Roger Ailes is the proprietor of the most polarizing media organization in the country — but lately that title has belonged more to his family’s Putnam County News & Recorder than it has to Fox News. Since 2008, when the Fox News chief and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased the sleepy local newspaper near the town where they own a sprawling weekend estate and transformed it into an aggressive, agenda-driven organ, it has been embroiled in civic controversy and journalistic competition. A couple of years ago, an anonymous blogger even set up a parody website skewering Ailes’s paper, a move which has particularly inspired his ire. At a community meeting a few weeks ago, Ailes accused a local resident of being the blog’s author. “You would be better off spending your time masturbating than writing it!” Ailes said, according to a person who heard the conversation. Beth Ailes approached the man and complained he was making fun of their dog, Champ.
Last month, what had been mostly a newspaper war became a legal one. Roger Ailes’s country newspaper has threatened to sue five citizens of Cold Spring for libel, defamation, and “tortious interference.” Fighting back, the residents, known in town as “The Cold Spring Five,” have sought legal counsel, even bringing in the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
It all started when the folk singer Dar Williams and her husband, Michael Robinson, mailed a letter to a handful of young residents encouraging them to vote for Democratic candidates who were running in the village trustee elections scheduled for March 18. Ailes and Williams had history. Several years ago, she was at the center of a group of aggrieved liberals who were mobilizing to launch a news website to compete with Ailes’s paper. Williams had a run-in with Ailes after she was quoted in a New Yorker article by Peter Boyer about Ailes’s upstate newspaper war. “Roger and Beth were both angry,” Williams told me. Because of the PCNR, “wherever there are divisions in our town, they’re much more starkly drawn.”
The central issue in this year’s Cold Spring trustee elections was development, and Williams’s letter called out the PCNR for portraying Democratic trustee Matt Francisco as hostile to a proposed real-estate project in town. “I don’t know if you are too young to remember what Fox News did ten years ago to the war hero, John Kerry,” Williams and Robinson wrote. “[T]hey managed to turn him into a coward (the ‘Swiftboat attack ads’) even as their stories were completely debunked. They’re using the exact same tactics here in our tiny village.” She and her husband concluded their letter with a post-script. “We are happy to give you any more information on any of the current issues … as well as dishing more significant dirt on their opponents, but we’ve tried to keep it brief for the time being. Just ask.”
On March 12, a week before voters went to the polls, the PCNR published a front-page story headlined “Nasty Campaign Letter Surfaces.” In the article, Francisco and another Democratic candidate, Donald MacDonald, denied any involvement with the mailing, but the PCNR noted that Francisco had been seen outside the folksinger’s house. “They’re able to know my whereabouts when it’s useful for their story,” Francisco told me. “It’s the typical Fox News tactic — guilt by association. If you’re seen at their house, then of course you’ve read every letter in their home!”
Outraged, Francisco took to Facebook later that day and alleged that he was being trailed. “The Ailes newspaper and their candidates have gone too far. It is clear I’m being followed; My movements are being tracked and reported in their newspaper,” he wrote. Francisco’s Facebook post was also put up on the Facebook pages belonging to MacDonald and sitting trustee Stephanie Hawkins.
That’s where things got weird. The next day, Peter Johnson, Ailes’s lawyer and a regular Fox & Friends guest-host, sent threatening legal letters to Dar Williams and her husband. The three Democratic politicians received legal letters as well. Francisco and MacDonald took the post down. Stephanie Hawkins did not.
Francisco and MacDonald’s capitulation in the face of Ailes’s legal threat did not advance their electoral fortunes. On Election Day, March 18, they lost.
Francisco was particularly unnerved by the experience. He called the printing of Williams’s letter on the eve of the election, when the newspaper was supposed to observe a news blackout, an "October surprise." Other strange things happened to him in town after he posted his Facebook comment. On the afternoon of Election Day, a mysterious television camera crew in a white unmarked van was seen filming outside his home. Francisco said he did not know if they were sent by Ailes, but he found the incident chilling.
“I don’t know what footage of my house would do. It’s probably to intimidate me,” Francisco said. “It’s like, ‘if you think I can’t follow you, I can film you.’ There’s the chilling effect of I know where you live. I find it all disgusting.” (Irena Briganti, Fox News’s spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Stephanie Hawkins refused to heed Ailes’s demands that she remove Francisco’s Facebook post from her page. On March 14, Johnson sent Hawkins a threatening letter. He insisted that Hawkins’s “retraction and correction be accompanied by a repudiation of the libelous statements and an apology for the outrageous and patently false statements made against our clients.” If she failed to act, they would sue. “You have intentionally, wrongfully and maliciously defamed and disparaged our clients,” he wrote, and “you will be held to account for all damages which flow therefrom … If our clients are forced to file suit to stop your wrongful conduct, they will also seek an award of attorney fees and litigation expenses.” He stressed that the Aileses “have not, and have no interest in, ‘spying’ on their neighbors,” adding: “Mr. and Mrs. Ailes have not, and have no interest in, ‘manufacturing phony scandals’ in their home town or any other small community in the great United States of America.”
Like Dar Williams, Hawkins had history with the Aileses. She had moved to Cold Spring in 2006 and had gotten involved in community politics a few years later. Last summer, Beth Ailes confronted Hawkins at a public event after Hawkins had questioned whether the Aileses’ sponsorship of the July 4 fireworks gave them outside influence with Cold Spring politicians. “Beth was in a lather about that,” Hawkins told me. “She demanded to know what I meant by my comment that the money the PCNR was giving to the village was ‘costing too much.’”
Johnson sent Hawkins two additional letters on March 18 and 26. He accused her of colluding “with others to impinge upon the First Amendment rights of our clients.” (Johnson did not respond to messages seeking comment.)
Hawkins decided she needed help. “I’m not an attorney, but I recognized that there’s a certain standard for a defamation or libel claim and this didn’t meet it. This was a category of protected speech,” she told me. Late last month, she enlisted a legal team that included litigator Steven Hyman, the former president of the Board of Directors of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “I’ve never heard of a newspaper suing for libel before,” Hyman told me. On March 28, Hyman and Siegel sent Johnson a response saying Hawkins had "every right to comment on public interest." They added: "Sending repeated letters to Ms. Hawkins at various addresses containing the same threats and meritless claims is clearly calculated to try and intimidate and harass Ms. Hawkins and must cease."
As of April 9, Ailes had yet to back off his threats to sue Hawkins. But a couple of days after the March 18 elections, Dar Williams received a letter from Ailes saying he was letting the matter slide. “Roger wrote this letter. He forgave us as a Christian for the pain we’ve caused his family,” Williams told me. “He said we had lost the election for our candidates with our letter, and that was punishment enough.”