Roger Ailes in a Strange Light

Esquire’s big, perplexing profile

Esquire’s Roger Ailes profile, available online today, is a strange and fascinating read—a kind of nuanced, satirical “F-you” to a subject who pleads for understanding but couldn’t care less if you understand him or not.* Written by the reliable Tom Junod in the voice of a snarly Glenn Beck-like figure, it is part profile, part attack, part philosophical musing. (So that’s what hemophilia says about a person!) I was glued to it and confused by it, this kind of Terence Malick-style feature writing. In the piece, Ailes tells Junod, “I know what you’re going to write about me.” Apparently, the author took the challenge to prove him wrong very seriously.

Or maybe the profile is just “puzzlingly overwritten,” as Chris Rovzar at New York has said.

Either way, it’s full of some great, juicy nuggets about Ailes and his approach to the media.

For color on the personality front, it’s hard to top Junod’s revealing explanation of why the temperamental Ailes no longer carries a BlackBerry—it goes beyond the fact that he has executives to do all that a smartphone can. (The style might take some easing into.)

You’re Roger Ailes, one of the most powerful media executives in the history of the world, if not the universe. Your BlackBerry “pings” you with an intemperate e-mail from one of your fellow Americans, telling you that he’s going to catch a plane from the heartland of our great homeland so he can find you among the rich and powerful there in New York City and kick your big Aeron-seated posterior. Would you answer him?…Would you threaten the fellow back? Would you tell your fellow American that if he buys a ticket to New York City and tries to come up to see you at your well-guarded domicile in midtown Manhattan—and here we quote—“he shouldn’t bother buying a return ticket because he’ll never make it back home”? No, you wouldn’t, because you’re an American, and Americans don’t threaten other Americans exercising the sacred right of free speech, no matter how intemperate they might be. But Roger Ailes would. Roger Ailes did. He did it time and again, fighting fire with fire, intemperately answering every intemperate e-mail that came his way with no insult or complaint beneath his notice, until his public-relations staff, fearing that the Ailesian e-mails might become public and that their boss was having too much fun, concluded that maybe giving a man like Roger Ailes a BlackBerry wasn’t such a good idea after all.

And on the media front, we learn just how much Ailes wanted to take the helm of MSNBC when he was over at CNBC and the now-liberal leaning cable channel was being dreamed up.

MSNBC? With characteristic delicacy, Ailes told NBC News that it “sounded like a disease.” But still he wanted it. Oh, how he wanted it. See, he had some ideas about cable. NBC was thinking along the lines of extending its network news to cable—all Brokaw, all the time. Roger Ailes was thinking more along the lines of “divide and conquer.” What Mr. Ailes understood about the political nature of television back in 1968 he would be able to put into practice on cable television thirty years later. “Roger got cable,” says Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC. “Everybody else learned it, studying Roger. Well, maybe not CNN. CNN still doesn’t get it. But Roger got it from day one.”

What did he get? Well, he got what he was temperamentally equipped to get: that cable news would be different from broadcast news. That cable news didn’t have to please all Americans. That a committed audience was better than a broad one. And that the best audience of all was one you had all to yourself — one that had not only been ignored, but one that felt ignored.

He pitched that idea to NBC.

NBC’s answer: “Are you nuts?”

And on the personal front, I was greatly interested in the cameo former NBC news president Dick Wald makes in the profile—Wald was a professor of mine at Columbia’s J-School and never gave me an assessment as adulatory or as blunt as this:

He likes Roger Ailes. And if you ask him the secret of Mr. Ailes’s success, he’ll say it’s pretty simple: “Roger, in many ways, is just more competent. He just does it better. The anchors are better. The crispness of the reporting is better. The anchors don’t interrupt, the shows move along, and the point of view is clear. It’s just a good product. Roger found an area in which he could reach each audience member individually. That’s the big difference between Fox and CNN.”

Then he adds this, about the difficulty of taking on Roger Ailes: “You can’t beat Roger fighting on territory he’s left behind.”

Speaking of the J-School, it pops up again when Ailes discusses how he spots, and then transforms, his on-air talent (Junod’s description of Megyn Kelly as “the meanest of the mean girls, the heaving sumptuous blond with the wide-set eyes, the briskly triangular chin, and the porno sneer she directs at ill-fated liberal guests” is brilliantly grotesque). Take the case of anchor Jenna Lee:

“Well, she didn’t look anything like she looks now when she came here. She’d just completed Columbia journalism school, and she wanted to be a writer. But I met with her and sent her down to hair and makeup to clean her up a little. When she came back, I took a look at her and said, ‘What would you think of going on air?’ I had to work with her a little to bring her pitch down, and now she’s going to be a big star. And she wanted to be a writer.”

Ugh, a writer. Can you imagine?

The piece should be read in full; these excerpts are too lucid and straightforward to do justice to the complex telling and structure which characterize the overall. But if you’re confused at what Junod’s going for, as I admittedly was at times, I suggest skipping to the end, where his intentions are made wholly clear.

Of all the remarkable aspects of Esquire’s exclusive and unbiased exploration of Roger Ailes, this is the most remarkable, and the most surprising. He asked us that certain things not be written about him, because he has a son. Most of these things are unremarkable, and can be found in his Wikipedia entry. Nevertheless, he doesn’t want his son to read them. He doesn’t want his son to read them here. It is a deeply human request, and deeply manipulative. But that’s what makes Roger Ailes who he is. He makes sure that you cannot deal with him without having to contend with him. Not simply at the level of his machinations but at the level of his stuff — at the level of his bruised and bloodied human core. But the human moment is the most dangerous. He asks for quarter when he has given none, asks for sympathy when he has offered none, asks for fairness when he has been “fair and balanced,” asks for consideration while admitting that the only consideration he has ever shown is consideration for his mission, whatever that may be. And so, here, at the end of Esquire’s brave, bold, exclusive, and utterly unbiased report on Roger Ailes, we’d like to ask him one last question.

You know, Mr. Ailes, there are television executives who are so convinced you get television news that they admit asking themselves before they make any decision, What would Roger do?

So that’s the question we’d like to ask you now. You have asked Esquire to be sympathetic to your situation. You have asked for fairness. And yet you must have heard these same kinds of requests many times in your life; you must have heard these same pleas, so you, in your heart of hearts, must already know the answer to the question that only Esquire dares to ask:

What would Roger do?

*Note: Originally, this sentence read “could care less…”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,