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Why Ailes

We made a rule a while back that we would not allow our Q&As to run more than 3,000 words. After that, we figured, even the most engaging subject would be wearing out our readers. Well, we were forced to break the rule this week to accommodate BROADCASTING & CABLE's first-ever TV Journalist of the Year: Fox News Channel's Roger Ailes. So candid and lively were his answers that we were hard-pressed to keep the interview to 5,000 words (we started with 18,500). We hope you agree with the decision.

Over the past seven years, Ailes has built Fox News into the most dynamic TV news operation in the country, which is, as we say in the introduction to the Q&A, "kicking tail."

No doubt, Ailes is an unconventional journalist. He equates journalism with producing segments for The Mike Douglas Show,
and he seems too ready to substitute a collection of talking heads for the hard work of reporting.

Also, Ailes is not hung up on the idea of objectivity. It's "crazy," he says. Journalists "have friends. They have an education. They've gone to school where some professor spun their brain out. They've got a view of life. They've got history. They've got parents. They have a view based on experience. And they bring all that to journalism."

Ailes likes his outsider role, although he protests too much when his journalism credentials are challenged (what did those Columbia profs ever do to him?). He sees himself as a media populist among the media elites. "At times," he says, "there's a bit too much group-think in journalism."

In this multichannel world, we believe, there is room for the unconventional.

Fox succeeds because it has personality, and it's all Ailes: combative, blustering, straightforward, conservative and thoroughly middle American. Ailes may work in Manhattan, but he doesn't see it as the center of the universe or even the nation. That American flag that waves incessantly on Fox is not there to win favor in Washington; it's there because a lot of people, like Ailes, believe flag-waving is a good thing to do.

CNN certainly had personality when Ted Turner was running the shop and when its growth in audience and influence was unstoppable. The Turner CNN was brash and iconoclastic. It believed in globalism and protecting the environment. It believed that any given country or culture was as good (or as bad) as the next. Turner was once asked why CNN correspondents were liberal. He didn't deny it. He reflected for a moment and said, "I guess because they see so much."

With Ted gone, CNN has turned into Time Warner. It still cranks out solid journalism and is tops at covering breaking news. But it lacks a distinctive personality. It's run by a corporation, and it looks and feels like it. You can say the same thing about MSNBC and CNBC. At least the broadcast news operations have Brokaw, Jennings and Rather.

Rupert Murdoch's genius was not only in hiring Ailes but also in allowing him to impose his personality on the network. Americans have a choice about where to go for national TV news: General Electric, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom or some overweight guy from Youngstown, Ohio, who seems to think and talk like them. We are not surprised that a growing number are choosing the last.