January 18, 2011

OKAY, WHY SHOULDN'T THE ANCHORS BE PATRIOTS? (profanity alert):

Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?: An exclusive and unbiased investigation into the highly paid operative of a foreign-born tycoon, a man who reengineered political and media culture and fomented a revolt that threatens the very stability of our country (Tom Junod, 1/18/11, Esquire)

There's a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism by the name of Dick Wald. Yeah, yeah, we know — Roger Ailes doesn't give a CNN ratings share about what some professor at Columbia journalism school has to say. Indeed, whenever he's asked what qualifies him to be the head of a major television-news network, he gives the same answer: "I dug ditches for a living, there are no parties that I want to go to, and I didn't go to Columbia journalism school." But Professor Wald is no mere don, no mere pointy-headed practitioner of the liberal arts. He used to be the president of NBC News. He likes Roger Ailes. And if you ask him the secret of Mr. Ailes's success, he'll say it's pretty simple: "Roger, in many ways, is just more competent. He just does it better. The anchors are better. The crispness of the reporting is better. The anchors don't interrupt, the shows move along, and the point of view is clear. It's just a good product. Roger found an area in which he could reach each audience member individually. That's the big difference between Fox and CNN."

Then he adds this, about the difficulty of taking on Roger Ailes: "You can't beat Roger fighting on territory he's left behind."

Pretty astute for a professor. Indeed, it might be the most astute thing Esquire's ever heard on the subject of Mr. Ailes, because it explains why he drives his opponents absolutely nuts. The pundits, the professors, the professional journalists, the left-wingers, the tree huggers, the liberal blogosphere, President Obama — they all keep trying to catch him on violations of rules that they follow and he doesn't. "Frankly, Roger doesn't give a [***]t," says an associate. "He just doesn't have the governor that other media executives have. He does things they would never do, says things they would never say."

And recently Roger Ailes gave us a demonstration of precisely what the associate — and Professor Wald — might mean.

It was Veteran's Day, and he was watching TV in his office on the second floor of the News Corp. building in New York City. He does a lot of that. Yes, that's right: Roger Ailes likes to watch. He watches TV, he studies TV, mostly with the sound off, so that he can observe one of the rules he does follow — if someone's doing something to make you turn the sound on, then they're doing something interesting. On a wall in his office, there are screens broadcasting Fox News and Fox Business Network, as well as CNN, HLN, MSNBC, and CNBC. He watches them all, from the corner of his eye, and if you give him three seconds, he'll give you the world ... a world of criticism for each one, including his own. That's because he knows how to follow his own eye — show Roger Ailes a television screen, he'll tell you what works, what doesn't, and how to make it better. "I tell my people that if they want to be artists of television, the screen is their canvas, but they have to repaint it every three seconds." Then he said: "Look at all those screens. Where does your eye go?"

You really want to know the truth, Mr. Ailes?

We don't know about you, but Esquire's eye goes to the screen featuring your creamy redhead, Jenna Lee.

Sure, that's a Fox screen, and so you win again. But — if you don't mind our saying so — it didn't exactly require an advanced degree in TV geniusology to see the potential of Ms. Jenna Lee.

Wait — it did? "Well, she didn't look anything like she looks now when she came here. She'd just completed Columbia journalism school, and she wanted to be a writer. But I met with her and sent her down to hair and makeup to clean her up a little. When she came back, I took a look at her and said, 'What would you think of going on air?' I had to work with her a little to bring her pitch down, and now she's going to be a big star. And she wanted to be a writer."

So that's how it's done — that's how Fox has become the Schwab's drugstore for right-wing mean girls. But if you listen to Mr. Ailes, it's not simply a matter of beauty; it's a matter of authenticity. "Look at the girl over there on HLN. African-American. Attractive, though she needs a haircut. And she doesn't know how to dress — her dress is too busy, look what it's doing to the screen. And they use her too much. But she has an interesting look. Look at the difference between her and the anchor. She's just being herself. She's not trying to do anything. She's just trying to tell him a story. That's interesting. He's trying to be an anchor. He's trying to project authority. It's always more interesting watching people be who they are than it is watching people try to be who they are not.

"Now look at Megyn."

By "Megyn," he means, of course, Fox fox Megyn Kelly, the meanest of the mean girls, the heaving, sumptuous blond with the wide-set eyes, the briskly triangular chin, and the porno sneer she directs at ill-fated liberal guests. Roger Ailes loves Megyn Kelly (in a fatherly way, of course): "She's a host. For one thing, she's fearless — she'd crawl down a smokestack for a story. But look at the way she moves. She'd move like that if she was arguing at the dinner table. Very natural. O'Reilly's the same way. He's an Irishman who likes to argue. He'd do it anywhere. We just found a way for him to do it on TV."

Now, if you talk to some other network people, they'll tell you that Roger's not exactly the first person to figure out that people would rather look at pretty girls reading the news than plain ones. "Roger's just willing to go further than anyone else," one industry insider says. "He takes the obvious further than anyone else. Everybody else goes halfway, and they wind up looking foolish." Roger, however, has a different take. He is able to hire authentic talent — that is, talent who have the ability to appear authentic in front of a camera — because he himself is authentic. "I'm not trying to be anyone," he says. "You know why other executives always hire phonies? Because they're phonies. They hire phonies because they like phonies. They're comfortable with them." It's the same reason they all hire left-wingers — "because they are left-wingers.

"Look," he said, "it's Veteran's Day, and we're the only ones doing anything about it. So maybe people like us because we like veterans. Those other networks probably had to have a meeting about it. They probably worried that if they were pro-veteran, people would think they were pro-war." See, that's the difference: Fox is pro-veteran and the other networks are ... well, they're not even pro-choice. "They say they're pro-choice. They're proabortion! Some of the talent who come to Fox come here because the other networks require them to be proabortion."

Then he told a story of triumph, about wearing a flag pin to an event at New York's Museum of Television & Radio after 9/11 and being accosted by none other than Morley Safer and "that asshole Dick Wald" for giving up his journalistic objectivity. They really got on him, asking how he could possibly be fair and balanced sporting a flag pin, until finally he'd had enough: " 'Look,' I said, 'I might be a little squishy about killing babies. But I'm pro-choice about flag pins!' "

O-kay ... and so Esquire called Dick Wald afterward for comment. "I remember it a little differently," he said. "We weren't asking whether Roger had a right to wear a flag pin. I would never do that. What we were talking about, if I remember correctly, was whether anchors should wear flag pins. I seem to remember something about Roger asking his anchors to wear flag pins... ."

And then we heard it. Do you? Listen closely. Yes ... that's the terrible sound of someone trying to beat Roger Ailes on territory Roger has long ago left behind.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 18, 2011 4:10 PM
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