Roger and Me

By
Roger Ailes. Photo: Catrina Genovese/Getty Images

For the past six years, ever since I began researching a biography of Roger Ailes, there probably hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought or talked about him. I considered Ailes to be the most consequential media and political figure of his generation — a modern-day Citizen Kane. Fox News was practically a fourth branch of government. Ailes helped elect presidents and launch wars, and he remade our politics in his paranoid image, laying the groundwork for Donald Trump’s presidential run. Ailes’s vast footprint on our culture obsessed me. I wanted to understand what drove him to amass so much power.

For all the time I spent thinking of Ailes, I spent very little time with him. Ailes declined my many requests for an interview, and my brief encounters with him were unpleasant. In April 2012, I ran into him during a party at The Four Seasons, shortly after I had returned from a reporting trip to his childhood hometown of Warren, Ohio. “What’s it with you going to Warren?” Ailes snapped. “I left there in 1958. Anything that anyone says there about me is wrong. They don’t know me.” Months later, I was at a reception at the Kennedy Center, where Ailes was receiving an award. When I approached him, his bodyguard shoved me out of the way.

The adversarial encounters revealed a larger truth about my subject: Ailes was a man who was terrified of being known. And they had the effect of motivating me to want to know him more. Over the course of writing my book, I interviewed more than 600 people who had known Ailes from different contexts and at varying stages of his life, from his brother to college friends to politicians to Fox News colleagues. I read letters he wrote that were tucked away in archives across the country, obtained confidential corporate documents, and consulted countless articles and books. My wife told me I was clearly going for a Ph.D. in Roger Ailes.

Denied access, I felt as if I were writing a biography of a dead man — one who was fighting me from the grave. He implored friends and Fox News employees not to speak with me, hired private investigators to track my movements, and set up a “Black Room” surveillance operation inside Fox News to dig up dirt on me. His political operatives prepared a 400-page dossier to serve as a source text for anonymous writers to smear my reputation online, often in anti-Semitic ways. Roger Stone was tasked with keeping tabs on my reporting, and Steve Bannon published hit pieces on Breitbart about me. After one Breitbart article headlined “EXCLUSIVE — Soros-Backed Attack Dog Expands War on Fox,” I received a death threat serious enough that I filed a report with the NYPD. So terrified was Ailes of the prospect of an unauthorized biography that he commissioned an alternative one by Rush Limbaugh’s biographer, Zev Chafets.

Ailes and I developed a strange and intense connection. Indeed, my sources at Fox said he thought about me as much as I thought about him. Meetings were derailed by rants about “Sherman” and “that fucking book.” On weekends, he phoned friends to vent about me. Ailes fired executives he thought were my sources. He told colleagues that I was being paid personally by George Soros to bring him down. It was an absurd conspiracy theory. While on book leave, I was a fellow at the nonpartisan foundation New America, which received a minuscule amount of funding from a Soros charity.

Last summer, the world learned why Ailes was so terrified about having his life made public. The allegations of sexual predation did not surprise me. In my book, I reported incidents early in Ailes’s career in which he had asked female employees to trade sex for professional advancement — all of which he denied, of course. Sources told me the behavior continued at Fox, but no one was willing to go on the record to speak about it. I hoped the publication of my book in January 2014 might spur women to come forward. In the end, it took Gretchen Carlson filing a lawsuit two and a half years later to open the floodgates.

As I spoke about Ailes yesterday in television and radio interviews, I thought of Ailes’s victims, who were denied the closure of seeing their sexual-harassment lawsuits against him go to trial. I thought of Ailes’s teenage son, Zachary, who lost his father and will grow up with that sordid legacy. I thought of the immense damage Ailes did to our political system.

I also felt overwhelmed as I thought about the enormity of what I had taken on. Writing about Ailes had taken a personal and professional toll on me. It was difficult to talk to many people about the downright crazy things I found out about him — and the downright crazy things Ailes was doing to me. When I did, few believed me. At the time I wrote my book, Ailes was embraced by the Establishment. Yes, he was polarizing and controversial, but liberals courted him. (Rachel Maddow, for instance, asked Ailes to blurb her book.) As I did interviews to promote The Loudest Voice in the Room in the winter and spring of 2014, many questioned my portrayal of Ailes as a paranoid and ruthless cult leader. Charlie Rose questioned why I wrote about Ailes’s family, and Norah O’Donnell asked me if I was just a “liberal journalist.”

Even the New York Times participated unwittingly in Ailes’s smear campaign against me: Fox executive Peter Boyer discussed my book with his friend Janet Maslin before she reviewed it, sources told me. In her review, Maslin dismissed the accounts of women I’d convinced to go on the record about Ailes’s sexual harassment. The night her review of my book went online, Ailes’s lawyer, Peter Johnson Jr., wrote an email to Fox colleagues that read, “Wonderful. We knew a person familiar with the theme would hit eventually,” according to a person who read me the email. (Maslin has denied being improperly influenced by Boyer.)

Recently, people have asked me if I feel vindicated that what I wrote about Ailes years ago is now accepted as truth. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. At the same time, I feel a deep sense of loss. The subject that had been a singular focus of my writing life is now gone.

Roger and Me