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'Loudest Voice' - Judging Roger Ailes with no sense of history

ElectionsRoger Ailes AuthorsNews MediaTelevision IndustryBarack ObamaFox Broadcasting Company

If you hate the extreme polarization of American life today, with more and more people talking to and living alongside only people who share their world view, blame Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News.

If you are angry about the loss of civility, the coarsening of the conversation of democracy, the gridlock in Washington and the nastiness of political discourse, blame Ailes.

If you’re troubled by the widespread criticism of an American president like Barack Obama, yes, that, too, is the fault of Ailes — as is even the fact that your vote has been all but turned into Confederate dollars by the power of big-interest money and media manipulators.

That’s the real argument at the heart of “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country,” by first-time author Gabriel Sherman, a New York magazine contributing editor.

If that kind of simplistic, historically and culturally ignorant explanation of contemporary American media and life works for you, then you will probably like this highly publicized biography from Random House just fine.

On the other hand, if you have had the pleasure of reading a meticulously researched, clearly written, scrupulously documented, even-handed and enlightening biography — like, say, the one Robert A. Caro is writing on Lyndon Johnson — Sherman’s book is going to be a major disappointment.

I don’t use the word “ignorant” lightly — or for snark effect. I admire anyone who can take on a project as daunting as the biography of a figure as pioneering and divisive as Ailes and simply finish it. It’s 395 pages, not counting acknowledgments and notes.

But having had to research and construct mini-biographies of CBS and NBC founders William Paley and David Sarnoff, respectively, for a book I wrote on the history of Jewish characters in prime-time TV, I can see the vast moonscape of holes in Sherman’s understanding of media history — especially American television. And ultimately, those holes and some misguided attempts to discredit Ailes diminish what could have been a most important work.

My problems with “The Loudest Voice” begin on the first pages of the prologue, when Sherman starts hyping his hypothesis.

On the second page, he writes, “Ailes remade both American media and politics. More than anyone of his generation, he helped transform politics into mass entertainment — monetizing the politics while making entertainment a potent organizing force. … Through Fox, Ailes helped polarize the American electorate, drawing sharp, with-us-or-against-us lines, demonizing foes, preaching against compromise.”

Sherman ups the ante one page later, writing, “Roger Ailes has the power, more than any other single person in American public life, to define the president. For many Americans … the Obama they know, the one they are raging against, is the one Ailes has played a large role in creating.”

Does Ailes really have more power than anyone else to define the president?

How about Obama senior adviser David Plouffe, the architect of the Obama that America saw standing in Chicago’s Grant Park the night of his election in 2008? Plouffe largely constructed and defined the image of that Obama — a TV image so powerful that it sent people dancing through the streets of cities across the nation on election night in 2008. That’s pretty powerful, isn’t it?

And how about Jeff Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes” and chairman of CBS News? For the first year of Obama’s presidency, “60 Minutes” seemed like Obama’s second home, with the president regularly talking to Steve Kroft before Sunday-night audiences of 15 million to 22 million viewers.

Or how about Bill Keller, then executive editor of The New York Times, or Jill Abramson, who has that job now? You think a picture of or an article about Obama on the front page of The New York Times still isn’t more powerful in defining Obama than what a Fox host like Sean Hannity says?

The core problem of “The Loudest Voice” is the lack of historical knowlege and perspective.

When it comes to Sherman's claim that Ailes "more than anyone of his generation" transformed politics into mass entertainment, I'd advise him to check out the career of the late Don Hewitt who directed the historic TV debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 and the national political conventions from 1948 to 1962 before founding "60 Minutes" in 1968 for CBS News.

And, by the way, in the last interview I did with Hewitt when he retired, he talked eloquently about how he conceived of the conventions as entertainment -- and how he constructed and presented political stories on "60 Minutes" as prime-time entertainment using narratives and tropes of the western and cop drama genres.

As for Sherman's claims about Ailes "polarizing" electorates and "demonizing opponents," Richard Nixon and his gang got there long before Ailes signed on as one of their TV advisers. In fact, Nixon became infamous by 1950 for the way he and his campaign crew savaged Helen Gahagan Douglas as a Communist in the 1950 U.S. Senate race.

There are more problems with history in Sherman characterizing much of the childhood of Ailes, who was born in 1940, as that of a sickly youth lying on the couch watching television.

Nice image, but until 1948 there wasn't anything that could be called a prime-time schedule -- and what you had then wasn't much more than a show or two a night on a couple of channels. Development of television had been stopped cold during World War II.

And it wasn't until the early 1950s, that you had anything approaching a full day of programming on stations in places like Ohio where Ailes was raised.

If he was lying on a couch all day in the 1940s looking at TV, he was at best watching a blank screen or test patterns most of the time. And, furthermore, his blue-collar family must have had one of the first TVs in America for him to have watched anything by the time he was 10.

Ultimately, as a biographer, you cannot ask the reader to judge Ailes as a figure of power without providing historical figures against which to measure him.

A biographer doesn’t have to go to the lengths of Caro, who in asking readers to assess Johnson’s days in the Senate provides them with nothing short of a history of the institution and its leading figures in “Master of the Senate,” the third installment of his biography. But you definitely need some of that.

The correct historical figures for comparison with Ailes are Paley and Sarnoff, who founded not just networks at CBS and NBC that still dominate the TV landscape but shaped the very nature of American broadcasting through the latter part of the 20th and now well into the 21st centuries.

When Paley and Sarnoff were at their height, there were only three major networks, and one of them, ABC, was relatively weak. CBS and NBC essentially owned the entire American audience. When they showed pictures on their evening newscasts of civil rights marchers being beaten in the 1960s South, the movement was brought into America’s living rooms.

Deciding to run that film out of Alabama on your network in the 1960s was power. It rocked the national conscience. It changed the laws of the land.

Today, in a fragmented media universe of hundreds of channels and an exponential number of online sites, could anyone in charge of just one cable channel approach that power?

But instead of Paley or Sarnoff, who rate not even a listing in the book's index, Sherman points readers to a rabid anti-Semite, the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a Detroit priest who had a radio show in the 1930s, as a model by which to judge Ailes.

“Ailes owes his power to a long tradition,” Sherman writes. “The media mobilizers of an earlier era — Father Charles Coughlin and Walter Winchell — paved the way for Fox News.”

Before being silenced by his archbishop, Coughlin used his radio show to voice support for fascism and urge listeners to commit such acts as vandalizing Jewish cemeteries.

If that strikes you not only as a historically inapt comparison but also an unfair one by Sherman, wait until you read the anecdote on Page 69 that wildly links something Ailes did as a GOP political consultant in 1970 to the shooting of student protesters at Kent State.

And when Sherman can’t confirm that Ailes produced the infamous Willie Horton attack ad during the 1988 presidential campaign, he writes this on Page 128: “Whether or not Ailes had any direct role in putting Horton’s picture on millions of TV screens, his style had clearly inspired the ad.”

Can you imagine Caro writing such a “whether or not” sentence? The basic job of a biographer is to nail down answers to such questions.

Such imprecision and innuendo make me angry. But I’ve tried to rein that in, because so much of the discussion about this book has been cast in the unfortunate language of ideological warfare.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve criticized Ailes and Fox as much as anyone it the mainstream media. I hate some of what Ailes and Fox have done and have said so. Do a Google search for "Fox and Zurawik," and see for yourself.

But I know that understanding the life and mind of Roger Ailes would make us smarter about our media and ourselves — and we desperately need such understanding.

Unfortunately, this book fails to provide that. For all its promotional push, I don’t think “The Loudest Voice in the Room” will be long remembered — or even talked about past the short buzz life of most media these days.

(In terms of full disclosure,  I occasionally appear on “MediaBuzz,” which has been airing on Fox News since September. I have also occasionally appeared on CNN's media show, "Reliable Sources," the last nine years.)

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsRoger Ailes AuthorsNews MediaTelevision IndustryBarack ObamaFox Broadcasting Company
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