Roger's Reality Show
Kurtz, Howard, Newsweek
Byline: Howard Kurtz; Kurtz, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, hosts CNN's Reliable Sources.
First, Ailes dialed back the Tea Party talk. Now he's turning the GOP race into a political X-Factor--and steering the election agenda one more time.
It was part political spectacle, part American Idol, part YouTube extravaganza, a pure Roger Ailes production--and the latest sign that the Fox News chairman is quietly repositioning America's dominant cable-news channel.
Hours before last week's presidential debate in Orlando, Ailes's anchors sat in a cavernous back room, hunched over laptops, and plotted how to trap the candidates. Chris Wallace said he would aim squarely at Rick Perry's weakness: "How do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: is Perry too soft?"
"That's going to get some fireworks going," said managing editor Bill Sammon, grinning.
When showtime arrived, producer Marty Ryan choreographed the action from a crowded trailer outside the convention hall: he called for a two-shot when Wallace invited Mitt Romney to criticize Perry's immigration stance, so the audience could watch both men's agitated expressions. But Ryan barked, "Let's just be on Perry," as the Texas governor demanded to know whether Santorum had ever been to the Mexican border, capturing the moment. Afterward, Ailes phoned a top lieutenant: "Tell the team we've been kicking ass in these debates."
Ailes has always been a master showman--he even gave advice on triple-checking the audio--and Fox's partnership with Google produced striking videos, graphics, and a backstage smoothie bar. But the real eye-opener was the sight of his anchors grilling the Republican contenders, which pleases the White House but cuts sharply against the network's conservative image--and risks alienating its most rabid right-wing fans.
More than 40 years after helping to elect Richard Nixon, Ailes is more in demand than ever as the man to see for Republicans with designs on the White House. Perry stopped by his midtown Manhattan office a few months back, Newsweek has learned, when he was still weighing whether to make a run, and confided that he was worried about being able to raise the big bucks. "Money will find you if people believe in your message," Ailes assured him. Afterward, Ailes concluded that Perry had a look that "if he tells people he's gonna kick their ass, he might actually do it, which is useful for a president."
Three weeks after dropping out of the race, Tim Pawlenty showed up to ask for a gig at Fox. But there was a complication: Pawlenty was on the verge of endorsing Romney. "I'm not sure I want to sign you as a paid spokesman for Romney," Ailes said.
When Romney himself sought out Ailes for a pasta dinner, the Fox chief was struck by a sense of humor rarely displayed in public. "You ought to be looser on the air," he said while dropping off the former Massachusetts governor at his hotel.
The left has long branded Fox a propaganda arm for Ailes's pugnacious conservatism, and while his journalists maintain they play it straight, the network has certainly provided ample fodder for liberal detractors. But as President Obama's popularity has plummeted and the country has grown increasingly sick of partisan sniping, something unexpected happened. Roger Ailes pulled back a bit on the throttle.
He calls it a "course correction," quietly adopted at Fox over the last year. Glenn Beck's inflammatory rhetoric--his ranting about Obama being a racist--"became a bit of a branding issue for us" before the hot-button host left in July, Ailes says. So too did Sarah Palin's being widely promoted as the GOP's potential savior--in large measure through her lucrative platform at Fox. Privately, Fox executives say the entire network took a hard right turn after Obama's election, but, as the Tea Party's popularity fades, is edging back toward the mainstream. …