'Loudest Voice' - Judging Roger Ailes with no sense of history

And blaming him for cultural woes without making the case

  • Chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel Roger Ailes, right, smiles at Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., during a news conference at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2003, where they announced that the Congressional Black Caucus will partner with Fox news to host two presidential debates.
Chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel Roger Ailes, right, smiles…
January 19, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

If you hate the extreme polarization of American life today, with more and more people talking to and living alongside only people who share their world view, blame Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News.

If you are angry about the loss of civility, the coarsening of the conversation of democracy, the gridlock in Washington and the nastiness of political discourse, blame Ailes.

If you’re troubled by the widespread criticism of an American president like Barack Obama, yes, that, too, is the fault of Ailes — as is even the fact that your vote has been all but turned into Confederate dollars by the power of big-interest money and media manipulators.

That’s the real argument at the heart of “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country,” by first-time author Gabriel Sherman, a New York magazine contributing editor.

If that kind of simplistic, historically and culturally ignorant explanation of contemporary American media and life works for you, then you will probably like this highly publicized biography from Random House just fine.

On the other hand, if you have had the pleasure of reading a meticulously researched, clearly written, scrupulously documented, even-handed and enlightening biography — like, say, the one Robert A. Caro is writing on Lyndon Johnson — Sherman’s book is going to be a major disappointment.

I don’t use the word “ignorant” lightly — or for snark effect. I admire anyone who can take on a project as daunting as the biography of a figure as pioneering and divisive as Ailes and simply finish it. It’s 395 pages, not counting acknowledgments and notes.

But having had to research and construct mini-biographies of CBS and NBC founders William Paley and David Sarnoff, respectively, for a book I wrote on the history of Jewish characters in prime-time TV, I can see the vast moonscape of holes in Sherman’s understanding of media history — especially American television. And ultimately, those holes and some misguided attempts to discredit Ailes diminish what could have been a most important work.

My problems with “The Loudest Voice” begin on the first pages of the prologue, when Sherman starts hyping his hypothesis.

On the second page, he writes, “Ailes remade both American media and politics. More than anyone of his generation, he helped transform politics into mass entertainment — monetizing the politics while making entertainment a potent organizing force. … Through Fox, Ailes helped polarize the American electorate, drawing sharp, with-us-or-against-us lines, demonizing foes, preaching against compromise.”

Sherman ups the ante one page later, writing, “Roger Ailes has the power, more than any other single person in American public life, to define the president. For many Americans … the Obama they know, the one they are raging against, is the one Ailes has played a large role in creating.”

Does Ailes really have more power than anyone else to define the president?

How about Obama senior adviser David Plouffe, the architect of the Obama that America saw standing in Chicago’s Grant Park the night of his election in 2008? Plouffe largely constructed and defined the image of that Obama — a TV image so powerful that it sent people dancing through the streets of cities across the nation on election night in 2008. That’s pretty powerful, isn’t it?

And how about Jeff Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes” and chairman of CBS News? For the first year of Obama’s presidency, “60 Minutes” seemed like Obama’s second home, with the president regularly talking to Steve Kroft before Sunday-night audiences of 15 million to 22 million viewers.

Or how about Bill Keller, then executive editor of The New York Times, or Jill Abramson, who has that job now? You think a picture of or an article about Obama on the front page of The New York Times still isn’t more powerful in defining Obama than what a Fox host like Sean Hannity says?

The core problem of “The Loudest Voice” is the lack of historical knowlege and perspective.

When it comes to Sherman's claim that Ailes "more than anyone of his generation" transformed politics into mass entertainment, I'd advise him to check out the career of the late Don Hewitt who directed the historic TV debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 and the national political conventions from 1948 to 1962 before founding "60 Minutes" in 1968 for CBS News.

And, by the way, in the last interview I did with Hewitt when he retired, he talked eloquently about how he conceived of the conventions as entertainment -- and how he constructed and presented political stories on "60 Minutes" as prime-time entertainment using narratives and tropes of the western and cop drama genres.

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