Monday, May 6, 2013

Book Review: ROGER AILES, OFF CAMERA by Zev Chafets (Sentinel, 2013)

Zev Chafets' biographical sketch of the founder of Fox News begins with an amusing scene in which Ailes reconnects with actor Austin Pendleton, an old school chum whose life took a very different path.  The incident serves to shake up a reader's preconceived notions of Ailes as well as illustrate one of Chafets' main points: that Ailes, surely one of the most reviled media figures of our age, enjoys "the gift of friendship" with numerous individuals who violently disagree with his network's groundbreaking approach to the news. 

Readers looking for backstage gossip about Fox News personalities and policies will find a few nuggets of information here and there.  Ailes, however, stays in the spotlight throughout, though the book's modest scope ensures that the spotlight is on the narrow side.  Chafets' brief account of Ailes' youth, early experiences as a producer on The Mike Douglas Show, and career as a political consultant will no doubt be superseded at some point in the future by Ailes' own autobiography, on which he is apparently working.  Chafets does, however, do a credible job of explaining how Fox News came to be, how it was initially received, and exactly what Ailes had in mind when he decreed that Fox would carry the banner for "fair and balanced" TV journalism.

One topic that I wish Chafets would have examined in more detail is what a post-Ailes Fox News might look like.  Ailes has chronic medical problems that have made him acutely conscious of his own mortality, so there is every reason to believe that he has a well-planned strategy for handing over control of the network to someone who will maintain Ailes' general approach.  But the unusual stability of Fox' lineup of "talking heads" may hurt the network in the long run.  What happens when firmly established "brand names" like Bill O'Reilly have to leave the stage?  One intriguing possibility is an increased reliance on minorities, thanks to the Ailes Apprentice Program, which gives Fox News internships to several minority individuals each year.  This, at a time when the number of minority journalists has been declining for some time.  If these students stay at Fox and become regular "cast members," will they pull the network to the left, or will they become a countervailing force against the more conventional political views expressed by minorities on other networks?  Only time will tell.

Despite the revelations about Ailes' vast constellation of friends of various political stripes, I seriously doubt that anyone who hates Ailes is going to have his or her opinion changed by this book, but those who come to it with an open mind will find it enjoyable and a fairly quick read.

1 comment:

Mark Lungo said...

It's nice that Roger Ailes has liberal friends. Even so, the man is still a terrible influence on the news industry and American politics in general. He's played a major role in creating an atmosphere where half-truths, crazy conspiracy theories and outright lies are widely believed by millions of voters, who in turn help prevent this country from implementing the social changes it desperately needs. If you'd like to review another book about Ailes, let me recommend The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine by David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt.