report reads.
Another unnamed contact described Ailes as, “Unquestionably brilliant and talented, personable, aggressive without being offensive, hardworking and, most amazingly, a surprisingly and truly creative professional for one so young.”
The FBI files were released in response to public records requests filed by Gizmodo after Ailes’s death in May 2017.
During his career, Ailes grew into one of the nation’s foremost television news producers, building Fox News into a juggernaut that has reshaped political dialogue in the United States. Ailes’s reputation had shifted by then, too.
He stepped down from his perch atop Fox News in July 2016 after Gretchen Carlson, a host who had been let go from the network, alleged that he had sabotaged her career after she refused his sexual advances. At least 25 other women, including Megyn Kelly, later came forward to allege that Ailes had sexually harassed them.
Ailes died after a fall in May 2017, weeks after it was revealed that federal prosecutors were looking into the network’s handling of sexual harassment, probing the way Fox under Ailes reported severance payments and cash settlements to people who had made harassment allegations.
The FBI released the files in response to lawsuits filed in New York and the District by Gizmodo Media Group, which first published them last week, and a nonprofit organization, Property of the People. Gizmodo contends that the FBI has failed to respond to its public records requests “properly and in a timely manner.”
Gizmodo is continuing to push for more records because of what it calls the “questionable absence of any files from the past nearly three decades.”