Brief encounters

Short reviews of Deadly Censorship and The Loudest Voice in the Room

Deadly Censorship: Murder, Honor and Freedom of the Press | By James Lowell Underwood | The University of South Carolina Press | 328 pages. | $39.95

This is a day-by-day account of the notorious trial in 1903 of James Tillman, lieutenant governor of South Carolina, for the street killing of Narciso Gonzales, co-founder with his brothers of The State, the leading newspaper in the capital, Columbia. Tillman, a junior member of a powerful political family, gunned down Gonzales, unarmed and unwarned. The act cost South Carolina a brilliant and progressive reporter, son of a family of Cuban and Southern aristocrats. James Lowell Underwood, a professor emeritus of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, has combed the records and clippings of the trial to illuminate how and why a jury quickly acquitted Tillman. In his view, Tillman, it seems, was driven by anger over Gonzales’ many (and truthful) criticisms in print and chose a remedy typical of a gun-carrying society. The twelve jurors readily assented. Who can say that they would rule differently today?

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country | By Gabriel Sherman | Random House | 538 pages. | $28

The conceit underlying Citizen Kane, the classic Orson Welles film, is the effort by a newsreel reporter to reconstruct the life of the late Charles Foster Kane (aka William Randolph Hearst) by interviewing those whom the heedless Kane had encountered in life. Gabriel Sherman, author of The Loudest Voice in the Room, etc., has been forced into a similar strategy. He recounts his failed efforts to interview the subject of his book, Roger Ailes, founder and master of Fox News. Instead, he has had to rely on those who have encountered Ailes along the way—a total of 614 persons, by his count, identified or disguised (e.g., “a former senior Fox producer”) in almost a hundred pages of notes. He has been thorough and industrious, but he does not pause to develop or argue the thesis implied in the title—that Fox News significantly altered the course of American politics. Instead, readers must fill in the blanks.

The thread of the story runs from Ailes’ humble and difficult childhood in midcentury Ohio to his rise in old-fashioned talk television. He pops up in national politics as an adviser to Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. He takes a detour to Broadway as a theatrical producer. He resumes advising Republican candidates, most notably the inglorious but victorious effort for George H.W. Bush in 1988.

At heart he remained a television producer and returned to TV in 1993 to run the business channel CNBC. He left in 1996 for the chance of his lifetime—to create and run a news channel for the imperial Rupert Murdoch. The idea was, essentially, simple. As one (unnamed) former Fox producer quotes Ailes as saying: “The news is like a ship. If you take hands off the wheel, it pulls hard to the left.” Ailes had tested the notion of conservative news twenty years earlier at a short-lived channel financed by Coors. Now he knew how to keep his hand on the wheel, pointed toward the dark side, and he drove Fox News to success.

He is still at the helm today, in his seventies and guiding an enterprise that is by far the leader in its field, with the largest and most durable cable news audience in the country. Such commentators as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who were there at the creation, offer an air of stability, comfort, and vitriol to Fox’s increasingly elderly viewers. Ailes has fallen short principally in seeking to use Fox News to guide Republican presidential politicians to victory; in five elections since the founding of Fox News, he has seen only two narrow successes—in 2000 (by fiat) and in 2004.

Sherman’s recounting of Ailes’ career deals less in success than in struggle. The author’s not always friendly sources describe less an inspiring leader than a tyrant of office politics. Few who have challenged him or disputed his views have avoided submission or expulsion. Ailes’ will to dominate, Sherman asserts, extends to his Bigfoot presence in Garrison, New York, the exurban town where he lives, owns the local paper with his wife, and seeks to boss local politics.

More than a decade into the twenty-first century, Ailes remains a creature of the twentieth. He concedes that the digital world remains a wilderness to him. He has made few concessions to it, nor is it likely that he will. Meanwhile, his medium is in gradual decline. His audience is aging. Somewhere down the road, just as there was for the dying Charles Foster Kane, there will be a “Rosebud” moment for cable news.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.