Chafets’s vignettes of Ailes’s friendships and charitable gestures don’t persuade me that Ailes sees humanity as anything but customers at a circus and fodder for political rampages. Ailes knows that people also yearn for dignity, or at least for escapes from indignity. But when you’re as good as he is at using “news” to grope and goose viewers whom your sponsors are ensnaring in coils of corporate fine print and degraded messaging, a lot of them will fall for Fox’s characteristic blame-shifting to Obama the socialist and to the liberal mega-financier George Soros, whom Glenn Beck called “The Puppet Master” in a three-part Fox series whose chillingly close parallels to anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering stunned viewers with a sense of history.
Arianna Huffington confronted Ailes about Beck’s Soros story when he accepted an invitation from Barbara Walters to appear on ABC. (He seldom goes on TV, but “a friend is a friend,” Chafets explains.) “It’s not about the word police,” Huffington admonished, “It’s about something deeper . . . the paranoid style [used by Beck] is dangerous when there’s real pain out there.” Ailes promptly accused Huffington of doing the same thing by citing a little known, unpaid Huffington Post blogger who’d written that Ailes looks like J. Edgar Hoover and has a face like a fist.
But Huffington came as close anyone has to warning Ailes before a large audience that he’s playing with fire: When you’ve run out of socialists and terrorists to blame, one of your operatives will always find a few real capitalists—perhaps Jewish ones, like Soros—to split off from the rest, who remain protected.
Chafets understands this danger, perhaps a little too well: After growing up as William Chafets in Pontiac, MI, and at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, he moved to Israel, served in its army, and was Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s press officer. Back in the US after 2000, he wrote New York Daily News columns with titles like “How the Israelis Are Helping US Fight Terror War” and “Arafat’s ‘Womb Bomb’ Just Another Delusion.”
Although he recently told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he profiled Limbaugh and Ailes because he likes “people who change the culture or go against the grain, and people who are contrarians at least within their own profession,” surely the fact that Fox is “behind [Israel] all the way,” as Ailes puts it, with Limbaugh not far behind, also explains Chafets’s eagerness to justify each of them at book length. I think he’s also trying to take out some insurance against anti-Semitism as Ailes’s “vision” gets scarier. Chafets finesses the story by noting that Ailes has eased Beck out of Fox; he also notes that cnn founder Ted Turner and others liken Murdoch to Hitler—“which would make Roger Ailes a reincarnation of Goebbels,” Chafets adds cheekily. But does that reductio ad absurdum really end this story?
Chafets seems to think so, making much of Ailes’s “friendships” with elite liberals whom he also happens to employ, including sons of Robert Kennedy and Mario Cuomo and the daughter of Jesse Jackson. (Cuomo’s son, Chris, left Fox for CNN this year.) He seems to hire them not only for protective coloration but to have them complicit in turning news into a game of money, power, and public relations. Ailes is playing a longer, slower game than most demagogues do.
That leaves high and dry any “ivory tower” liberals who remain thoughtful enough to pose serious questions and find answers that could work if demagoguery didn’t eviscerate their legitimacy and funding. The more that that savaging sells, the more that journalists who don’t emulate it are left high and dry, too. As Cleon’s ancient interlocutor Diodotus lamented, even those with the public interest at heart must appeal to fear and rage to be heard.
Mephistopheles always comes on with a smile, a wink, and promises of shining victories. Ailes and his apologists, like Chafets, have employed and enjoyed these, but they’re in for unhappy surprises, and they’ve got more than a few of us with them on the same slippery slope.
Correction: The original version of this review erroneously stated that Ailes was responsible for George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie-Horton ad in the 1988 presidential election.