Roger Ailes profiles: Who's afraid of the Fox News Channel chairman? Not me.

Media criticism.
May 26 2011 6:00 PM

Who's Afraid of Roger Ailes?

Rolling Stone and New York magazine publish dueling takes on Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes.

Roger Ailes. Click to expand image.
Roger Ailes

As dime-store Satans go, it's hard to beat Roger Ailes. He's a huge tub of a man, like an aged and rotting Pillsbury Doughboy. He relied on his immense media skills to re-sculpt the equally demonic Richard Nixon from a washed-up pol into a victorious presidential candidate in 1968 and drew on his powers as a political mastermind to rescue Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush a couple of times. He remembers every slight committed against him and executes precise vendettas against his enemies.

But his most evil accomplishment—at least in the minds of his liberal foes—is his invention of the right-wing Fox News Channel. According to the liberal mythology, Fox News has polluted our once-pristine political discourse and established Ailes as a vile kingmaker in Republican Party politics. This is the Ailes Rolling Stone(June 9 issue) depicts in its 10,000-word piece this week by Tim Dickinson. * There is no dirty trick too low, no journalistic deceit too nefarious for Dickinson's Ailes: He'll race-bait if that's what it takes to win a political race or boost cable ratings. He threw journalistic ethics out the window to help elect George W. Bush and collected them just long enough to throw them out the window again to try to un-elect Barack Obama.

There are few facts in Dickinson's well-reported pile that I'd take issue with—Ailes has worked hard to establish his credentials as a malicious man, absent of scruples. But I draw the line at "fearing"Ailes or being daunted by his Fox News "power," the two searing take-home messages in Dickinson's piece. Ailes can't be a very fearsome or powerful media monster if he failed to prevent the election of a freshman senator—a black, liberalfreshman senator with an, um, exotic name—to the White House!

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Instead of exposing Ailes as a powerful prince of darkness, Dickinson reveals the liberal tendency to inflate mortal opponents into boogeymen. Ailes is nowhere near as mighty as Dickinson would have you believe, a theme that Gabriel Sherman whistles in his May 22 New York magazine feature about Ailes. The kingmaker's alleged magic is not working this election cycle, Sherman reports, as the wheels of Fox's 2012 "presidential-circus caravan" have "started to come off."

None of the potential presidential candidates who Ailes signed to the Fox News talent roster—Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin—has broken through in the polls, and he's not impressed with the other contenders. ("He thinks Palin is an idiot," Sherman writes.) That leaves Fox News without a horse to ride, and it leaves Ailes depressed by the realization that Obama will win re-election. The Glenn Beck supernova has come and gone, leaving Ailes to deal with a hole in his daily schedule and in his ratings book. Plus, the 71-year-old Ailes found himself dragged into the ugly Judith Regan lawsuit against News Corp., which owns Fox News, and his contract is set to expire in 2013.

The apt illustration for the New York profile: a dazed Ailes sucking a just-exploded cigar.

I've never understood why Fox News' shenanigans rattle liberals so. The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News' most consistently popular show, draws an audience of about 4 million on a good night. In a nation of 311 million, that's not a lot of viewers. Indeed, it is 1.8 million fewer than the much-ignored CBS Evening News with Katie Couric attracted in its final week. But, but, but, the liberals will say, the raw audience isn't the big problem: Fox News' misinformation is engineered to trampoline into the greater news sphere, confusing the naïve and innocent, thereby endangering democracy!

Totally specious worrymongering, if you ask me. But the next time a liberal tries this move on you, point them to the passage in Sherman's feature where he recounts how during the 2008 primaries, "Hillary Clinton's advisers, led by Howard Wolfson, courted Fox and fed them negative research about Obama and John Edwards. 'She made some kind of compact with Murdoch,' Obama's former media adviser Anita Dunn told me." Yes, the Fox News disinformation machine is so powerful that even liberals can use it to terrorize other liberals!

Far from being an outlier, Roger Ailes fits snugly in an American tradition of partisan and skeezy journalism. As the owner and captain of his own media empire, William Randolph Hearst bent the news to suit his political ambitions for five decades. His vilification of President Franklin D. Roosevelt * makes Fox News' harassment of President Obama look like patty-cake. Robert R. McCormick, owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, ran headlines like "Moscow Orders Reds in U.S. to Back Roosevelt."

The tradition of an American media owner or boss pushing a candidate or a cause is so firmly ensconced in journalistic history that the true outlier is the mogul who plays it completely straight. Walter Annenberg used his Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News to smear opponents and reward his political friends, facts be damned. The Manchester Union Leader's William Loeb (subscription required) hammered liberal Democrats as "left-wing kooks" and called President John Kennedy "the No. 1 liar in the United States." Nelson Rockefeller, in Loeb's eyes, was a "wife-swapper," and President Dwight Eisenhower was a "stinking hypocrite."

Dickinson's thesis, "that Ailes has used Fox News to pioneer a new form of political campaign—one that enables the GOP to bypass skeptical reporters and wage an around-the-clock, partisan assault on public opinion," just doesn't pass the historical sniff test. Nor does Dickinson's frenzied assertion that Ailes has turned Fox News into "one of the most powerful political machines in American history" float my boat, especially after reading Sherman on Ailes' failure to find a viable presidential candidate. If Fox News were really one of the most powerful political machines in American history, it should be able to transform a tree stump into a good candidate.

If you enjoy a scary nighttime story, read Dickinson's piece. But if your tastes run toward political comedy, click on Sherman's.

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Somehow I failed to work genocidal tyrant Rupert Murdoch into this piece. My apologies. Where should I have placed it? Send suggestions by email to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Fear my Twitter feed! (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray,"Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Correction, May 26, 2011: This article originally misspelled journalist Tim Dickinson's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also misidentified Franklin D. Roosevelt as Franklin R. Roosevelt. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.