As a teenager growing up in the 1950s in Lima, Ohio, (population 50,000), I learned that our local daily, The Lima News, had been purchased by a man named R. C. Hoiles. Hoiles lived in Orange County, California, and was a member of the John Birch Society. He owned a chain of small-town newspapers which he called (surprise!) Freedom Newspapers. I didn’t know any of that at the time, though. What I knew was just what I read in the News: editorials denouncing the “socialistic” concept of free public schools and paeans to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the drunken liar and bully who claimed to see Communists under every desk.
The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman (2014) 578 pages
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By now you’ve guessed, of course, that I grew up in a Democratic household and learned very early to disregard the ravings of Hoiles’ mouthpiece at the local paper. Although we Democrats were a small minority in a conservative Republican town, where the News frequently represented local opinion, Hoiles and his ilk were almost as widely disregarded in the larger society as my painting teacher, Mrs. Elmer McClain, a Communist who was warmly received in Moscow by Nikita Khrushchev (I kid you not).
Oh, those were the good old days, when there was a Left and a Right, and nobody paid much attention to either! Now, in the 21st Century, we have Roger Ailes, who is just as loopy and far to the Right as R. C. Hoiles, if not more so, and not only is he widely regarded as brilliant—but he’s also running the most successful television news network in the country, a billion-dollar venture that is widely understood to be an extension of the Republican Party’s Right Wing.
Ailes, it turns out, was raised in a similar Ohio town, Warren, and at about the same time as I was. (He was almost exactly one year older than me.) Surprisingly, though, Ailes showed little interest in politics until 1967, when he managed to trap then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon in an hour-long private meeting at the Ohio television station where he was a producer. Ailes talked himself into a job as “media advisor” to Nixon, even though, to all appearances, he was then a liberal and disdained many of Nixon’s policies. He played a relatively small role in Nixon’s campaign, but in subsequent elections (Reagan in 1984, Bush I in 1992, Bush II in 2000, McCain in 2008, Romney in 2012) his influence was considerably greater, allowing him to claim that he had “elected presidents.” By then, politics had hooked him thoroughly, and with every successive campaign in which Ailes became involved, his political views seemed to shift further to the Right. Along the way, he:
- Helped swing the 2000 election to George W. Bush
- Became Rush Limbaugh’s executive producer and a personal friend
- Put Glenn Beck on national television
- Championed the rise of the Tea Party
- Promoted partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and throughout the country
- Made billions of dollars for his boss, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch
Roger Ailes built the Fox News Network beginning in 1996 based on his conviction that news should be presented as entertainment, emphasizing maximum drama and conflict. It’s a little hard to tell whether this belief helped propel Ailes Rightward or it served as rationalization for his and Fox’s steady drift toward Right-Wing extremism.
Clearly, the outwardly visible benchmarks of Ailes’ career identify him now as about as extreme as you can get in contemporary America. What’s not so easily visible is Ailes’ behavior at the office and at home in Garrison, New York, where he maintains a 9,000-square-foot mountaintop fortress with a “panic room” underground to protect Ailes and his wife for six months in the event of a terrorist assault on the site. In The Loudest Voice in the Room, you can read all about Ailes’ outrageous behavior toward his colleagues, his subordinates, his neighbors, and even his friends.
Of course, you’ll find a bare-bones outline of Ailes’ life on Wikipedia. However, if you want the real story, read this book. It’s carefully researched and written with restraint, although the full spectrum of Ailes’ lunacy does come through clearly.
A century ago, men who behaved like Ailes would have been tagged as “eccentric.” Nowadays we know better. The man is simply nuts. Brilliant, but nuts.
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