The key to decoding Fox News isn't hosts Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. It isn't even News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch. To understand what drives Fox News, and what its true purpose is, you must first understand Chairman Ailes. "He is Fox News," says Jane Hall, a Fox commentator for 10 years, who defected over Ailes's embrace of the fear-mongering Glenn Beck. "It's his vision. It's a reflection of him."Roger Aisles is working to be the kingmaker here in America. To do it he has coarsened American politics and made it much less responsive to the needs and desires of Americans.
Ailes runs the most profitable – and therefore least accountable – head of the News Corp hydra. Fox News reaped an estimated profit of $816m last year – nearly a fifth of Murdoch's global haul. The cable channel's earnings rivalled those of News Corp's entire film division, which includes 20th Century Fox, and helped offset a slump at Murdoch's beloved newspapers unit, which took a $3bn writedown after acquiring the Wall Street Journal. With its bare-bones newsgathering operation – Fox News has one-third of the staff and 30 fewer bureaus than CNN – Ailes generates profit margins above 50%. Nearly half comes from advertising and the rest is fees from cable companies. Fox News now reaches 100m households, attracting more viewers than all other cable news outlets combined, and Ailes aims for his network to "throw off a billion in profits".
The outsize success of Fox News gives Ailes a free hand to shape the network in his own image. "Murdoch has almost no involvement with it at all," says Michael Wolff, who spent nine months embedded at News Corp researching a biography of the Australian media giant. "People are afraid of Roger. Murdoch is, himself, afraid of Roger. He has amassed enormous power within the company – and within the country – from the success of Fox News."
The Obama era has spurred sharp changes in the character and tone of Fox News. "Obama's election has driven Fox to be more of a political campaign than it ever was before," says Burns, the network's former media critic. "Things shifted," agrees Jane Hall, who fled the network after a decade as a liberal commentator. "There seemed suddenly to be less of a need to have a range of opinion. I began to feel uncomfortable."
Most striking, Ailes hired Glenn Beck away from CNN and set him loose on the White House. During his contract negotiations, Beck recounted, Ailes confided that Fox News was dedicating itself to impeding the Obama administration. "I see this as the Alamo," Ailes declared. Leading the charge were the ragtag members of the Tea Party uprising, which Fox News propelled into a nationwide movement. In the buildup to the initial protests on 15 April 2009, the network went so far as to actually co-brand the rallies as "FNC Tax Day Tea Parties."
According to recent polls, Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers. They are 12 percentage points more likely to believe the stimulus package caused job losses, 17 points more likely to believe Muslims want to establish Sharia law in America, 30 points more likely to say that scientists dispute global warming, and 31 points more likely to doubt President Obama's citizenship. At the height of the healthcare debate, more than two-thirds of Fox News viewers were convinced Obamacare would lead to a "government takeover", provide healthcare to illegal immigrants, pay for abortions and let the government decide when to pull the plug on grandma. In fact, a study by the University of Maryland revealed that ignorance of Fox viewers actually increases the longer they watch the network. That's because Ailes isn't interested in providing people with information, or even a balanced range of perspectives. Like his political mentor, Richard Nixon, Ailes traffics in the emotions of victimisation.
"What Nixon did – and what Ailes does today in the age of Obama – is unravel and rewire one of the most powerful of human emotions: shame," says Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. "He takes the shame of people who feel that they are being looked down on, and he mobilises it for political purposes. Roger Ailes is a direct link between the Nixonian politics of resentment and Sarah Palin's politics of resentment. He's the golden thread."
Fox News stands as the culmination of everything Ailes tried to do for Nixon back in 1968. He has created a vast stage set, designed to resemble an actual news network, that is literally hard-wired into the homes of millions of America's most conservative voters. Republican candidates then use that forum to communicate directly to their base, bypassing the professional journalists Ailes once denounced as "matadors" who want to "tear down the social order" with their "elitist, horse-dung, socialist thinking". Ironically, it is Ailes who has built the most formidable propaganda machine ever seen outside of the Communist bloc, pioneering a business model that effectively monetises conservative politics through its relentless focus on the bottom line. "I'm not in politics," Ailes recently boasted. "I'm in ratings. We're winning."
The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Ailes can have it both ways: reaching his goal of $1bn in annual profits while simultaneously dethroning Obama with one of his candidate-employees. Either way, he has put the Republican party on his payroll and forced it to remake itself around his image. Ailes is the Chairman, and the conservative movement now reports to him. "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us," said David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter. "Now we're discovering that we work for Fox."
FOX News and Roger Aisles are a cancer in America's belly and need to be recognized and dealt with. If that is done, perhaps the Republican Party can recover to some extent and once again become a serious American political party.