After more than fifty years of reviewing books, I only occasionally come across a biography that gets my juices flowing; a book so well written that it is almost a physical pleasure to read it and a subject that is totally engrossing. This was the case for me when I began to read Zev Chafet’s “Roger Ailes Off Camera.”
Like many people I was aware that Ailes had created Fox News with the backing of print and broadcast tycoon, Rupert Murdoch. He literally did so from scratch. There were no studios, no equipment, no staff, and no infrastructure. When he suggested the venture to Murdoch, the media giant asked “How much will it cost me?” “Nine hundred million to a billion,” Ailes replied, adding “And you could lose it all.” “Can you do it?” asked Murdoch. “Yes.” “Then go ahead and do it.” That took a lot of courage and confidence on the part of both men and it transformed television news.
Ailes is a Horatio Alger story, born into a family of modest means, a boy from a small Ohio town with the great talent and virtue of telling people the truth even if they did not want to hear it. He had a passion for television and the luck of being in the right place at the right time. When, in 1961, KYW-TV in Cleveland decided to launch a daytime variety show hosted “by a little known song-and-dance man, Mike Douglas”, Aisles, just out of Ohio University joined the team producing it. The show would go onto run in national syndication for more than twenty years. It took long hours and hard work to make it one of the most popular shows on TV, but Aisles thrived on it.
“Ailes was a legend at a very young age,” says Marvin Kalb, who was a reporter at CBS News at the time. “His success at the Douglas show struck a chord. He was talked about in the seventies in New York, in television circles.”
As Chafet’s notes, “Ailes came out of Ohio with Middle American taste in entertainment.” His years with the Mike Douglas show afforded him the opportunity to meet and befriend many of the leading personalities of the time.
When he met former Vice President Richard Nixon who, at that point, had lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy and been defeated for Governor of California, Nixon dreaded television in the wake of his famed debate with JFK. Chafet says “Ailes was a cocky young man who knew, he said, how to make Nixon shine on screen.” After a meeting with the Nixon media team, he was offered the job of producing Nixon’s television appearances, but he went beyond that, creating the Man in the Arena campaign. Chafet says the campaign “made it possible for Nixon to control his media environment” via a series of town meetings with carefully screened audiences.
Aisle did not join Nixon in the White House. Instead, in 1969, he left Washington for New York where he started his own company, Ailes Production, later changed to Ailes Communications. He went on to an illustrious career as a political consultant with an uncanny knack for winning. By 1988 the election made him “the first superstar political consultant, so famous and infamous that his mere participation became an issue.”
There is so much more to his life, the personal as well as the professional, told skillfully and entertainingly by Chafet, He would run CNBC for several years and, when he left to create Fox News, “he was followed by more than eighty staffers in what is known in the lore of Fox News as ‘the jailbreak.’” He had a knack for spotting and supporting talented people.
He wrote an employee’s handbook that says much about his success and that of Fox News. It is still given to new employees.
“Excellence requires hard work, clear thinking, and the application of your unique talent,” was rule number one. “Nothing is more important than giving your word and keeping it. Don’t blame others for your mistakes” was rule two. Rule number three was “Our common goal is the success of Fox News. Only teams go to the Super Bowl. Volunteer to help others once your own job is finished. Ask for help when you need it. Solve problems together and give credit to others.”
And rule number four was “Attitude is everything. You live in your own mind. If you believe you’re a victim, you’re a victim. If you believe you’ll succeed—you will. Negative people make positive people sick. Management relies on positive people for all progress.”
The man at the center of Chafet’s book has transformed television news and made superstars of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, along with Brit Hume, Bret Baier and others, seeing in them some special qualities that others might have been overlooked by a less canny judge of character. He made sure to include liberal contributors as well. In the process, he created a remarkable team of on and off-air people at Fox News. Millions turn to the channel for “fair and balanced” news.
Editor’s note: Caruba is a founding member of The National Book Critics Circle and maintains a monthly report on new books at www.bookviews.com.
© Alan Caruba, 2013