Zev Chafetz’s new biography on Fox News CEO Roger Ailes uncovers one of the most unlikeliest of relationships: Roger Ailes and Barbara Walters.
Ailes, now 72, describes his relationship with Walters in a candid way.
“I dated Barbara a couple times, or took her out as an escort but we never had an affair,” he says. “We probably could have at some point but we were always married or between marriages or talking about marrying someone. We never got beyond that point. But we trusted one another and we still do.”
“Roger Ailes Off Camera,” based on a year’s worth of experience close to Ailes and his associates, has a lot of those personal, often odd and unexpected details. But half of the book is devoted to covering the former Republican operative’s rise to fame in television. It started with a gig producing a new and risky variety show, “The Mike Douglas Show,” progressed toward his career in politics as a pioneering image consultant to Richard Nixon and ended with his current spot as the guy almost single-handedly responsible for Fox News.
In the early pages of the biogrophy, the Fox News CEO reveals that despite suffering from hemophilia, his father didn’t pull any punches. Literally.
“When he got mad, he beat me,” Ailes says in the book. “He used an electric cord, belt, whatever was handy.”
Before there was Fox News, there was “Rush Limbaugh,” a 1992-1996 TV show created by Ailes
“Everybody marvels at Jon Stewart’s show,” Rush Limbaugh says in the book. “That’s what my show was. That’s what Roger and I did — find news clips and make fun of people who weren’t used to being laughed at. We combined the comedy with dead serious political and cultural discussion.”
In the mid-1990s, NBC News was readying to get into the cable news business to compete with CNN (though it already had the business channel CNBC). News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch saw an in. He “had an intuition that a large portion of the public was unhappy with the tone of mainstream TV news and would respond to a more patriotic, socially conservative, and less parochial sort of information,” Chafetz writes. Murdoch met with Ailes who said he could make it happen with $1 billion. “I thought, either this man is crazy or he has the biggest set of balls I’ve ever seen,” Murdoch says.
Programming and talent
On Fox & Friends, Fox’s freewheeling morning show, Chafetz writes: “[It's] an easygoing program that delivers some hard political messages in the morning. Apart from Sean Hannity’s show, it is probably the most blatantly partisan program on Fox.” Co-host Steve Doocy says, “We are who we are … You have a couple of kids and a mortgage; everyone winds up a little more conservative. All three of us [co-hosts] are to the right, but we balance it with guests.”
Ailes, who values loyalists, has a rulebook he distributes to Fox News personnel. In it: 1. “Excellence requires hard work, clear thinking and the application of your unique talent.” 2. “Nothing is more important than giving your word and keeping it.” 3. “Our common goal is the success of Fox News.” 4. “Attitude is everything.”
Bill O’Reilly, an experienced broadcast journalist who took time out to attend Harvard in the early ’90s, came to Ailes with an idea. Chafetz writes: “At Harvard, O’Reilly began plotting a return to television. Roger Ailes was just getting set up at Fox and O’Reilly got in touch. ‘I told Roger that I had a written outline of a show I wanted to do,’ he says. ‘Roger told me, “I don’t need an outline. I know what you can do.”‘
Radio host Sean Hannity wasn’t a TV natural at first: The book describes Hannity’s start at Fox as a bumpy one. His “early performances were shaky and awkward. … He didn’t even know how to read a teleprompter; he learned by watching and copying Brian Williams. But his most important tutor was Ailes. He showed Hannity how to ask short questions instead of delivering speeches. He instructed him to be better informed, ‘report instead of just talk.’” Hannity told Chafetz, “The first time I was on television, I had a panic attack.”
Hannity also told Chafetz that he and O’Reilly don’t speak to each other despite both working on the same floor and within just a hundred feet of each other’s offices.
“Roger Ailes Off Camera” published Tuesday.