GJR book review: Is he what Ailes the media? Writer peels curtain back on Fox News chairman

Roger Ailes: Off Camera
Author: Zev Chafets
Publisher: Penguin Books
Hardcover: $26.95, 258 pages

Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News, is a man the media industry has learned to take seriously, even fear. Though much less well-known to the public than his boss, Rupert Murdoch, his considerable talent and work ethic is responsible for building Fox into the undisputed leader of cable television, leading the cable ratings wars the past 12 years over rivals CNN and MSNBC.

Zev Chafets’ “Roger Ailes: Off Camera” is the story of more than just Ailes’ command of Fox News and its on air-personalities, all of whom Ailes hired since setting up the network with Murdoch’s blessing (and money) 17 years ago. It’s also the tale of a tough small-town boy from Warren, Ohio, a declining factory town in northeastern Ohio. In fact, it is the first third of the book that I found the most compelling, because it explains why Ailes, astute as well as profane, became who he is. Chafets, who had unlimited access to the Fox chairman and others at the network, tells how Ailes got into many fights as a boy (something his working-class father encouraged) despite the fact he has hemophilia, a blood disorder that made bruises not just painful but also potentially fatal.

Chafets also relates how Ailes was devastated upon returning home at Christmas during his freshman year at Ohio University to find his home sold and his belongings discarded. “My mother was what you could call self-absorbed,” Ailes told Chafets in explaining his mother’s decision to leave his father and go West with another man. “She did what suited her.” Still, he remained close to his mother and stepfather, as well as to his natural father, the rest of their lives. Family and small-town values of hard work are paramount in Ailes’ world.

It’s also tale of a man who took advantage of every break he got, from producing the Mike Douglas show for KYW-TV in Cleveland and Philadelphia, where he made key contacts in the entertainment industry, to being a political adviser to Republican presidential campaigns. Ailes has never shied away from political conservatism (he and conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh have a long-time professional relationship), yet he also counts liberals such as the Kennedy family and Barbara Walters as among his closest friends. Over the years, Chafets explains, Ailes would combine his political and corporate consulting with television production. He served key political consulting roles for presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Ailes is credited with counseling Reagan, who had looked old and confused in his first debate In the 1984 presidential campaign with Democrat Walter Mondale, to jab back in the second debate. Ailes candidly told the president the country was wondering whether he was past his prime. The result: Reagan came up with the quip, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan won reelection in a landslide.

Chafets also shows what many liberals see as Ailes’ evil genius. In 1988, Chafets says Ailes was “the spine stiffener for the sometimes indecisive Bush,” directing a brilliant ad campaign that painted liberal Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Bush’s Democratic opponent, as soft on crime for furloughing a convicted murderer, Willie Horton. In the early 1990s, as Ailes transitioned out of politics into being a broadcast executive, liberals looked at him warily and have fought back against his tight rein at Fox News, which he took over after a short stint at CNBC.

Most readers, especially Fox News viewers, will find stories behind Ailes’ hiring and relationships with such Fox stars as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly the most compelling part of the book. For example, readers learn how O’Reilly and Hannity, Fox’s biggest stars, don’t speak to one another, although their offices are on the same floor. Chafets also relates a story of the importance Ailes places upon loyalty in explaining his firing of financial analyst Jim Cramer, now with CNBC, for discussing another job opportunity with a Fox rival and being caught publicly criticizing Ailes.

The book is a quick read and is filled with plenty of admiring anecdotes from those who have worked with, or known, Ailes. Those anecdotes, many filled with stories of Ailes’ kindness and dedication, strike me as being the book’s weakest portions, for I suspect many are telling these stories out of a desire to curry favor with the powerful Fox chairman.

Ailes, rotund and balding at age 73, is under no illusion that the reviews will stay positive after he’s dead. He has no intention of retiring, but he says he knows he has at most another decade to live. He plans to write his memoirs and spend as much time as he can with his only child, a son, Zac, who is just entering his teen years. “Right now, everybody thinks I’m the greatest guy in the world,” Ailes says. “The eulogies will be great, but people will be stepping over my body before it gets cold.” The legacy – the founding of a network from scratch devoted to the conservative 50 percent of Americans, and its commercial success under his leadership – will almost certainly remain