Zev Chafets wants you to know that some of Roger Ailes's best friends are black.
He makes that point repeatedly throughout his latest tome, Roger Ailes: Off Camera, the product of a year of unprecedented access to Roger Ailes, his employees at Fox News, and his friends and family.
The result is largely an amalgamation of anecdotes that lets its subject off the hook for the most controversial aspects of his 40-year career, either by whitewashing them from the record entirely or by deflecting the reader with misdirection.
Roger Ailes is friends with Jesse Jackson, and he's friends with David Dinkins, Chafets writes, making no mention of the race-baiting ads Ailes ran against the former New York City mayor - designed to exacerbate tensions between the city's black and Jewish populations.
Ailes is a “profane, skydiving, hard-charging producer” is what Chafets gleans from Joe McGinniss's The Selling of the President, describing Ailes' work on the 1968 Presidential campaigns. Missing is the race-baiting quote from the book that has dogged him ever since. While casting one of Nixon's “Man in the Arena” appearances, Ailes strategized with McGiniss about how to utilize racial tensions to his candidate's advantage, telling the reporter: “As long as we've got this extra spot open. A good, mean, Wallaceite cab driver. Wouldn't that be great? Some guy to sit there and say, 'Awright mac, what about these niggers?'”
The Southern strategy? Pay it no mind, Chafets says, because the Nixon campaign's attempt to scare southern white votes away from the Democratic Party by sowing racial division “didn't work at the time.”
Eric Deggans' criticism of Fox News's racial imbalance should be brushed aside, because the Tampa Bay Times media critic was unaware that Ailes had launched an internship program for minority students.
Sexist behavior -- for example, stating that Mary Matalin and Jane Wallace were “girls who, if you went into a bar around seven, you wouldn't pay a lot of attention, but they get to be tens around closing time” -- isn't “disrespect or paternalism.” Those comments are “a sign of equality.”
It is for this sort of treatment that Ailes selected Chafets to write his biography. The author is “not out to hurt people,” the Fox chief told The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz.
In an attempt to set Roger Ailes free from the sins of his 40-year career in television and politics, Chafets continually conflates admirable personal characteristics with poor professional conduct. Roger Ailes is a loyal friend, a loving father, a television genius, a guy who makes an effort to hire minority staff, and a citizen who donates substantial amounts to charity. Meanwhile Chafets fails throughout the book to critically examine the narrative Ailes was crafting at the same time.
Off Camera does acknowledge Fox News' rightward lean, and lists a handful of instances of partisan bias showing through on camera (the network's smear that Barack Obama attended a madrassa, for example). But critics are quickly dismissed. (Media Matters is accused of being a partisan organization.) There is absolutely no effort to delve into the effect of Fox News on our country's discourse, or even look upon the network's content with any critical eye.
Rush Limbaugh granted Chafets similar access and was rewarded with An Army of One, a book that showered praise on the right-wing talker without breaking any controversial ground. “There are no scandalous disclosures here, no unearthing of long-concealed secrets,” wrote David Frum in his review of the book.
Off Camera is something far more insidious. Not simply a collection of hosannas to its subject for rising to the top of his field, the book serves as an attempt to write a new history for Roger Ailes. Despite acknowledging in the introduction that “he never thought [Ailes] was telling [him] everything” Chafets declines to put that suspicion to good journalistic purpose, leaving Ailes' self-portrait unchallenged.
The real failure of the resulting book is not that it's an authorized biography or even a hagiography. In Off Camera, Chafets allows himself to be used as a tool of the Fox News PR machine fearful of a forthcoming book by Gabriel Sherman, a New York magazine reporter with a particular gift for getting the inside scoop on media stories.
Sherman was not granted a year of unprecedented access. Far from it. “What the hell am I going to talk to you about?” Ailes' attorney and Fox News contributor Peter Johnson Jr. told him. “I may wind up suing you, for Christ sakes.”
Fox's spokespeople have attacked Sherman's reporting; the network's on-air talent has smeared him as a “stalker” and a “puppet” of liberals. Even his subscription to the Ailes-owned Putnam County News and Recorder has been canceled.
These bullying tactics failed, so several months before Sherman's book is released Ailes turns to a tactic used time and time again on the network: create an alternative news universe - one that, instead of denying the facts, creates its own so the American public can no longer tell truth from fiction.