Roger Ailes Off Camera: An inside look at the founder and head of Fox News
By Zev Chafets
258 pages
Hardcover $26.95

Correction appended
When I published Liberal Racism in 1997 (with a chapter on how The New York Times was misrepresenting racial politics under editorial-page editor Howell Raines), I was interviewed on Fox News, which I’d barely heard of, by Bill O’Reilly, whom I hadn’t heard of at all. The encounter was anodyne, but before long I noticed that the network was not. Under its president Roger Ailes, who had pitched his vision of Fox to a receptive Rupert Murdoch only a year before I met O’Reilly, it was rapidly becoming what Zev Chafets calls “transformational” in American media and political culture. By treating journalism as if it’s all about ratings and show, Fox actually makes a profoundly political statement by eviscerating what democratic politics really stands for.

The price we’re paying shows up clearly in Chafets’s hastily added election-night epilogue to Roger Ailes Off Camera (the rest of the book reads as if the 2012 election is yet to come). He shows us Ailes, 71, and Murdoch reacting impassively at Fox headquarters to early indications of the Obama victory—a humiliating setback for its political commentators O’Reilly, Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and Sean Hannity, who’ve spent the evening, as they have most of the campaign, insisting a Republican victory is imminent.

But Chafets doesn’t mention what for journalists was arguably the most important question of the night, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly’s exasperated query to Rove: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?”

What counts as “real” at Fox News? It can be hard to tell. Upheavals in American news reporting have been driven not only by digitization, globalization, and the concurrent fragmentation of news-consuming publics and their coordinates, but also, and perhaps even more so, by Ailes’s perverse marketing genius, which has given the fear and anger in American politics new and dangerous forms of expression. It also introduces a new ideological spin, to offset “liberal” influence in mainstream media: “Fox may or may not be internally balanced,” Chafets writes, “but Ailes is right when he says, ‘Sometimes we are the balance.’ ”

Although Fox ratings have dropped since the election, they’ll rebound if fear and anger rise and if Ailes keeps at it. “I don’t see a true liberal answer to Fox on the horizon, although MSNBC tries hard,” Mark Danner tells Chafets, and MSNBC’s own Rachel Maddow agrees: “Roger took some charisma and great ideas for shows and worked magic. . . . I feel that he has won. If the media were left of center before, they aren’t now.”

* * *

To support his claim that Fox’s coverage of the election returns was “dispassionate and professional,” Chafets mentions Megyn Kelly’s election-night, on-camera march over to the Fox Decision Desk after she’s listened to Rove repeatedly challenge its decision to call Ohio for Obama. But according to Jonathan Alter in The Center Holds, it was Ailes who called from home and ordered the march to rescue some credibility for Fox News. Chafets spins a Pew Center finding that Fox’s coverage of President Obama was eight times more negative than positive by explaining that Ailes, who once shielded Richard Nixon from critical interviewers, “understood perfectly well why [Obama] had preferred chatting with Whoopi Goldberg . . . to a session with Bill O’Reilly. ” He adds that “msnbc, Fox’s chief cable rival, was far more partisan—only 3 percent of its Romney coverage was positive, 71 percent negative, a ratio of 23-1.”

Such schoolyard excuses—“The other guy did it, too!”—pop up often in this book, as does Ailes’s and Chafets’s penchant for accusing others pre-emptively of whatever Fox is guilty of, so that the mainstream media will report an equivalence. But this doesn’t explain Fox’s lopsidedly negative news coverage of Obama or MSNBC’s retaliatory efforts to fight Fox’s fire with its own.

The fire started at Fox when Ailes sensed, as demagogues (and their producers) throughout history have always done, that anyone with enough money, cleverness, and showmanship to unleash passions that good politics should channel constructively can ride them to power and profit. That’s what Cleon did in Thucydides’s account of the Athenians’ Mytilenian debate; it’s what Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, and recent Fox contributors Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have done by carrying legitimate grievances into brilliant performances that eventually curdle and collapse, tragicomically or catastrophically, on their own ignorance and lies.

Jim Sleeper , a lecturer in political science at Yale, teaches a seminar there on "Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy." He was an editorial writer for New York Newsday and a columnist for New York Daily News. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers (1990) and Liberal Racism (1997).