It is the opening salvo in the most anticipated media book war of the year – a clash of biographies on the political consultant-turned-media tycoon, Roger Ailes.
First out of the blocks is what amounts to an official account, by the columnist Zev Chafets. In a short extract published on the Vanity Fair website, the Fox News boss rails against a slew of top politicians and media figures, from President Obama, Joe Biden and Newt Gingrich to CNN anchors Wolf Blitzer and Soledad O’Brien.
“Newt’s a prick,” Ailes tells Chafets without mincing words. “He’s a sore loser and if he had won [the Republican presidential nomination] he would have been a sore winner.”
Biden is “dumb as an ashtray”. And, in the latest blast in the running dispute between the Fox News chief and Obama, he comes perilously close to adopting an old racist stereotype by calling the president “lazy”. “Obama’s the one who never worked a day in his life,” he tells his biographer. “He never earned a penny that wasn’t public money. How many fundraisers does he attend every week? How often does he play basketball and golf? I wish I had that kind of time. He’s lazy, but the media won’t report that.”
The Chafets book, Roger Ailes Off Camera, is due to be published on 19 March and was written with the benefit of many hours of interviews with Ailes as well as with his friends, family and colleagues.
In the Chafets book, Ailes comes across as a cantankerous but witty game-player. Blitzer gets a nod of approval as a “good journalist” but is castigated for his rear end as it appears on camera: “I doubt if the audience really wants to see some size 42 short guy with his back to the camera.” And O’Brien? She’s “named after a prison”.
The left-of-center news channel, MSNBC, also gets a kicking. Ailes advised NBC not to go with that name, on the grounds that “MS is a damn disease”.
There has been much speculation that Ailes agreed to co-operate with Chafets in order to get in a rose-tinted version of his life before the unauthorised account gets onto the bookshelves. The Loudest Voice in the Room: Fox News and the Making of America, by the New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman, will be published in May without the benefit of access to Ailes but drawing on Sherman’s prodigious skills as a reporter.
Certainly, Chafets’ account portrays the TV giant in positive light, if the extract is anything to go by. It opens with Ailes watching his son Zac, 12, play basketball in a school match and in highlights put out by Vanity Fair, Ailes is shown to be collecting memorabilia to leave his child when he dies.
The collection includes a pocket-size copy of the US constitution with a note: “The founders believed it and so should you”; a couple of biographies of Ronald Reagan; and a plain brown envelope stuffed with $2,000 in cash that says: “Here’s the allowance I owe you.”
The one person who doesn’t fall foul of Ailes’s caustic humour, apart from his son, is Rupert Murdoch, his boss and patron. No surprises there – the two men have been thick since Murdoch employed Ailes to create Fox News for News Corporation in 1996.
But Ailes tells Chafets the secret of their enduring bond is not friendship. “Does Rupert like me? I think so, but it doesn’t matter. When I go up to the magic room in the sky every three months, if my numbers are right, I get to live. If not, I’m killed. Our relationship isn’t about love – it’s about arithmetic. Survival means hitting your numbers. I’ve met or exceeded mine in 56 straight quarters. The reason is: I treat Rupert’s money like it is mine.”
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