Review: The Loudest Voice In The Room…
The problem with being late to the party is that you won’t be the one to set the tone for the evening. I mention this because of Gabriel Sherman’s Roger Ailes biography and the position it holds in the cottage industry of Ailes/Fox News mythology chroniclers. Late is the term that best describes Sherman’s Ailes bio. The Loudest Voice in the Room comes well after David Brock’s The Fox Effect, after Joe Muto’s An Atheist in the Fox Hole, a decade after Scott Collins’ Crazy Like a Fox, and…most importantly…well after Jeff Cohen’s Cable News Confidential and Ze’ev Chaffets’ authorized Roger Ailes biography.
The problem for Sherman in documenting Ailes and Fox has gone on for so long is there’s not a lot of narrative left out there that’s fresh.
Thus the quandary for Sherman: How do you tell a story that’s basically been told several times already?
His solution: Research the hell out of it and interview a bazillion people.
Well, ok…not a bazillion but several hundred mostly anonymous people. Some will no doubt chafe at the lack of on the record sourcing in the book. I look at it this way…the fact that so few chose to not go on the record is an indicator of just how powerful Roger Ailes and the Rupert Murdoch led “News Corp. empire” are. Most of the people who did go on the record did so because they could afford to do so…former NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright being one of the more notable examples.
But even heavy research and lots of interviews have their limits for most of the reading public. Let’s be clear…I am not a member of that group. I’m a member of the media wonk group and we are a different breed. We like minutiae if that minutiae adds new color to a story that’s already out there and has been reported before many times. In other words we are not the group Random House hopes to ensnare with this book because we are too few to make the book a financial success. Take for example the Judith Regan lawsuit. Already well reported and reported well enough for normal people not invested. Not a subject that most people would care about but we wonks care about. And for us Sherman delivers by confirming what I first speculated upon years ago: that the letter News Corp. said it had from Regan was a result of the settlement deal between the two. So if we are scoring this part of the book it would read: Silly wonks with an inexhaustible thirst for information: 1, General reading public: 0. It is a scenario that repeatedly plays itself out in Sherman’s book. Because of all this, for me Sherman’s book starts getting interesting when Ailes’ stint at CNBC begins. That inside baseball behind closed doors stuff I can never get enough of.
This gets to the central issue for me. Sherman would have been better served if he hadn’t made the book an all encompassing book on the life and times of Roger Ailes and instead concentrated on how he changed cable news. The Cold Spring stuff is interesting but not really necessary. Others have gone into detail about his days in the Nixon administration and the Mike Douglas Show before that. Sherman didn’t need to devote half the book to subjects that are already well trodden. It’s obvious from the book that Sherman had the sources to really take down the nearly impenetrable shield guarding what goes on inside the News Corp. building. But instead of getting the near definitive expose of FNC/FBN operations we could have gotten, we only get our appetites whetted.
Case in point: Homicide bombers. Sherman never touches this uniquely Fox-ian terminology. It has been doggedly used practically in isolation for over a decade. Even media that some would consider FNC’s home team pooh pooed its use. More than once. This subject would be ripe for Sherman’s magnifying glass to see how much of this editorial statement is widely bought into at FNC. But we never get it.
Many reviewers have seized upon the books title “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News–and Divided a Country” is a conclusion searching in vain for supporting evidence. There is truth to this. Did Roger Ailes really divide the country or did he merely shine a floodlight on divisions that already existed and have always existed? I think the latter is the more plausible scenario. But the book never goes far enough to establish either as possibility.
Does Sherman tip his hand on how he looks at Ailes? Maybe. He certainly tips his hand at how he looks at FNC. More than once Sherman would quote something an FNC talent on the air by adding a leading adjective to the tone of the quote. Megyn Kelly would “giddily” say (insert telltale quote here). But was it really giddy? I doubt it. That comes across like Sherman editorializing to me.
What we are ultimately left with is a book that is maddening for retracing history that is already well known while giving short shrift (at least as far as we silly wonks are concerned) to how Fox News, and Roger Ailes’ stewardship of it, impacts the media and the national debate.