Gabriel Sherman is part of a group of young media reporters—many starting out at the New York Observer under the tutelage of then-Editor Peter Kaplan, an avowed media nostalgist—who have seen their subject, the power of the media, pulled out from under them. The culturally dominant, class-conscious, politically influential, and largely liberal news business, the subject of big books of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, started to die just as their careers began.
A desire to recover that centrality, and to hold accountable the forces that diminished it, seems to motivate Sherman’s book about Fox News chief Roger Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country. Sherman’s conceit is that he is still writing about something at the center of American life and culture, something that has turned evil, rather than, in fact, marginal. In a sense, this book is a quest for a whale—but it is one the author can’t find, has no intrinsic feeling for, and that is able to elude him.
Many people have pursued this whale. The Fox News story has been told by the documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald in Outfoxed, and in a variety of other antipathetic accounts, including Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Sherman’s hardly bringing anything meaningfully new to this story. But that is not his book’s principal shortcoming.
The shortcoming is its failure to tell the story with feeling. The Loudest Voice in the Room is a dour and grudging account. A book is a long slog for a reader, as well as for a writer, when you don’t want to spend time with the subject.
Sherman’s story is most vivid when it quotes Ailes himself. But, in a fairly underhanded way, only at the end does Sherman reveal that Ailes refused to talk to him. The book is, in effect, a compilation of Ailes’ memorable public barbs and bon mots. These are often presented as direct quotes, creating a puzzling effect: You want more, but the author, with only his Ailes bits and bobs, can’t give it.
Sherman is not a very good writer. In a peculiar afterword, he comes oddly close to admitting this, lavishing thanks on all those who supplied him remedial help. (He calls the book a collaboration). This help is not enough to overcome his relentless, flattened newsmagazine sentence structure (bad enough in short magazine bites, murder in a whole book).
But the even larger issue is the architecture of his story—the whole is never greater than its parts. It takes almost half the book to meet the Ailes of moment and consequence. Before that we get a plodding biography of someone who is fundamentally an insider player, whom we have no connection to or reason to be interested in. Believing we shouldn’t like him is not the same as caring about him.
Sherman tries awkwardly to connect Ailes’ childhood to the later Ailes. “The television screen was Roger’s classroom,” intones Sherman. Although Ailes was born in 1940, and television would not begin to be a significant presence until Ailes was well into his teens. Because of Ailes’ acting experience in high school, Sherman somehow concludes that “Ailes was a natural broadcaster” by the time he reached college. “Making a home for himself was also a way for Ailes to find stability,” writes Sherman about Ailes’ first marriage—a fair representation of the book’s psychological depth.
Ailes’ rich and opportunistic relationship with Richard Nixon hardly inspires Sherman’s analysis. “The legend of Roger Ailes has it that he almost single-handedly transformed Nixon from a schlump to a president with his talk-show alchemy. But the truth was more complicated.” You don’t say?
It was Joe McGinniss’s seminal book The Selling of the President that most vividly captured Ailes’ role in the Nixon campaign, and vaunted Ailes to national attention. Sherman cribs and flattens McGinniss’s book for many pages. (Without the slightest self-awareness, Sherman notes that McGinniss’s book would have died had he failed to get access to the Nixon campaign.) His helpful conclusion: “Ailes proved a shrewd promoter of his own image.”
Along with conservative politics, it is basic business that Sherman dislikes. “Ailes treated journalism as he treated politics—it was another market to monetize,” writes Sherman, scornfully. “Ailes inspired young producers eager to advance, but clashed with senior employees who posed threats,” says Sherman, turning the personality push-pull of any television production, or, for that matter, any career, into a morality tale.