Sunday, January 10, 2010
Roger & Me
The Front Page treatment given to Roger Ailes in the Sunday edition of The New York Times makes one ask what's in it for The Times. The size of the picture alone is worthy of the aftermath of a terrorist explosion.
Roger is tremendously successful and powerful, facts the paper easily quantifies: he made $23 million last year; Fox news is thought to make more money than CNN, MSNBC, and the three big broadcast news shows combined.
I worked for Ailes during the brief tenure of America's Talking, a round-the-clock cable channel he launched under the auspices of NBC in 1994 and that lasted until 1996 when Roger lost the channel position to NBC News and its then president, Andy Lack. After that defeat, Ailes got the Fox job from Rupert Murdoch, and after early struggles went on to the huge success the channel enjoys today. The Fox News Channel regularly beats CNN, MSNBC and Headline News in the cable news ratings. In fact, FNC often wins by breathtaking margins. (As I've said, you can't beat Fox at its own game.)
America's Talking, on the other hand was always a colossal failure. NBC chairman Bob Wright wanted to ax it, but much more important, Jack Welch -- who loved Roger -- once told an NBC News Vice-president, "nobody watches it."
And no wonder. Here's the lineup:
AMERICA'S TALKING A.M. -- A pretty standard morning show with the execrable Steve Doocy as weatherman.
AM I NUTS? -- Hosted by a shrink (with glasses) and a therapist (with legs).
WHAT'S NEW? -- A gadget show.
BREAK A LEG -- An entertainment show, hosted by an amateur who won a contest to get the gig.
ALIVE AND WELLNESS -- Alternative Medicine, hosted by a well-known local news anchor.
ASK E.JEAN -- advice columnist E.Jean Carroll.
HAVE A HEART --a write-in charity show.
PORK -- Host-driven exposes of government waste.
AT IN DEPTH -- With Terry Anzur in L.A. And Christopher Matthews in D.C. They later had a not-so-amicable divorce. John Gibson replaced Chris from NJ and Terry stayed on for a while. Chris got a show of his own, which he still has under the name Hardball. I was the divorce mediator and the bruises have never healed.
Roger also started his own show, a one-on-one interview called Straight Forward, which is probably the phrase he would most like as a self-description.
Before the network went on, Roger called the staff into a retreat and explained the logic of this particular set of shows. To tell the truth, it was brilliant, though also self-absorbed and somewhat whacko.
Andy Friendly, erstwhile King World and CNBC exec, once said famously of Ailes: "Roger stabs you in the front."
"My first qualification," Roger tells The Times, "is I didn't go to Columbia Journalism School."
I did, and it was a pretty ordinary collection of people, not the effete snobs Ailes seems to be imagining. He goes on to say, "there are no parties in this town that I want to go to." I don't believe that. I've seen Roger at parties. He enjoys the attention.
Roger is living proof of something I've always believed: that envy is at leasts as great a driving force ass pride, and even greed.
The Times chronicles some of Roger's paranoia over physical attack. He also manages his business paranoiacally. We Senior Producers at A-T were constantly being summoned into the office of Chief Exec Beth Tilson (now Mrs. Ailes) for crisis meetings with Roger, who was not physically present but was on the car phone between A-T headquarters in Fort Lee NJ and the Manhattan offices of the Rush Limbaugh radio show, which Roger also produced. It was like Charile's Angels, with Beth playing all three angels. The agenda was often some quite minuscule personnel issue. I don't know if he still micromanages like that, but he certainly did then, threatening to punish the slightest real or imagined malfeasance. Sometimes the matter at hand was political (sometimes racist), even though A-T had much lss of a political agenda than FNC.
The Times cites Roger's claim that his credo is God, family, country. When I worked for him, he was having an affair with his much younger aide-de-camp, which is not exactly the stuff of Tiger Woods, but I didn't find it to be behavior befitting a choirboy either.
Roger's credo is that of the hardhat son of an Akron (actually Warren, Ohio) plant foreman. Nothing wrong with that.
Bluntly, Roger is fat. When he got engaged to Beth, he lost a drastic amount of weight which he couldn't keep off. She loves him anyhow, and he gave her two small newspapers upstate to publish, a job she's quite capable of doing very well.
I've never been able to figure out why A-T failed so badly while FNC has succeeded so admirably. "Fair and balanced" does have something to do with it, but the real difference, I think, is Roger brought his design guy over with him and hired a guy from one of the newsmagazines to run his newsroom. A dose of professionalism to supplant the amateur hour quality of A-T.
Also, he now worked for Rupert, who knew a lot more about running a journalistic empire than Andy Lack ever did. Lack was a disaster, and Ted Turner had long since lost his competitive edge.
I didn't move to Fox. Instead I was Executive Editor of MSNBC for 10 years. During the critical years when Fox leapt past us, we were sloppy while they executed almost perfectly.
Now that's all different (I've retired) and MSNBC does a much better job. But also the two channels have split left/right and the talk show format lends itself better to Beck, O'Reilly and Hannity than to Matthews, Olbermann and Maddow.
Of course, from my current perch, I find it hard to abide any of them.