Cycle backwards on the news wheel to this month in 1996, and two events occurred in media, one of which matters to you and the other only matters to me: Roger Ailes, former political consultant to the Bush clan, was named president of Rupert Murdoch’s nascent Fox News cable channel, and I was named Creative Director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Channel.
Ailes lasted nearly twenty years and changed the face of news, and I did two years before the mast.
One of the first people I called upon that long-ago October was Ailes. I had no sense of what he was building. Ailes was simply a stop on a listening tour I was conducting, exploring for Redford if there were any other cable channels we might do business with—step one of a plan to get our little channel broader public exposure. I hadn’t the slightest notion whether anything would come of it, and nothing did, but I was young and foolish and after the fox.
The meeting lasted long. As we shared ambitions regarding our respective channels, it became clear to me that I was in the presence of a genius in the media game — perhaps the savviest since I’d known legendary network programmer Fred Silverman.
Ailes appeared to enjoy our give-and-take, or faked it well, as I doubtless had little of value to share with him. Through the years, I have inclined to the belief that television is a business in which “nobody knows anything,” in the immortal words of screenwriter William Goldman, from his memoir ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade.’
Leaving Ailes’ offices that day, I had no idea that startup Fox News would come to dominate cable news and smash the line between news and opinion — a change that journalists may deplore. I knew I had met the sharpest knife on the cutting board.
A seeming lifetime later, I had the bookended experience last year of sharing a “green room” chat with Gretchen Carlson, before her appearance on one of my shows. It was Carlson in 2016 whose sexual harassment complaint eventually brought down the reign of Roger Ailes and catalyzed the #MeToo movement.
As we readied to put Carlson on camera, my mind kept flashing back to that afternoon long ago, and the media impact of the man who had also done so much personal and professional harm. His Achilles heel had carried him way over the line.
In the recent Showtime limited series “The Loudest Voice,” based on the Ailes biography by Gabriel Sherman, Naomi Watts plays Gretchen Carlson. Watts exhibits her spot-on talent of impersonation. Russell Crowe, under pounds of prosthetics, has the haunted eyes of a genius-devil inside Ailes. In the last episode of the series, as Ailes watches TV alone after losing his job, he sees Donald Trump on his way to the highest office in the land.
Ailes has been left behind, observing from the sidelines. You can read volumes in Crowe’s Mona Lisa expression. Similarly, the ending of “The Sopranos” left the late James Gandolfini at a likely final curtain call. Tony Soprano and Roger Ailes, one a fictional creation and one who turned news to a Nielsen coronation, are TV blood brothers, ruthless and highly intelligent men who died for their sins.
Fifteen autumns ago, before the star-making machinery of Roger Ailes got hold of him, I spent a year working with another Carlson. That one, Tucker, was much younger then, seeming to welcome difference of opinion and sharing musical notes with me off-camera about his beloved Grateful Dead. I believe he may still play in his car a rare “pirated” recording I donated to him of the Dead’s Jerry Garcia performing in a prison.
These days, Tucker Carlson has taken a different path in the woods under a Fox News flag. Has he changed, or has TV? Did I fail to read the signs? To some degree we see what we want to see. What is real and what is Memorex?
Back in the day, I watched as Geraldo Rivera left our shared alma mater of ABC News and took a hard right turn in pursuit of syndication success. It’s an old story repeated. But those were simpler times: daytime TV was the zoo, primetime the upper echelon. The dogs of war are let slip now across the airwaves. If Roger Ailes is corporeally gone, his ghost still strides the ship he skippered. The black freighter rides the tide.
I wish in vain to return to my early encounter with the Ailes, to imagine an alternative history where he champions investigative reporting and legitimate journalism rather than bloviation, conspiracy theories and worse.
Crazy like a fox, there’s coin in stoking the fires of fear. A Henry Higgins, Ailes pursued a dream that came back to bite him.