"Citizen Kane" was mumbling "Rosebud" with his final breath. Citizen Hearst revealed that William Randolph Hearst had a nickname for his film star/mistress Marion Davies' genitalia: "Rosebud" and Orson Welles took that term and applied it to "Citizen Kane's" favorite childhood plaything: his sled. Now, we have Citizen Ailes who has scattered "Rosebuds" all over Faux News. If this is (fair & balanced) street-level gynecology, so be it.
[x The New Yorker]
By Jill Lepore
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In the nineteen-thirties, one in four Americans got their news from William Randolph Hearst, who lived in a castle and owned twenty-eight newspapers in nineteen cities. Hearst’s papers were all alike: hot-blooded, with leggy headlines. Page 1 was supposed to make a reader blurt out, “Gee whiz!” Page 2: “Holy Moses!” Page 3: “God Almighty!” Still, you can yank people around for only so long. Wonder ebbs. Surprise is fleeting. Even rage abates. In 1933, Hearst turned seventy. He started to worry. How would the world remember him when he could no longer dictate the headlines? Ferdinand Lundberg, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, was beginning work on a book about him; no one expected it to be friendly. Hearst therefore did what many a rich, aging megalomaniac has done before and since: he hired a lackey to write an authorized biography, preëmptively.
In 2010, one in four Americans got the news from Fox News. That year, Roger Ailes, its head, turned seventy. Gabriel Sherman, an editor and reporter for New York, was beginning work on a book about him. Sherman interviewed more than six hundred people for “The Loudest Voice in the Room” (Random House). Ailes, who is known for menace, was not among them. “Take your best shot at me,” Ailes is said to have told another New York writer, “and I’ll have the rest of my life to go after you.” Unwilling to sit down for an interview with Sherman, Ailes met instead with Zev Chafets, a former columnist for the Daily News, a contributor to the Times Magazine, and the author of a biography of Rush Limbaugh. Chafets shadowed Ailes at Fox News; watched his son play basketball; walked with him, flanked by his bodyguard; and visited his home, in Garrison, New York, where Ailes has bought up not only the land around his nine-thousand-square-foot mansion but also the local newspaper, to which he named, as publisher, his wife.
“I got a closer, more prolonged look at Roger Ailes than any journalist ever has,” Chafets writes in Roger Ailes: Off Camera (2013), which appeared, preëmptively, last year. Ailes, Chafets says, looks like “a small-town banker in a Frank Capra movie.” That sounds disapproving, but in this particular Bedford Falls we are meant to admire Mr. Potter and each of his little witticisms. Ailes on Gingrich: “Newt’s a prick.” Biden: “He’s dumb as an ashtray.” Maddow: “Rachel is good and she will get even better when she discovers that there are people on earth who don’t share every one of her beliefs.” Krugman: “He’s a dope but nobody wants to say it because he’s won awards.” There’s plenty of obloquy in Chafets’s book. There’s also a great deal of what might be termed the testicular imagination. Rupert Murdoch says, of meeting Ailes, “I thought, Either this man is crazy or he has the biggest set of balls I’ve ever seen.” Chafets adds, by way of aside, “Ailes was thinking pretty much the same thing.” Holy Moses.
William Randolph Hearst needed a mouthpiece; he couldn’t trust an actual biographer—he was convinced that most people who wrote serious books for a living were Communists. In the fall of 1934, he ordered his editors to send reporters posing as students to college campuses, to find out which members of the faculty were Reds. Many of the people Hearst thought were Communists thought Hearst was a Fascist. This charge derived, in part, from the fact that Hearst had professed his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. It was easy to despise Hearst. It was also lazy. Hating some crazy old loudmouth who is a vindictive bully and lives in a castle is far less of a strain than thinking about the vulgarity and the prejudices of his audience. In 1935, the distinguished war correspondent and radio broadcaster Raymond Gram Swing observed, “People who are not capable of disliking the lower middle class in toto, since it is a formidable tax on their emotions, can detest Hearst instead.” Ailes haters, take note.
Swing despaired over what had happened to journalism under Hearst, and said so, which took courage. Hearst attacked his critics in his papers relentlessly and ferociously. Some fought back. “Only cowards can be intimidated by Hearst,” the historian Charles Beard said. Beard had resigned from Columbia in 1917, after the university began firing professors who opposed U.S. involvement in the war. (Beard himself favored American involvement; what he opposed was the university’s assault on intellectual freedom.) He’d been elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1925 and, in 1933, president of the American Historical Association. He wasn’t someone Hearst could easily crush, or daunt. In February of 1935, Beard addressed an audience of nine hundred schoolteachers in Atlantic City. “William Randolph Hearst has pandered to depraved tastes and has been an enemy of everything that is noblest and best in the American tradition,” he said. “No person with intellectual honesty or moral integrity will touch him with a ten-foot pole.” The crowd gave Beard a standing ovation.
To write the story of his life, Hearst turned to a woman named Cora Baggerly Older. Her husband, Fremont Older, was one of Hearst’s editors; the Olders had often visited Hearst at his hundred-and-sixty-five-room castle, San Simeon. In December of 1935, Mrs. Older, at work on the biography, alerted Hearst’s office that she had learned “that a hostile book called HEARST: The Lord of San Simeon written by Oliver Carlson and Ernest Sutherland Bates is soon to be published by the Viking Press.” Lundberg’s biography was about to come out, too. It was called Imperial Hearst (1936, 2012). A preface was supplied by Charles Beard.
Roger Ailes was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1940. He has hemophilia, which didn’t stop his father from beating him with an electrical cord. A story Ailes has told—“his Rosebud story,” according to Stephen Rosenfield, who worked with Ailes in the nineteen-seventies—is about a lesson he learned in his bedroom as a boy. His father, holding out his arms, told him to jump off the top bunk and then deliberately failed to catch him, saying, “Don’t ever trust anybody.”
Ailes went to Ohio University, where he majored in television and radio, and worked for the campus radio station, WOUB. While he was in college, his parents divorced; his mother told the court that her husband had threatened to kill her. After graduation, Ailes took a job at KYW-TV, in Cleveland, working for “The Mike Douglas Show.”
“Roger Ailes was a legend at a very young age,” according to Marvin Kalb, and by all accounts Ailes was an exceptionally talented television producer. In 1967, he met Joe McGinniss, then a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who wrote about him in The Selling of the President 1968, an account of Nixon’s Presidential campaign, and catapulted him to celebrity. The book’s turning point comes when, one day in 1967, in the green room of “The Mike Douglas Show,” Nixon says to Ailes, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.” Ailes says, “Television is not a gimmick.” Ailes became Nixon’s television producer. In McGinniss’s telling, Ailes more or less got Nixon elected.
After the election, Ailes moved to New York and worked as a television consultant, talent agent, and Off Broadway producer. Entertainment slid into politics, politics into entertainment. Ailes began making issue ads and advising candidates. One of his clients was Philip Morris. Ailes insisted that he had no partisan loyalties. “I don’t have this burning thing to elect all Republicans,” he told the Washington Post in 1972. That year, he helped run the North Carolina gubernatorial campaign of Jim Holshouser, Jr., a Republican who supported busing. “If you don’t do an antibusing spot on TV, you will lose the election,” Ailes told Holshouser. “Now, if I were you, I’d do the fucking spot, win the election, and then, once you’re in office, do whatever you think is right.” Holshouser did the spot and won. (“And what did he do about busing?” Chafets asks Ailes. Ailes answers, “I have no idea.”)
In 1974, Ailes was hired as a consultant for Television News, Inc., or TVN, a news service funded by Joseph Coors. Six months later, he became TVN’s news director. “He didn’t know anything about news,” Reese Schonfeld, a TVN executive and, later, a co-founder of CNN, told Sherman. “He knew television.” In 1975, the Columbia Journalism Review called Ailes “the only man in history to run a national news organization while owning an entertainment industry consulting firm.” TVN folded later that year.
In the nineteen-eighties, Ailes’s politics grew more conservative, as did the G.O.P. Between 1980 and 1986, Ailes helped get thirteen Republican senators and eight members of Congress elected, including Dan Quayle and Mitch McConnell. He also played a crucial role in the Presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He urged Reagan to disarm Walter Mondale in debate by promising not to make age an issue. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan said. Ailes calmed Bush’s nerves before his first debate against Michael Dukakis. “If you get in trouble out there, just call him an animal fucker,” Ailes whispered. According to a team of reporters from Newsweek, Ailes had proposed an ad, which never ran, called “Bestiality.” It would have featured a screen of text—“In 1970, Governor Michael Dukakis introduced legislation in Massachusetts to repeal the ban on sodomy and bestiality”—shown over a soundtrack of barnyard animals, bleating.
“HAVE NOT SEEN BOOK BUT JACKET IS COLOR OF SAN SIMEONS INDOOR POOL,” Cora Baggerly Older wrote in a telegram to Hearst on February 7, 1936, the day William Randolph Hearst: American appeared. The reviews were not kind. One critic observed, “Mrs. Older writes an authorized biography, and the result is about what one would look for.” Chafets compares Ailes to Rudyard Kipling and Teddy Roosevelt. “Likenesses between William Randolph Hearst and Napoleon, Charlemagne, the Louis of France and the Popes of Rome are noted in Mr. Hearst’s official biography,” a reviewer remarked about Older’s book, “yet it is possible that Mrs. Fremont Older, the biographer, is amazed at her own moderation.”
Both Carlson and Bates’s and Lundberg’s Hearst biographies appeared a couple of months later, in April, 1936. Carlson was a historian of journalism, Bates an English professor; their account is a story of Hearst’s life as a decline into a savage cynicism, to the point that his “so-called ‘news’ papers are little more than a gigantic chain-store, selling political patent medicines and adulterated economics.” Lundberg called for a congressional inquiry into Hearst’s enterprises. The New Yorker called Beard’s introduction “as juicy a piece of invective as you will find in several months of Sundays.” Beard had, in fact, got rather exercised. “Hearst’s fate is ostracism by decency in life, and oblivion in death,” he wrote. “It goes with him to the vale of shadows.” He was badly provoked, of course. Still, one prefers, as a rule, to stop short of cursing a man to eternal damnation.
In 1988, Ailes co-wrote a book called You Are the Message. Its premise is that everyone, at every moment, is not so much communicating as broadcasting. You have only seven seconds to be likable before someone changes the channel. “It’s what I call the like factor,” the book explains. (Today, this hooey has gone online: Like me! Follow me!)
Ailes met Limbaugh in 1991. Limbaugh was the host of the nation’s most successful right-wing radio talk show, an entertainment genre made possible by Reagan’s 1987 repeal of the F.C.C.’s Fairness Doctrine, which had been established in 1949. Ailes began producing a Limbaugh television show. In 1994, Ailes launched America’s Talking, an affiliate of NBC’s cable outlet, CNBC. Its twelve-hour all-talk lineup included a call-in show called “Am I Nuts?” and “Pork,” a program about government waste. As Sherman tells it, among the factors that contributed to its demise, less than two years later, was Ailes’s tendency to insult his colleagues. On the radio, he said of Mary Matalin and Jane Wallace, the hosts of a show called “Equal Time,” that they were “girls who if you went into a bar around seven, you wouldn’t pay a lot of attention but get to be tens around closing time.” In a meeting, Ailes allegedly called his CNBC associate David Zaslav “a little fucking Jew prick.” NBC commissioned an investigation, which concluded that Ailes had a “history of abusive, offensive, and intimidating statements/threats and personal attacks made to and upon a number of other people.”
Ailes called the charges “false and despicable” (and Zaslav later recanted), but in November, 1995, Ailes agreed to NBC’s stipulation that he would “not engage in conduct that a reasonable employee would perceive as intimidating or abusive.” A month later, NBC and Microsoft announced the creation of MSNBC, which was assigned the slot that America’s Talking had occupied on the cable dial. Zaslav was hired to help launch it.
Fox News, owned by Murdoch and run by Ailes, got its start in 1996. “I left politics a number of years ago,” Ailes said at a press conference. “We expect to do fine, balanced journalism.” CNN had sixty million subscribers. MSNBC had twenty-five million. Fox News débuted in October, 1996, with seventeen million.
The best thing that ever happened to Fox News was the Monica Lewinsky story, which, together with other Clinton scandals, led to a four-hundred-per-cent increase in prime-time ratings. Much of Fox’s lineup was already in place, but when the Lewinsky scandal broke, early in 1998, Ailes launched Brit Hume’s 6 P.M. newscast, “Special Report,” and moved “The O’Reilly Report” to 8 P.M. By the beginning of 1999, Fox News was beating MSNBC.
During the 2000 election, Ailes relied on John Ellis, a first cousin of George W. Bush, to head Fox News’s “decision desk.” “Jebbie says we got it!” Ellis said at around 2:10 A.M. on Election Night, after getting off the phone with the governor of Florida. Fox called the election for Bush. Later, before a House subcommittee, Ailes was asked if there had been anything inappropriate in his employing Ellis. “Quite the contrary,” he said. “I see this as a good journalist talking to his very high-level sources on Election Night.”
Fox News’s coverage of 9/11 and the war in Iraq improved its ratings, demonstrated its influence, and intensified the controversy over its practices. Critics charged that Fox News didn’t report the war; it promoted it. When CBS’s Morley Safer questioned Fox News about the flag pins worn by its anchors and reporters, Ailes said, “I’m a little bit squishy on killing babies, but when it comes to flag pins I’m pro-choice.” By January of 2002, Fox was beating CNN.
In the years since, Fox News has steered the conservative movement. “That’s a hard-hitting ad,” Sean Hannity said, airing the attack on John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in 2004. In 2009, Glenn Beck’s show, which débuted the day before Obama’s Inauguration, helped boost the channel’s ratings and fuelled the Tea Party movement.
“You don’t get me,” Ailes told Sherman, when they met at a party. “You don’t get me” is what Fox News viewers across the country have been saying to the Washington press corps since the channel started, and fair enough. Still, in the end, the overturning of American journalism hasn’t served their interests, or anyone’s. Well-reported news is a public good; bad news is bad for everyone.
Sherman sees Ailes as a kingmaker, which isn’t entirely convincing. Ailes is an entertainer. He’s also a bogeyman. Raymond Gram Swing noticed that Hearst was largely a projection of his readers: “If he ever indulges in introspection his tragedy must be in seeing that for all his power, for all his being the biggest publisher in the world, he is not a leader, never has been a leader and never could be a leader.” Hearst died in 1951. Between 1952 and 1988, an era marked by the Fairness Doctrine (and, according to conservatives, a liberal media), Republicans won seven out of ten Presidential elections. Between 1988 and 2012, during the ascendancy of conservative media, Republicans won only three out of seven Presidential elections. When Mitt Romney lost, Ailes blamed the Party. “The G.O.P. couldn’t organize a one-car funeral,” he said. Another explanation is that the conservative media drove the Party into a graveyard.
No one reads Mrs. Older anymore. Hearst endures, instead, in “Citizen Kane,” a 1941 film that bears enough of a resemblance to Lundberg’s book that Lundberg sued. “I had never seen or heard of the book Imperial Hearst by Mr. Lundberg,” Orson Welles insisted in a deposition. A trial ended in a hung jury; the case was settled out of court.
Lundberg’s evidence was good, but Welles made a persuasive argument that Kane wasn’t a character; he was a type— an American sultan. If Xanadu looked like San Simeon, that’s because men like Kane always wall themselves off in “one of those enormous imitation feudal kingdoms.” A man like Kane, Welles said, believes that “politics as the means of communication, and indeed the nation itself, is all there for his personal pleasuring.” The audience he craves he also hates. “Such men as Kane always tend toward the newspaper and entertainment world,” Welles said. “They combine a morbid preoccupation with the public with a devastatingly low opinion of the public mentality and moral character.”
Nothing could be more natural than that a man like that would attempt to dictate his place in history. And nothing could be more unavailing. History is the shadow cast by the dead. So long as there’s light, the shadow will fall. Ω
[Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University as well as the chair of the History and Literature Program. She also is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest books are The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012) and Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (forthcoming in October). Lepore earned her B.A. in English from Tufts University, an M.A. in American Culture from University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University.]
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