Roger's Balancing Act
Fox's Ailes shakes up the news status quo
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/26/2003 7:00:00 PM
No one in the TV news business is more controversial than Roger Ailes. Every time he chants his "fair and balanced" mantra, the Fox News chairman sends news executives at both broadcast and cable network executives squirming or screaming. Squirming because the slogan essentially accuses rivals of slanting their coverage; screaming because many of them believe that Fox News and Ailes are slanted as far to the right as, say, Al Franken is to the left.
But Fox News works. The seven-year-old network has displaced CNN as the No. 1 cable news network. On an average, non-crisis night, Fox News attracts more viewers than CNN ever did. Initially driven by the combative style of The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News this year started beating CNN in every daypart, be it talk or straight news. And in recent months, Fox News has even started beating CNN's rating for major, breaking news.
Fox News hasn't managed to establish a platform for policymakers like the influential Meet the Press. It doesn't have the textured approach of the major broadcast-network newscasts. And it hasn't invested in long-form and investigative pieces on the order of PBS's Frontline. But it speaks in a news voice that resonates with millions of viewers who feel their views are slighted by other media.
That's why Ailes was selected BROADCASTING & CABLE's first-ever Television Journalist of the Year. Under him, Fox News is kicking tail.
"Nobody ever came on the [cable] scene in a genre and took the frontrunner and overtook the first position," Ailes boasts. "Fox was the first one to do that."
His roots in TV go back to the early 1960s, when he was a producer on The Mike Douglas Show. But he's far better-known for his 25 years as communications consultant for Republican political candidates.
He returned to TV in 1993, taking charge of CNBC and making financial-news networks more like ESPN, filled with stats and covering market players like star quarterbacks.
Ailes says his "broad life experience" makes him a better journalist than guys who spent college "listening to some pathetic professor who has been on the public dole all his life and really doesn't like this country much."
Ailes sat down with B&C's John M. Higgins and Allison Romano to discuss TV's coverage of Iraq, questions of Fox News' own biases, CNN, and his feisty reputation. An edited transcript follows.
Much of the drumbeat leading up to the Iraq war—that the U.S. faced imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction—hasn't panned out. Did the networks and the rest of the media let down their audience by not fully informing them?
It's easy, in hindsight, to say this was oversold or that the media over-covered it. It seems to me that, if 15 countries in the United Nations declare that the weapons of mass destruction exist and are some sort of imminent threat, not to cover that would have been irresponsible. It was, I believe, national policy, under Clinton, to remove Saddam Hussein and go to war, if necessary.
But the bottom line is the media are supposed to be informing their audience.
Well, they had to go with 15 countries' intelligence sources telling them that they exist. And the media, at some point, has to listen to somebody. They can't sit in a room and say 15 countries have determined that these exist; let's go out and announce that they don't exist.
What's your evidence for they don't exist? It seems to me that, if any media organization had had any evidence that they didn't exist, they would have reported it. They went along, certainly, with the sources they had. But that's what journalists do. They listen to their sources.
In hindsight, should the media have done something different?
If they had additional sources beyond what they reported and didn't report it, then the media made a mistake. But I have no knowledge of that. Knowing Andrew Heyward, or Neil Shapiro, or Walter Isaacson, if they had some other information, they're good enough journalists that they would have reported it. Every journalist I know is even being a little careful about going out and saying they don't exist. Because, tomorrow, they could find some.
True. So how are the media doing on Iraq now?
They're going back, trying to dig their way out and rewrite history and pretend all the other stuff never happened. They're taking a critical look at it, examining sources. But they did that all along.
I was surprised, the night of the Baghdad attack when [CBS News President] Andrew Heyward told me, "Well, of course, I want America to win the war. I can't say I don't take a position."
I wouldn't go that far. I would say, of course, I can be objective about the war and the coverage of the war. But, as a United States citizen, do I want the Taliban to win and subjugate all the women and execute people in stadiums? No, I'm sort of opposed to that. The concept that the journalists are totally objective is crazy. They have friends. They have an education. They've gone to some school where some professor spun their brain out. They've got a view of life. They've got history. They've got parents. They've got people they like and socialize with. They have a view based on their experience. And they bring all that to journalism. Their job is to try to sort through that and get to as much truth as they can get to, which is what we do, every day.
Polls say that a big chunk of the public believes Hussein was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, which even the government says isn't true. Does that bother you?
I can't cure all the ills of the world. A lot of things bother me.
What you're saying is that, if they don't agree with what you perceive to be the truth, there's something wrong with that. We should always try to find the truth and tell the truth, and I believe we have done that. We have never gone out with a story that said there is some absolute connection between Iraq and the 9/11 incident.
Is the public not smart?
They may not be as informed. They're very smart, and they catch on quickly, and they can process different sources. Something as powerful as The New York Times—which other journalists think is the Bible—can generate public opinion in one direction, whether it's valid or not. That's why it was such a blow to them, when they found out some guy was making it up.
I never said there was only Jayson Blair over there. I often said there were other people making it up that haven't been caught yet. But what you're suggesting is that all information put out by news sources be pure and never disagree with each other. That would be great, if there were an absolute truth and everybody knew it and everybody told it. But I'm not convinced that it's that simple.
A recent study by The Program on International Policy Attitudes surveyed consumers on their misconceptions about Iraq. The ones with the fewest misconceptions were NPR listeners, PBS viewers and print-media readers. The ones with the greatest number of misconceptions were Fox News watchers.
All of it depends on how you ask those questions, I'm absolutely convinced. I know the misconceptions at NPR. I know the agenda. There are no conservatives on NPR. None. You can't get one. There are liberals and conservatives out there, and, you know what, neither of them are right all the time. And so for you to think that the misconceptions come from Fox News Channel, and the American people think that the misconceptions come from some of these other places, you could take that position. But I don't trust any surveys completely.
We don't eliminate the liberal point of view over here at all. That's why Susan Estridge, Geraldine Ferraro, Eleanor Clift, Ellen Ratner and all those people get paychecks from the Fox News Channel. And not one of them has ever been told what to say, or what their opinion should be, or how they should attack somebody, or say or do anything. We don't eliminate anybody's point of view over here.
Do you think like a conventional journalist?
I hope not. At times, there's a little bit too much group-think in journalism. And I am constantly trying to find out what the facts are, and present the facts. To my knowledge, we have never covered up facts. We have never had to retract a story. We have never had to go on and say, listen, we did something totally dishonest.
Geraldo Rivera claiming to stand on "hallowed ground" following a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan comes to mind.
We asked him to apologize for a rookie mistake. He got off the helicopter, had one source; it was a Northern Alliance source. He said this was a friendly-fire incident or something. He went to air with it, immediately. He should have checked it with another source. We apologize for jumping the gun. We thought it was a rookie mistake. Sorry.
But we haven't had a Tailwind, where you have 200 journalists for two years do a report and have to retract it and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. That's a little different kind of a situation. Have we had a reporter make a mistake here or there? Yeah. And we've immediately gone to air with it.
You didn't grow up as a journalist.
Of course, I've been a journalist. I was in the Oval Office the night Neal Armstrong landed on the moon, and I'm the guy who coordinated the journalistic coverage for all the networks for the White House. But I was the guy who decided to set up the split screen between the Earth and moon, because we had two video feeds.
That was when you were still working for the Nixon White House.
I did the Mike Douglas show, and I did the first weeks of politicians' wives. I did coverage at Hubert Humphrey's home in Waverly, Minn. Had his wife on as a co-host. I'm the guy who booked Sherri Finkbine [who sought an abortion in 1962 after taking Thalidomide while pregnant] and did that story in the '60s. I did four specials with Malcolm X in the '60s. I was in the balcony of the church when the riots broke out in Cleveland when Louie Lomax was debating Malcolm X on the ballot or the bullet. It depends on what you call journalism. Was I part of it? Did I report some world history? Did I have to fight my way out of that church? Yeah, I did.
I've had a broad life experience that doesn't translate into going to the Columbia journalism school. That makes me a lot better journalist than some guys who had to listen to some pathetic professor who has been on the public dole all his life and really doesn't like this country much and hates the government and hates everybody and is angry because he's not making enough money.
Yeah, I've been out there. I've had three or four or five different jobs. I've been in situations. I've covered poverty. I've covered urban renewal in Canada. I covered Frank Lloyd Wright, did shows with his wife. I booked Martin Luther King, and sat in rooms like this with Martin Luther King and talked to him.
So I just never got to Columbia. But I actually have experience that a lot of journalists don't about real-life situations and figures. So I would call that a very solid journalism background, to make judgments every day about what is honest, what is fair, what informs the public, and so on. You don't have to have a degree to be a journalist.
Well, I don't know anybody who says that.
So I have respect for Walter Cronkite. I have respect for Dan Rather and Brokaw and Jennings. ... I've known Tom for 20 to 25 years, and he's very good. You can drop him anywhere on any story, he'll put it together, very professionally, and bring it to you.
Peter has a tremendous amount of world experience. He's traveled the globe, and he has a tremendous amount of reporting experience. Rather was one of the great street reporters of all time, from the Kennedy assassination on. I have differences with them sometimes in how they present it or what their own views are. But you can't argue with their ability as journalists or their background, or what have you. But I don't know what their degrees are. What matters to me is their body of work.
So are you in the news business, or are you in the programming and packaging business? And are those mutually exclusive?
Most people get their news from television. Look, there's a certain element of the melding with show business or entertainment—line blurring, as Don Hewitt says. Entertainment and news should always be separate, but you should walk right up to the line and get your toe on it. But just not get over it. Too much of what's going on today gets over it. So I don't have any problem with this that a lot of print people do.
What I'm asking you to do is get here, tell a story, and reach out to a point of view you don't agree with, and be sure that it's fair in that particular piece. If somebody asks you to do a story on abortion, it's very hard, because there are no pro-life women working in newsrooms anywhere in New York. So if a woman gets on that story, you're going to have trouble getting that story.
No pro-life women at all?
None. Well, there probably are, but they're undercover. They will never acknowledge it. I've been told by many women they'll never acknowledge that position in a job interview; they'd never get hired in a news organization.
So that particular story is a very difficult story to do for journalists because there are sincere people, from both sides, who have views on that. It's very hard to get that story done with the fairness that recognizes what many people believe to be a life and other people believe to be a woman's right to choose. That's a particularly tough story to do.
What do you think Fox News' contributions and innovations have been?
We've proved that we get larger audiences to cable news than anybody in American history, for one thing. We cover a broader spectrum than most people. We say it's fair and balanced. The American people don't actually believe we present more points of view. Everybody knows that Ralph Nader got more airtime here than any place else when he ran for president.
And we present broad views. We don't eliminate it. Bias has to do with the elimination of points of view, not presenting a point of view. So we don't. That's somewhat stunning to some of the people in the business. We treat all points of view with respect. I saw the guy from the Green Party on last night. He had 15 minutes to sell the Green Party.
We've changed fewer shows than any network in history. This is our seventh anniversary. And no brand in cable has ever come in and taken down a frontrunner from behind. MTV created a great brand. History created a great brand. CNN created a great brand. Nobody ever came on the scene in a genre and overtook the first position. Fox was the first one to do that.
We also have a very high morale and a very low turnover here. That is very helpful in running a news organization. When I left NBC, 82 people left the NBC system—either CNBC, NBC or America's Talking. Eighty-two people in something like four months left to come here, and there was no network here.
So if Fox News is fair and balanced, then why do so many other people not believe it?
Because they're getting their ass beaten.
It's not just CNN. It's not just competition.
Look, we're doing something that is forcing them—including the New York Times and the LA Times—to examine how their journalism's being presented.
When the editor of the LA Times sends a memo to his desk [about an abortion story], which basically says, 'I know we're all liberals, but shouldn't we be a little more fair and balanced about this issue', that memo gets leaked. Well, in 50 years of journalism, they never thought to be fair and balanced before we get on the scene.
Now, suddenly, they're putting it in their internal memos? You never heard the words "fair and balanced" in 50 years of television journalism? Because they thought they were fair and balanced but the American people didn't. And now, somehow, we're being criticized for bringing it up? Sorry. We're making a major contribution.
Well, no. People don't criticize you because they think you are actually fair and balanced. It's because they think that you're not.
We're saying "fair and balanced" when, in fact, [other journalists] still believe they're right. They still think that not presenting two points of view is a good idea. If they could point to one story, one news story, where we've eliminated a second point of view, I would listen to them. They can't.
So you think the New York Times and the LA Times are comfortable being liberal?
Well, they've become advocacy journalism. You either do it, or you don't. And they do it. [Former New York Times Editor Howell] Raines clearly was driving an agenda. I called Howell. I forget the story. It was their Afghanistan coverage. There was some stuff ... that wasn't true. We had guys on the ground, and so I called him up and said, "Howell, You're going to get an award for fiction here." He said, "I'm hanging up." I said, "You don't seem to have a sense of humor, Howell." He said, "I don't have one about journalism." So then, later, when Jayson Blair happened, I sent a note and just said, "Maybe it's time to develop a sense of humor about journalism."
If you think they're comfortable being advocates, why do you get your back up if somebody says you run a right-wing, Republican network?
I don't at all. I don't at all. As a matter of fact, I've been quoted as saying, "Please keep doing that; it's driving viewers to us every day." The more they call us that, the more viewers watch us, because the American people think the rest of the media is too liberal.
If we were doing something fraudulent, the American people would turn us off. They'd just turn us off. They're not stupid. Most injuries in journalism are caused by journalists falling off their egos onto their IQs. The concept that journalism knows and the public knows nothing and they're idiots is wrong.
Now, those people who believe that they were appointed to journalism to help these stupid masses get through life have a right to do that. And the public gets a right to decide whether they buy that paper or watch that show.
What is Fox News not doing enough of?
We keep looking at trying to figure out how to do more long-form, which is very expensive. We're working on a special on education; we're working on a special on the environment. I believe there are issues that are longer, broader that television doesn't do very well, because we tend to live for the moment or everybody chases the Laci Peterson case or they move to the next event.
Journalism has a bias for pictures and mistakes and attacks—print and television. If people give you a picture, give you a mistake, or give you an attack, I guarantee you, there will be a lot of real news, during that 24 or 48 hours, that won't get covered. I'm interested in the environment, and nobody covers it well. I frankly think neither party does a very good job at it. The Democrats demagogue it; the Republicans ignore it.
So we don't do a good job of covering that. But it's the budget. I'm living with 25% to 30% of the people CNN has. It's a resource issue. It's a time issue. It's a public-focus issue. It's how to make that interesting. We have an obligation to the form. We tend to follow things, rather than lead. And part of that is just the nature of the business.
So Fox News is guilty of the pictures, attacks, mistakes bias?
It may be a little less so, because I preach about it. I get mad when I see us going off on that. But, yeah, if a guy jumps in a white van and runs down the San Diego freeway right now, it will be who can get the helicopter over that the fastest.
I'm very aware of it, and I immediately look for alternatives. ... I'm going to cover it because I'm not crazy enough to hand my audience away. But I'd make us 2% less guilty than the others because I'm actually aware of it and preach it.
How about television's one-note coverage of things like Laci Peterson?
What happens is that we've become a business of what blows the previous story off the headlines. And then there are stories, when there are voids, that everybody comes back to. In the case of Laci Peterson, it's a classic tabloid murder case: attractive wife, attractive husband, a little baby, unbelievable horror story. And most men think the guy should probably get the chair just for the alibi. He went fishing on Christmas Eve? That's as dumb an alibi as I've ever heard in my entire life. But it's not news. It's not news. There's news whenever there's news: An autopsy report comes out, or the guy makes a break for the Mexican border. That's 45 seconds a day or 45 seconds a week. But part of, frankly, cable television is filling time because you are doing 160 hours a week and you don't have the resources.
You could fill it all with fresh news, but you don't have 150 crews in action with satellite dishes.
Peter Chernin said you were thinking of starting up a couple of new cable channels, including a business-news network. What are your plans?
We've talked about it. I'm not in development for new channels at the moment. This may be at a higher pay grade than I am. There should be competition in the business arena. Fifty percent of what CNBC does is infomercials. I ran CNBC for 21/2 years and turned it around. I made it profitable. It was also a lot better to watch. There have been no innovations since then. They said their ratings are down because the markets are down. Now the markets are going back up, and their ratings aren't. It seems to me maybe it's in how they cover stories, what they cover, produce; who the talent is. It's the same old story: Are you creating an interesting network or not? Or do you just run the infomercials, overnight and all weekend.
But entertainment networks run infomercials.
There are a lot of things on entertainment channels I disagree with. Picking up dead rats with your teeth and putting them in buckets. I don't find that particularly entertaining. Driving over a cliff with a car full of cockroaches. That's not my idea of entertainment. Some people think that's fun. I don't. It's stupid and demeaning. I don't personally like it. Would I censor it? No, you've got a right to do it.
What do you like to watch on television?
I watch documentaries, the History Channel, MTV because their techniques are interesting even though I find some of the content weird. I pay a lot of attention to the graphics and the sound and how they work. I watch Fox's 24 —that's a good thriller-type show—Leno, Letterman, the Today show. But I don't watch sitcoms. I don't find them particularly funny. I find them often in bad taste and weird.
The Daily Show is actually pretty good. Jon Stewart is a talented guy, and he's funny. He kids us all the time, so I see tapes, and I think, "That's pretty funny, actually." He's always doing a take-off on Geraldo or a take-off on Fox News or Fox.
What do you look for in your anchors and correspondents?
Likeability. Whether I enjoy sitting down and talking to them, having fun, having a beer and just talking about world events. There's also certain cosmetic factor to it. I tell John Gibson he's just so good-looking I couldn't turn him down. There also a certain feel that I get. They walk in, and, if they're negative, they make you nuts. Negative people make positive people sick. They'll make you physically ill. I tell my people, if you ask somebody how they're doing, and they actually tell you, "Oh, I ran over my dog. My car won't work. I don't feel good. I've got a sore throat," get the hell away from them. They'll destroy your career and ruin your life. You must try to get around people who are fairly positive and stay there. I probably look for that in my on-air talent, People who other people are going to like being around.
What else are you looking for?
I have 37 things on a list. One is who is their agent? Do I hate their agent? If I hate their agent, they have much less of a chance of getting a job here. And what's their experience level? Can they write? Do they know how to tell a story? Can they communicate in conversational ways?
The broadcast method of news is passé. There are people who are aspiring to be network news anchors, and they don't talk straight to you. This network talks directly to the people and puts it in language they understand. And that's what we try to convey, that cable does that better than broadcast.
Why did you approach the Al Franken situation as caustically as you did?
It was August. O'Reilly was in a fight. But the primary thing was that law requires us to register our marketing trademarks. Al's okay. It's just he's got an agenda. He and Bill don't get along. I defended my star. It's over, end of story.
Why do you like fights?
I don't. I hate them.
But you just bought a billboard in Atlanta right across the street from CNN that says, "Connie Come Back."
Is that funny or a fight? That's funny, not a fight. I took Walter Isaacson to lunch after he left CNN, and he said, "How come you never attacked me, Ailes?" I never attacked anybody in my life that didn't attack me first. [Former TBS Chairman and WB chief] Jamie Kellner came to town, firing away, "We're going to kick Ailes' ass." Okay. We'll send you back to California, buster. You want to fight.
If people pick a fight with me, there could be a fight. But you will not find me picking it. Over the years, there have been a lot of people that decided they were going to take me out, and we ended up in a fight. But I didn't start it. And I never threw the first punch.
[The billboard will affect CNN's] morale a little bit. How our guys feel and how their guys feel are key. Morale is key in these operations. I do understand the psychology of running an organization.
They're doing every tabloid story in the world, and they dump on Connie and fire her for doing tabloid. Give me a break. Larry King's highest ratings come because, every three weeks, he does things like Lana Turner's daughter stabbing Johnny Stompanato. That's a tabloid story from 1958. And you're worried about Laci Petersen? Paula's doing Laci Petersen out the wazoo.
I'm not arguing whether they should or they shouldn't. We're covering them, too. But I'm not sitting around saying we don't do tabloid. Of course we do. And so do they. And they owe Connie an apology. Connie's a nice woman, and she didn't do anything they're not doing now. That they are only getting half the ratings was the problem.
Don't tell me they are doing pure journalism. Oh, they're doing tabloid stories as fast as they can do them. And they humiliated Connie for doing what they hired her to do and paid her to do. It's outrageous. Don't tell me that they're doing pure journalism. They're lying through their teeth. Oh, they're doing tabloid stories as fast as they can do them.
If you're running NBC News, what do you do to fix MSNBC?
Well, they try to copy. It's like me trying to paint a Remington. It's a copy. In the end, if you can't do anything original, you're not going to win. So, every day they try to copy me, I'm thrilled.
Believe in your network. Believe in your people. Hire good people. Do good stories. Tell the stories. Be fair about it. And the American people will watch you. They can't do that because their mindset is that they're right and there are no two sides to the story. There's only their side: the journalists. They could get lucky. They are getting better all the time, and they do some things that are really good.
The American flag is still onscreen. That a permanent fixture on your air now? Does the flag really have a place on a news network?
I was at an event at the Museum of Television and Radio, and I was the only journalist in the room who happened to have an American-flag pin on. A bunch of other guys started kidding me and said, "Oh, he's from Fox; he makes everybody wear the flag." I said, "No, I'm just not like ABC; I don't insist they not wear it. You all disagree with my wearing it, and nobody here is defending my right to wear it." Morley Safer said, "Anybody who wears it on the air is pandering to the audience. Would you let a guy wear a peace symbol?" I said, "Yeah, it's not my business."
There are things I'm a little iffy on: taking babies' lives. But I'm really pro-choice on flag pins. I'm pro-choice on Haagen-Dazs ice cream. I'm pro-choice on steaks. I said, "I'm pro-choice on a lot of stuff." I said, "I thought maybe you guys could understand this better if I just gave it to you as pro-choice. I want to wear a damn flag pin, here or on the air, tough luck. And if you don't, it's none of my business." It got real quiet after that.
But the flag graphic is there all the time. Viewers don't get a choice on that.
They've got a choice. They've got a hundred channels to watch. It's a big choice. If it offends you, turn it off. I'm offended by people picking up dead rats. You know what I do? I turn it off.
So why is The New York Times an advocacy organization and Fox News' literal flag-waving is not?
And there's something wrong with flag waving? What is it? Is it immoral? Is it wrong? It's a graphic. It happened to be a graphic that most people love and are not offended by. You would feel that it was perfectly fine if somebody would wear a T-shirt with a flag on it to a rock concert, wouldn't you? It would just be the flag. It would be on a shirt. I'm not offended by a flag any time. The government is not the flag. .
But do you think the public understands the difference between patriotism and citizenship?
The American people are very, very smart. The journalists are narrow-minded, think they're avant-garde, think they're on some holy quest that they're not. The American people know that. If they're offended by the flag, they're watching somebody else. It's okay. We're not going around to homes, putting guns on people, making them watch Fox News. That's where CNN will end up, if they don't start getting better ratings.
You've reached parity with CNN on distribution and ad rates. You're not the start-up network. Are you going to be spending more on the operation?
Well, you always try to be as productive as you can with the dollars you have. We don't waste a lot of money. We don't put more crews out than we need. We try not to spend money we don't have. We just pulled back on a story in the Philippines that, when you looked at it, just wasn't cost-effective. The story wasn't that critical. It may become critical, and I may end up having to spend a lot of money to cover it, but it's not there yet. So I made a budget decision, because, if you don't stay in business, journalists don't get to work.
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