Book Review: Roger Ailes Bio 'The Loudest Voice in the Room'
This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the Loudest Voice In the Room, New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman promises the story of a modern-day Citizen Kane. Kane's story is tragedy -- a tycoon whose pursuit of power so consumed him that he's left broken and alone. The idea of Fox News president Roger Ailes as a tragic figure is a mainstream media fantasy rooted in the wish that Ailes' angry, divisive journalism will exact a Kane-like toll of personal unhappiness and loneliness.
The Ailes here is a happy if belligerent warrior, untroubled by the consequences of his brand of news. Sherman provides a comprehensive (614 interviews! 2,098 hours of fact-checking!) if uninspired portrait of Ailes that struggles to make him compelling beyond his bullying. It charts his Ohio childhood, rise as Mike Douglas' producer, work on Republican presidential campaigns, stint as a Broadway producer and his turn as a media executive, first unsuccessfully at NBC (1993-1996), then successfully at Fox since 1996.
The fun comes in cataloging the bullying: Fighting with AIDS activists at a fundraiser for Rudy Giuliani, feuding with former Fox PR head Brian Lewis, threatening Jeff Zucker and allegedly calling NBC exec (now Discovery CEO) David Zaslav a "f---ing Jew prick."
But a deeper understanding of Ailes eludes Sherman (unsurprising, since his subject refused to cooperate). His linking of Ailes' barely middle-class Rust Belt childhood, dominated by an abusive father, to his conservative politics is superficial, given that the same conditions produced, among others, Bruce Springsteen. Interesting threads, particularly the connection between his relationships with women (estranged mother, three marriages, scattered charges of sexual harassment) and his use of sex in the news (making Maria Bartiromo the "money honey" at CNBC and the rise of Megyn Kelly), go unexplored.
Sherman gives Ailes proper credit for building Fox into a success thanks to his ability to twist news into thrillers (Is Obama a socialist?) and morality plays (the war on Christmas) narrowcast at a core demographic. But on the larger point in the subtitle -- that Ailes "divided a country" -- the book falls short. Ailes seems as much the beneficiary as instigator of change, refining what others pioneered. The almost total absence of Newt Gingrich -- whose media-savvy, scorched-earth politics in the late '80s and early '90s created the formula that Ailes perfected -- highlights how Sherman misses the forest for the bullied trees.