UPDATE: White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday that he was not surprised by Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes quotes about President Obama to The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz. “I think if you watch most of the programming on the channel, I don’t think you would find many of those comments surprising,” Gibbs said.
In the media world, as in politics, having a high-profile target can be a very good thing.
The age of Obama has provided a ratings boost for Fox News as its loudest personalities have relished the opportunity to play offense. Critics, of course, view Fox as an unabashed cheerleader for the Republican Party, an evil media empire spewing propaganda and misinformation at a gullible audience.
But Roger Ailes says his network is just reflecting reality when it comes to the White House.
“The president has not been very successful,” the Fox News chairman says in a lengthy interview. “He just got kicked from Mumbai to South Korea, and he came home and attacked Republicans for it. He had to be told by the French and the Germans that his socialism was too far left for them to deal with.”
The 70-year-old Ailes, dressed in a lavender shirt and tie, goes on in this vein, saying the network isn’t singling out Obama for criticism but that its style “tends to be more direct” in challenging presidents. Then he offers this observation about Obama:
“He just has a different belief system than most Americans.”
That seems a rather loaded phrase—different belief system—even if you strongly disagree with most of Obama’s policies. It fits the view of those who are trying to paint the president as being outside the mainstream. But from the big second-floor office at Fox’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, it’s the rest of the media that are using a distorted lens.
“He’s had 3,000 press secretaries since he got into office,” Ailes says of Obama, but these days, “he’s making it harder for the press to make him look good… When the press falls in love, they fall in love hard. They’re like teenagers in love. It’s like the old Frankie Lymon song, ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’”
Obama “had to be told by the French and the Germans that his socialism was too far left for them to deal with.”
Ailes brushes aside suggestions that journalists have been much harder on the president as his sliding popularity has led to a Republican takeover of the House. He is far more sympathetic to Obama’s predecessor:
“This poor guy, sitting down on his ranch clearing brush, gained a lot of respect for keeping his mouth shut. I literally never heard an Obama speech that didn’t blame Bush.”
• Lou Dobbs’ Big Fox Comeback • Vicious Infighting at NBC News• Part II: Roger Ailes on Jon Stewart, Juan Williams, and NPR None of this is personal, you understand. Ailes says he likes Obama, who was gracious to him during last year’s Christmas party, and David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. He recently had breakfast with Axelrod to discuss Fox’s coverage. But Ailes took an unprovoked swipe at Robert Gibbs, saying the press secretary “is a little big for his britches” and “will end up like that little shithead who worked for Bush”—meaning Scott McClellan, the onetime loyalist who wrote a book criticizing his former boss. Gibbs and the White House declined to respond.
Fox was the favorite network of the Bush White House, the default channel on its television sets and the go-to guys for big interviews. The Obama White House, by contrast, declared rhetorical war on the network last year and rarely provides top officials as guests.
The steady barrage of criticism from the opinion folks, led by Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, has lifted Fox’s ratings, although Ailes says he sees no connection. Fox is averaging 1.1 million viewers this year, an 8 percent jump in Nielsen numbers over 2008, while CNN has dropped 37 percent and MSNBC 15 percent. Unlike two years ago, Fox is averaging more viewers than its two cable rivals combined.
Sipping coffee from a “Fair & Balanced” mug, Ailes insists that his channel lives up to the logo in its treatment of the administration. “We are not interested in savaging them. We are interested in the truth. We’re interested in two points of view; most networks aren’t.” Fox has beaten the drums on some stories that the mainstream media have wound up following, such as allegations that led to the resignation of environmental aide Van Jones, and others—such as a voter-intimidation case involving two New Black Panther Party members—that are widely viewed as overblown.
Ailes may dismiss the constant carping about Fox, but he understands the importance of public perception. He says he was “totally surprised” when his parent company, News Corp., donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association and another $1 million to the Chamber of Commerce—and realized that “lefties would use it to immediately try to damage Fox News.”
But Ailes registered no protest. “Rupert Murdoch’s worked for 60 years,” he says. “He’s the biggest media mogul in the world. I don’t think anyone can tell him what to do with his money. That’s sort of his right.”
In a conversation about the donations, Ailes recalls, Murdoch told him: “I hope that didn’t cause you any problems.”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Ailes replied.
It’s no accident that Fox, which delights in skewering MSNBC, barely mentioned Keith Olbermann’s recent suspension for donating to three Democratic candidates. Ailes had sent word to the troops that it wasn’t much of a story.
“If they went to get the guy, they were going about it fairly stupidly,” Ailes says. “It isn’t like we don’t know the guy supports left-wingers.”
Ailes says he bars his hard-news journalists from making political contributions, but merely discourages the practice for commentators and talk-show hosts. It can “disrupt the appearance of integrity. You have a responsibility not to make your colleagues look like a horse’s ass.”
He draws the line at donating to a candidate while also putting that person on the air, as Olbermann did in the case of Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva. But Hannity did the same thing in giving $5,000 to Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and also interviewing her on his program.
Ailes doesn’t defend the move, saying only: “I don’t think there’s any doubt about what Sean Hannity is.” Last April, an obviously annoyed Ailes ordered Hannity to cancel a show at a Cincinnati Tea Party event for which the organizers were charging admission.
The Fox chief offers a more spirited defense of Beck, who has come under sharp criticism for an attack last week on liberal activist and philanthropist George Soros.
Beck said that Soros, at age 14, accompanied a Hungarian to help him “deliver papers to the Jews, and confiscate their property, and then ship them off… Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.” Beck added that Soros had no choice but that he didn’t understand why Soros had done no “soul searching” about his past.
Why go there? Why bring up what an 80-year-old man had to do as a teenager? Ailes says Beck relied on Soros’ own account and that “his point wasn’t really about Nazis or the Holocaust, more about the character of George Soros.” There are some “left-wing rabbis who basically don’t think that anybody can ever use the word, Holocaust, on the air.”
As for Soros, “if he has a problem with Glenn Beck, he ought to man up, come on [the air] and talk to him about it,” Ailes declares. He is still fuming about Soros giving $1 million to the liberal advocacy group Media Matters to help “hold Fox News accountable for the false and misleading information they so often broadcast.”
The Anti-Defamation League assailed Beck’s remarks as “completely inappropriate and offensive.” But after Ailes spoke to its national director, Abe Foxman, the ADL executive softened his criticism in a statement calling Beck “a strong supporter of Israel and the Jewish people.”
What about Beck’s other inflammatory outbursts, such as calling Obama a racist? Ailes says that everyone who ad libs for a living makes mistakes. But admits to asking Beck to watch his tone: “He and I have had conversations and lunches where I say, ‘What the hell are you doing, man?’…Beck trashes Republicans every night. I’ve said to him, ‘Where the hell are you going to get your audience if you keep this up? You’re trashing everyone.’”
Beck takes such criticism well, Ailes explains, “because he’s so intelligent and basically sensitive.”
There’s one criticism that Ailes doesn’t want to hear. He admonished the staff after unnamed Fox journalists told me they are worried that the divisive Beck is becoming the face of the network.
“Yeah, shut up,” says Ailes. “You’re getting a paycheck. Go on the team or get off the team. Don’t run around here badmouthing a colleague.”
Tomorrow: More from Chairman Roger.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.