Reviewing Ze’ev Chafets’ “Roger Ailes Off Camera”
This seems to be the year of the FNC/Roger Ailes book. The ones that are generating the most buzz are Gabriel Sherman’s and Joe Muto’s but there is a third book…the official book if you will; Ze’ev Chafets Roger Ailes biography (though Chafets himself characterizes the book as “not a formal biography” in the prologue). I definitely plan on reading Sherman’s. I’m less certain on Muto’s because there is the axe grind factor that could be in play. But to be “fair and balanced” I felt I should read Chafets’ book first.
I really wasn’t interested in doing so. Conventional wisdom was this would be a whitewash book meant to undercut Sherman’s. Some of the reviews were not exactly kind. However, the book much like the book’s subject is far more complex than the broad brushes have painted.
From the book’s tone it’s clear that the author thinks highly of Ailes. But Chafets plays most of the book straight. It’s an open question whether Chafets got the full picture of Ailes or FNC’s operation; the section on the Judith Regan lawsuit comes to mind. But the picture Chafets does get he plays more or less straight. Anyone who labels this book as a whitewash or fawning would be mostly in error.
There is no way you can call the book a whitewash with passages like this…
Fox, in the meantime has continued to stockpile liberals, twenty-four at last count. Among them are former Clinton adviser Kirsten Powers, who often appears on Special Report’s “Fox All-Star” panel; former Democratic senator Evan Bayh of Indiana; and Joe Trippi, the political consultant who managed Howard Dean’s presidential run. Of course, the game is rigged. Powers is outnumbered two to one by conservative fellow panelists. For every Joe Trippi there is a Dick Morris and a Karl Rove. Bayh is an eloquent centrist, but he lacks the star power of a Sarah Palin. But Ailes didn’t invent the rules; he simply turns them against his competition and in doing so he has given convervatives what they never had on any network: a home court advantage.
It’s not that Ailes has achieved (or wants to achieve) real ideological or partisan parity. His liberals are there by and large for the same reason conservatives are at the other networks, as foils and tokens. It may be true too, as Rick Kaplan says, that the conservatives on other networks are better than Fox’s liberals. That’s a matter of taste, and not the point. Ailes has made it disreputabl to exclude right-wing analysts and commentators, or to frame the news too much. “Roger widened the agenda,” says Dick Wald. “It would not be better if the three networks and Bill Moyers were the only choices. Journalism is better for having opposing points of view.”
Fox may or may not be internally balanced. But Ailes is right when he says, “Sometimes we are the balance.”
Similar passages exist throughout the book. Anyone looking to whitewash or fawn over Ailes and FNC would automatically eschew such analysis. Chafets doesn’t and the book is better for it.
Chafets book also makes some news. It’s the first place where I’ve read anything about FBN’s expansion plans. I had no idea that the network had purchased the old Charles Scwab office space with the intent of expanding FBN’s studio space with some ground floor studios. When I Googled “Charles Schwab Fox Business Studio Expansion” I got nothing that fit. It’s not like any of the various media writers who cruise by the Avenue of the Americas should have missed the giant banner that had been hung over the old Schwab office saying “Fox Business News–The Power to Prosper”. So why did we have to wait for Chafets’ book to come out to reveal the obvious?
Being the infrastructure/mechanics freak that I am, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more on how FNC functions and how Ailes makes it function. We are given glimpses here and there of Ailes in staff meetings and doing his network running shtick but that only whet my appetite for more. I guess I will have to wait for Muto’s and Sherman’s books which I expect will get far more granular on day to day functionality, though maybe not for noble reasons.
What anyone who reads Chafets’ book should come to realize is that FNC, as it exists as the most dominant cable news network, could only have happened because Roger Ailes was there to make it happen. Nobody else could have done it. In fact if anyone else had tried, they very well might have failed or at the very least been nowhere near as successful. That’s not ass kissing on my part. That’s a fact which is driven home by Chafets’ book. Over and over again Chafets shows how so many of FNC’s and FBN’s lynchpins are where they are precisely because they knew/worked with/were personal friends with Roger Ailes well before Rupert Murdoch ever considered creating FNC. Many of the connections between Ailes and his staff which Chafets reveals were unknown to me. Producers, executives, talent – all had prior connections of some sort to Ailes. Without Ailes, FNC doesn’t come together the way it came together. He put together a team of people he could trust at the very beginnning; the subjects of trust and loyalty come up repeatedly throughout the book.
The fun guessing game for people like me is what would have happened if NBC had given Ailes MSNBC at launch after Americas Talking was euthanized and Ailes hadn’t gone to Murdoch and News Corp. This book pretty much suggests what would have happened, it wouldn’t have worked and it wouldn’t have worked because NBC never would have given Ailes the autonomy he needed to make it work the way he felt it needed to work.
Chafets’ book isn’t perfect. Far from it. It’s a tough read at times. Part of this is due to how Chafets jumps back and forth in time with scenes at FNC happening out of sequence, though only the astute industry follower will probably notice that they are out of sequence. Chafets’ prose can be particularly hard on a reader at certain points in the book. I think the book would have benefited from a strong editor who could have reined Chafets in. A more seasoned industry veteran could have taken Chafets’ material and sharpened it up a lot.
But, as with any biography, its purpose is to inform and I was informed. I learned more about Ailes and how he works than I knew going into it. Yes it’s not the technical tic-toc I want and I also believe that I still don’t have a full picture of Ailes or his operation. But it’s a good enough starting point to tide me over until Sherman’s book comes out.