Roger Ailes cultivates a certain mystique about the relationship of his personal views to his network. He can be both grandiose and retiring about his role — sometimes in the same sentence. “I see the most powerful man in the world is here,” President Barack Obama told Ailes on the rope line at a White House holiday party for members of the media last year.
“Don’t believe what you read, Mr. President,” Ailes responded. “I started those rumors myself.”
But if you want to know what Roger Ailes really thinks about the news these days, here’s a tip: Pay close attention to Peter Johnson Jr., Fox News’ legal analyst. The Columbia-educated lawyer is certainly not as familiar to most viewers as Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, but inside the network, Johnson has become, in many respects, more influential, thanks to his ties to Ailes. To understand Fox right now, you have to understand the unique role Peter Johnson Jr. has come to play in Ailes’s inner circle.
Consider this: Johnson is an on-air pundit, weighing in on topics as varied as Trayvon Martin, Occupy Wall Street, Obamacare, and Benghazi. He is a regular fill-in host on Fox & Friends. And he is Ailes’s personal attorney who negotiated the network chief’s new four-year contract with News Corp., said to be worth upward of $30 million a year. Fox executives frequently find Johnson conferring with Ailes privately. “He is a fixture in Ailes’s office,” one Fox source explained.
But Johnson’s value to Ailes extends far beyond his work as a lawyer. This election season, when Ailes has a message to communicate, chances are that it is Johnson who articulates it on air. One insider told me that Johnson is allowed to use the teleprompter to read from scripts, a perk which is normally reserved for Fox hosts. “Johnson has a rare privilege other contributors don’t have,” the source said. “He can load a script directly into the teleprompter. So it’s not even Ailes unplugged. It’s Ailes plugged in … It’s why he sounds like Roger.”
A Fox spokesperson said, “Roger Ailes does not need Peter Johnson to articulate his positions.” The spokesperson confirmed that Johnson uses a teleprompter for “long pieces” but denied it’s a special arrangement. “We give teleprompters to anyone who wants them.”
Johnson, who was once a speechwriter for Mario Cuomo and a close confidante to David Dinkins, has been one of the most aggressive Fox pundits this election season, serving up scary scenarios filled with Muslim extremists and Occupy Wall Street anarchists and overreaching government bureaucrats. Ailes often gives his provocative take on the news at daily meetings with senior executives, but resists their suggestions that he go on-camera and deliver the barbs himself. The last time he regularly appeared on TV was on the start-up cable channel America’s Talking, which he ran for NBC in the nineties before leaving to launch Fox. “Those days are gone,” he tells his team.
Johnson’s commentary tends toward the conspiratorial. Last year, for example, his attack on Occupy activists who vowed to protest at the Iowa Republican Caucus was laced with Nixonian boogeymen. “Perhaps this is a cultural occasion in America. We’ve had hobos, we’ve had tramps, we’ve had bums, we’ve had hippies, we’ve had yippies. Perhaps we’ll look back on this in a nostalgic way and say, ‘Isn’t this wonderful, all these misguided people with nothing to do in January? They showed up in Iowa; they didn’t make a difference,’” he told Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy.
In September, Johnson popped up on Fox & Friends to chat with Gretchen Carlson about turmoil in the Middle East, connecting Egypt’s pursuit of the death penalty for American Christians involved in the allegedly protest-inciting anti-Islamic film The Innocence of Muslims with a Breitbart.com rumor about the U.S. sending 1993 World Trade Center bombing conspirator the Blind Sheikh back to Egypt. “Well, I brought them together because they appear to be two separate stories, but they appear to be part and parcel of the same type of foreign policy that we have,” Johnson told Carlson. “To give the public the impression that the producer of this ridiculous — and it is an offensive movie or trailer — was somehow under control of the authorities as he was being rushed out by a bunch of police types and his head covered up, that somehow he had done something wrong legally … to give that impression to the Mid East world, that’s wrong. So, have we sowed the seeds of our own prosecutions?”
And last Sunday morning, the day before Obama and Mitt Romney squared off in their final debate on foreign policy, Johnson appeared on Fox & Friends to discuss the situation in Benghazi. Johnson wondered if Obama could have learned about the attack soon enough to have ordered military action to save the Americans who were killed. “If he did nothing, then that is the shame of America,” Johnson said. “I have no evidence for this,” he mused, “but did we trade off the lives of our ambassador and three other Americans for that crowd? Were we afraid to fire into that crowd from above? Were we afraid to take on the militants in that crowd for killing other folks that were on the perimeter? Were these people expendable as part of a Mid East foreign policy?”
It’s appearances like these that have made Johnson a controversial figure inside the network. As his profile has grown, he has at times rankled producers. “He refuses to yield to the hard break,” one insider said. “It isn’t done: When the producer says, ‘wrap,’ you wrap. When Johnson goes off-camera, he says, ‘Why did you cut me off?’”
Johnson’s path into Ailes’s inner circle was paved by his father, Peter Johnson Sr., a tough Manhattan lawyer who for years served as Ailes’s personal attorney. Johnson Sr. is Ailes’s type of guy: a World War II Marine who took part in the battle at Iwo Jima, a former street cop turned hardnosed litigator. When Johnson Sr., who is 92, retired from his law firm, his son took his place. Like his father, Johnson Jr. knows how to play Ailes’s type of hardball. When I called to interview him for a book I am currently writing about Ailes and Fox News, he claimed I was “preparing a personal dossier about Ailes.” In a follow-up conversation, Johnson said: “What the hell am I going to talk to you about? I may wind up suing you, for Christ sakes.”