Monday, April 20, 2015

An Interesting Interview With The Head Of FOX News

The Hollywood Reporter has a fascinating interview with Roger Ailes, the head of FOX news, by far the number one cable news station. It's a very fair and balanced (no pun intended) portrait of a man who has become a legend in the news business. Here are a few bits:

We talk for nearly two hours about everything from Hillary Clinton ("Do you believe that the stuff on 30,000 emails that were destroyed after the prosecutor told [her] to keep it had things on it about yoga? I don't"), the 2016 presidential field in general ("I haven't heard anybody in election campaigns say things that would make me run out and vote for them yet"), exiled NBC News anchor Brian Williams ("I'd put Brian back, but I'd do it the right way"), fatherhood ("It made me a coward") and his legacy ("I don't give a rat's ass what the world thinks").
As I sit across from Ailes on this Wednesday morning in early April, his eyes dart reflexively to the wall of six televisions to the left of his desk; his networks, Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, and the competition, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Bloomberg. My eyes repeatedly wander to a framed photo on a shelf over his left shoulder. It is an iconic black-and-white photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. escorting children into their newly integrated school in Grenada, Miss., in 1966.

The picture is signed by Dr. Bernice King and Dr. Alveda King, King's daughter and niece, respectively, who attended in November the graduation ceremony for the Ailes Apprenticeship Program, a diversity education program he founded in 2004. In point of fact, though, Ailes actually knew Dr. King back in the 1960s — the two crossed paths occasionally when Ailes was a local TV producer in Philadelphia. It's a nugget of Ailes' 'biography that some might find surprising.

As the country enters a presidential campaign season with dynastic implications, Ailes has a dilemma: How much oxygen does he give the fringe GOP candidates who could torment likely frontrunner Jeb Bush and potentially aid Hillary Clinton in the process. It's not a question he answers directly. "I just don't think I should weigh in on it, even in the press because people will think, 'Well, that's the way he's making the network go.' But it looks like Hillary is going to do whatever she wants," he says, "and the press is going to vote for her."

Asked if he thinks Ted Cruz, the intransigent Texas tea party candidate, has a chance of securing the GOP nomination, Ailes deflects: "Listen, we elected Warren G. Harding. Anybody has a chance. You don't know who you're going to be running against. If the other guy falls on his rear end, you could win."

Ailes always has been in the trenches, and that hasn't changed. He's known to call the control room if he sees his anchors straying into territory over which he objects. "I say, 'Tell them to cut this shit out, but don't tell them I called because that will raise the level too high.' " He participates in the 8 a.m. executive meeting (usually by phone), makes all programming decisions and sometimes even negotiates directly with talent (Megyn Kelly, who is a lawyer, negotiates her own contracts directly with Ailes). [...]

Still, there have been changes at the network since the 2012 election, with Ailes clearly wooing a younger brand of conservative. (The network's median age — over 65 — is the oldest of the news networks, though Fox News still outrates the competition among the advertiser-coveted 25-to-54 demographic.) In 2013, he moved Kelly into the 9 p.m. slot occupied for more than a decade by conservative firebrand Sean Hannity. And he built Shepard Smith — an empathic reporter often suspected of being liberal — a $7 million studio and made him the network's on-call anchor throughout the evening.

"Nobody else has this — it's very expensive," says Smith of his show's News Deck, which is staffed by dozens of producers who monitor news feeds and social media for what amounts to a perpetual news factory. "We're paying a lot of people in case something happens. It's an enormous commitment, and nobody else is making it. But those things don't get talked about. What gets talked about is O'Reilly bloviating about something."

Fox News has 19 liberals on the payroll, though they're often dismissed as straw men. When I put this to Juan Williams, a veteran commentator who wrote a well-regarded biography of Thurgood Marshall, he laughs. "Can you get a witness? I'm a witness.

"Clearly the audience likes the kind of tilt that exists [at Fox News]," he says. "But they're not stupid. They want to hear a real, honest conversation. I am allowed to make substantial, critical arguments. And that never gets stepped on."

Williams, in fact, has known Ailes since 1984, when Williams was covering the White House for the Washington Post and Ailes was a campaign advisor for Ronald Reagan.

"Part of the struggle of being a skinny black kid with an afro covering the Reagan White House is that a lot of people [there] basically thought I was the enemy. Ailes' response to me was, 'You're an underdog in this situation, aren't you? I got your back; I'm going to help you.' And he became a key source for me."

Interestingly, while Fox News is the go-to channel for conservatives, about 37 percent of its audience holds "mixed" views, according to a 2014 Pew study, while 14 percent are "liberal" and 4 percent are "consistently liberal." But Ailes doesn't appear to be all that interested in bringing more of these people to his network. "I don't give a rat's ass," he says, breaking out his favorite rodent reference. "My job is to cover the news and do it accurately and fair. And we do. And voila! We have the largest number of independents watching television of any channel. Why is that? Not because we suck around and try to talk these people into watching our programming. We do programming that appeals to them, and so they tune to us. That's how you get them. You can't be chasing these little balkanized groups of people around. It's just nuts. Do your programming. It should be American. We're Americans. It's a culture. We should defend that culture, and we should reinforce that culture."

The full interview is here, and definitely worth a read.

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