The Man Who Made Fox News

Jacob Weisberg reviews (NYT) Gabriel Sherman’s new book on Roger Ailes:

In Sherman’s telling, Ailes was driven more by money than by any fixed set of political beliefs. As late as 1972, he was willing to work for Democrats. Putting out his shingle as a theatrical producer, he brought an eco-musical called “Mother Earth” to Broadway for the briefest of runs. He took Robert Kennedy Jr. to Africa to make a wildlife documentary and staged “The Hot l Baltimore,” a Lanford Wilson play about down-and-outs. His identification with the right was mostly a matter of opportunities.

But Isaac Chotiner thinks Sherman exaggerates Ailes’ power:

[T]here is absolutely no doubt that Ailes is a remarkably intuitive and innovative television executive who took an upstart conservative channel and turned it—in less than a decade—into an agenda-setting behemoth. Sherman is so awed by Ailes’s skills, however, that he ends up overstating his influence, and taking Ailes’s own narrative too much for granted. “Roger Ailes has the power, more than any single person in American public life, to define the president,” he writes in his prologue. The problem is that Sherman’s account never sufficiently challenges Ailes’s cynical view of politics, wherein image and narrative are everything. Ailes has certainly revolutionized television news, but winning audience share is a far cry from winning the White House.

After leafing through several books on Ailes, Jill Lepore contrasts his biographers with Hearst’s:

One critic observed, “Mrs. Older writes an authorized biography, and the result is about what one would look for.” Chafets compares Ailes to Rudyard Kipling and Teddy Roosevelt. “Likenesses between William Randolph Hearst and Napoleon, Charlemagne, the Louis of France and the Popes of Rome are noted in Mr. Hearst’s official biography,” a reviewer remarked about Older’s book, “yet it is possible that Mrs. Fremont Older, the biographer, is amazed at her own moderation.”

Both Carlson and Bates’s and Lundberg’s Hearst biographies appeared a couple of months later, in April, 1936. Carlson was a historian of journalism, Bates an English professor; their account is a story of Hearst’s life as a decline into a savage cynicism, to the point that his “so-called ‘news’ papers are little more than a gigantic chain-store, selling political patent medicines and adulterated economics.” Lundberg called for a congressional inquiry into Hearst’s enterprises. The New Yorker called Beard’s introduction “as juicy a piece of invective as you will find in several months of Sundays.”