Roger Ailes has spent much of his life in New York City—but he’s never considered himself a New Yorker. For most of his career, home was a place in the mind—a fantasized version of Warren, Ohio, the town where he spent his boyhood in the forties and fifties.
But a few years ago, Ailes decided to create a home of his own, a real one. “All I ever wanted was a nice place to live, a great family, and to die peacefully in my sleep,” he has said. The town he chose was the hamlet Garrison, 46 miles north of Manhattan in Putnam County, New York. Garrison, a few other hamlets, and the neighboring villages Nelsonville and Cold Spring form the larger town of Philipstown. It seemed, on the surface, to be an ideal place to instill his son, Zachary, with the Eisenhower values that Ailes had known as a boy. Putnam County even had a Republican bent: While voters tended to vote Democratic at the state level, the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the county had been Lyndon B. Johnson.
And whereas Warren, Ohio, had long since rusted, its steel plants closed, its downtown half-shuttered, Philipstown still seemed to be in its heyday. Cold Spring was a vibrant civic space, dotted with well-maintained Victorian homes, quaint store-fronts, and stately churches.
On a hilltop parcel, Roger and his wife Elizabeth built an impressive, 9,000-square-foot mansion constructed of Adirondack river stone. To the west was the spot where Continental Army troops strung a 185-ton iron chain across the Hudson to block British ships advancing upriver. Across the river stood West Point military academy. The grand interior of his house also bore witness to American greatness. Photographs of generals George Patton, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Dwight Eisenhower lined the walls.
In the summer of 2008, to cement their ties to their new home, the Aileses bought the local newspaper, the Putnam County News & Recorder. Founded in the mid-nineteenth century as the Cold Spring Recorder, the weekly newspaper was like the community itself: an artifact of a bygone age. The previous owner and publisher, Brian O’Donnell, kept production methods antique. In a one-room office, housed in a former barbershop on Main Street, staffers laid out the paper with scissors and glue. “It covered the 4-H Club and the kids’ activities at the school,” said Elizabeth Anderson, the founder and managing director of the investment firm Beekman Wealth Advisory and a part-time resident of Philipstown.
Ailes described Philipstown as a bastion of traditional America, and in a certain sense, he was right. Many of the town’s contractors and restaurant owners were the descendants of nineteenth-century Irish and Italian immigrants who had moved there to work in the local foundries. Other residents had ancestors living in the area since before the nation’s birth. But that was only part of the town. In the second half of the twentieth century, a different kind of settler had arrived: the college-educated urbanite who idealized country life.
After 9/11, residents saw a new wave of city dwellers move in. Along with their politics, they brought their own back-to-the-land ethic, with all the predictable signifiers. The number of Priuses and Subarus parked in the lot at Foodtown increased, as did the variety of heirloom produce at the weekend farmers’ market.
It all added up to a rich brew of clashing sensibilities, a culture war in miniature, of the kind that had driven Fox’s ratings for years. With the pages of the PCN&R now at their disposal, the Aileses were about to turn the temperature up.
One morning in July 2008, Brian O’Donnell called the employees of the PCN&R to the newsroom to meet Roger Ailes and his wife. The staff was on edge. Although Beth was taking the title of publisher, Roger did most of the talking that day. They could keep their jobs, he said, but there would be “new” rules. “The first one was, ‘Don’t bad-mouth your employer,’ ” reporter Michael Turton, an affable Canadian, recalled. “Roger’s second proviso was to ‘get both sides of the story.’ ”
“He was talking about the name the News & Recorder,” Turton remembered, “and he said the Recording part was fine, but he didn’t think the News part was up to snuff.”
In public, Roger and his wife, Beth, maintained that the PCN&R would not become Fox News. But Roger communicated other intentions privately. “He said the community needed more of a speaking to,” said local journalist Kevin Foley, who was once a campaign volunteer for Democratic governor Mario Cuomo and a deputy superintendent of the New York State Insurance Department. Shortly after buying the paper, Roger invited the 57-year-old Foley up to the mountain several times to interview for the top editing job. He spent much of the time monologuing about the ills afflicting his adopted home. He said he would never send Zachary to the public school because it was overrun with liberalism. At his window, he pointed at an outdoor sculpture exhibit at Boscobel House and Gardens, a half-mile in the distance. “Do you think they have the right to block my view?” Roger asked. “Isn’t it their property?” Foley asked. “It’s not their property! It’s a nonprofit! They get tax breaks!” Roger replied. He spoke of his security more than once. “He worried about his kid and his wife and said he wouldn’t want anything to happen to them because of what he was,” Foley recalled. Roger told him his German shepherd, Champ, helped protect them. “He said, ‘I let the dog out of the car when we come here. The dog gets out first. He’s trained to patrol the whole grounds and report back before we get out.’ ”