If anybody wonders why Fox News Channel so dominates the cable news wars, that question was handily put to rest by Roger Ailes last week. Appearing prosperous, playful and pugnacious, the Fox News chairman was interviewed on Thursday by New Yorker scribe Ken Auletta at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School in New York breakfast series. Despite his best attempts, the able Auletta barely laid a glove on him. Plus, this Ailes guy knows how to entertain.
Auletta proffered a study sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts that found a pervasive right-wing bias on the part of FNC. Ailes countered that Pew started out with a bias—a liberal one—of its own. “Most polls today are not done to provide information for the public,” he said. “They’re done to get press for the organization taking the poll. I took a poll on Pew, and 98% of my organization thought they were biased.”
It was classic Ailes, “I know you are, but what am I,” jab-and-parry style. Part comic, part seasoned campaigner, he was only getting warmed up. Throughout the Q&A, the Eastern Establishment crowd of media and finance movers and shakers laughed almost as heartily as they had at November’s gathering, when comedian Jon Stewart tossed barbs at the Bush White House, Fox News and other perceived conservative allies.
Ailes was in a similar take-no-prisoners mode. He launched quip-laden punch after punch at his competitors.
On CNN’s new president, Jon Klein: “He thinks there aren’t enough liberals and progressives in the newsroom,” Ailes said. “God, I hope he believes that.” It doesn’t matter that Ailes’ line was a misrepresentation of at least what I’ve heard Klein talk about. It was funny.
On MSNBC: “After a year and a half of the changes at MSNBC, they just got beat by Headline News in prime time. So I assume they have some problems.” Then he joked about MSNBC’s lame attempts to emulate FNC’s roster of female talent: “MSNBC has hired every blonde who doesn’t work for us.”
The practiced roundhouse punches kept coming, including requisite swipes at CBS News for the Dan Rather/60 Minutes Bush National Guard document scandal, followed by a playful jab at NBC. “The Today show is now advertised as 'America’s Family,’ and Brian Williams is telling 'America’s story’ and he goes to NASCAR,” said Ailes. “I think we may have had some impact on the marketing, but I don’t know if we had an impact on the actual product.”
Almost obscured in the flurry of competitive shtick was some insight into Ailes’ plans for the future. Asked about cooperation within the far-flung divisions of his boss Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire, he gave his view on synergy: “In this business, the definition of synergy is, the West Coast won’t screw you until noon because they don’t get in until noon.” But then he quickly mentioned that Jack Abernathy, a key lieutenant of his at FNC, was toiling at Fox-owned TV stations and injecting a healthy dose of what has worked for Ailes’ cable news machine. This added fuel to recent speculation about Ailes’ wanting to expand his empire within News Corp. to include the station group’s news operations.
Ailes also touched on prospects for an FNC business-news channel to challenge CNBC, a network he once ran. He tweaked Murdoch for making periodic announcements about an imminent launch and didn’t seem entirely convinced that the market wants another all-business news network. Still, he did suggest that, when FNC carriage agreements with cable systems come due next year, he and his cohorts might try to bundle a spinoff business channel into any new agreements.
But Ailes wasn’t on hand to make a lot of news. He was there to chide, charm and entertain the crowd. Sound like any news network you know?