Loudest Voice in the Room

First an admission: I have never watched Fox News. We don't have cable, so the only Fox News I have ever experienced has been via John Stewart commentaries or Internet clips posted on FB, etc.

So why read The Loudest Voice in the Room by Gabriel Sherman, which examines the life of the amazing, trailblazing and crude Roger Ailes, the man who built the Fox News machine? My interest is mainly borne of fascination with how this "news" network ever got off the ground.

But my curiosity also relates to friends and family who depend on Fox for much of their news consumption. Of course, they supplement their diet with a side of Rush Limbaugh, too. They continually have a take on current events I can barely fathom.

After reading journalist Sherman's thoroughly documented account (112 pages of footnotes), I have developed a better understanding of why half the population seems to have a completely different read on the "news" than I tend to glean from main stream journalism.

This book is the story of a man who began his career as a TV producer for the Mike Douglas show. He was somebody who early on understood the importance of camera angles, lighting and the general power of television, especially for politicians. (He helped Richard Nixon gain credibility).

Above all, Roger Alies learned to get high ratings by giving viewers what they wanted.  He hired beautiful women anchors to appeal to his white male dominated audience. He made certain the stories he covered hit an emotional appeal. And he made sure the network constantly reinforced its messages by repeating them over and over and reinforcing them again with screaming graphics.

In one telling example told by Sherman regarding a business program Ailes started at Fox, a male Fox colleague asked a new hire about her professional background. She replied that she had experience reading the weather on TV. What are you doing here, he asked? His colleague then shook her breasts in response.

When Ailes studied Nazi propaganda films he soon realized how effective they were, though he never espoused Nazi ideology. Even so, he learned that if you repeated the same message over and over again, it eventually would have its intended impact on the audience. That certainly explains many of the faux story lines Fox News has perpetuated: President Obama doesn't have an American birth certificate. There's a war on Christmas. Various claims regarding the terrorist strike in Benghazi continually are reported. Sherman provides an entire chapter on Ailes' desire and tactics to elect a conservative president and bring down President Obama. 

To counter legitimate charges of bias, Ailes created the tagline, "fair and balanced." Just repeat it over and over and voila! Balance.

But Sherman documents that Ailes himself is not and never has been a journalist. He simply redefined what news is. The Fox executive decided that whatever he chooses to broadcast is "news." The other side, according to Ailes, can be covered by the "liberal media."

Just to be clear, Ailes refused numerous attempts to be interviewed for this book, and actively attempted to sabotage the author's efforts and tarnish his reputation. When you read this account of Ailes' life, it becomes abundantly clear that there are only two sides to an argument: Ailes' and everybody else's. He's a man who's devoted his life to controlling the message, and that certainly wasn't going to change for his own story.

So the author relied on hundreds of first-person interviews with people who worked at Fox, Ailes' brother and published interviews Ailes has done through the years. In addition, Sherman quotes from the book Ailes himself authored. The portrait that emerges is a truly disturbing one, especially in later years when Ailes appears to descend into more frequent rages and bouts of paranoia (He said the Democratic Party was going to assassinate him). 

The same take-no-prisoners tactics he's always leveled at his perceived enemies, Ailes trained on this author, including attacking his journalism and comparing him to Jason Blair, a disgraced plagiarist from the New York Times

"Although he may not have intended it," writes Sherman, "Ailes' confrontational response to the reporting of this book was as revealing as any comment he would have made in the course of an extended interview. "

Roger Ailes is a propagandist, plain and simple, but a large portion of his audience may genuinely believe they are getting actual "news." That is the scariest revelation of all.

The Loudest Voice in the Room is an outstanding, engaging book which illuminates a seminal figure in American politics. Roger Ailes may not be a journalist, but he certainly made his mark on the news business. By the stunning weight of the evidence Gabriel Sherman has amassed, it most certainly has been a black mark for journalism, political discourse and democracy itself.

Read it and weep.

Posted on May 3, 2014 .