Decades before Roger Ailes birthed the Fox News Channel for proud papa Rupert Murdoch, he had already played a role in creating a national conservative television news network—Television News Inc.
In Dark Genius, a new biography of Ailes, Kerwin Swint revisits the dawn—1973—and early demise—1975—of the news service funded by conservative brewer Joseph Coors to counter the “liberal” TV networks. Coors, a profligate donor to conservative candidates, causes, and institutions, thought the media needed an ameliorating conservative voice, too.
TVN was less a network than a video wire service, producing and distributing segments to network- and independent-TV stations. The Coors brain trust hoped ultimately to leverage the service into a fourth network, one based on emerging satellite technology.
Swint describes TVN’s early months as fractious, in which the professional news team was pitted against Coors management. Jack Wilson, TVN’s president, considered Martin Luther King Jr. “an avowed communist revolutionary” and declared King’s associates unworthy of its coverage in a memo reproduced in Dark Genius. Other memos reproduced by Swint indicate management’s nutty news sense. It was a mistake to call Leonid Brezhnev the “Soviet leader,” Wilson wrote, because that made him the political equivalent of Richard Nixon, who had been elected. A Spiro Agnew clip depicting the vice president “in a relaxed and human fashion” won praise from Wilson as “one of the stories we could be proud to show our friends.”
Ailes didn’t join TVN until 1974 after a big shake-up at the news service. Ailes was experienced in entertainment and politics, having worked as a Mike Douglas Show producer, a Nixon media consultant, a Broadway producer, and a political consultant. But he had never worked in news, making him a strange choice as TVN’s next news director.
Ailes has attempted to distance himself from TVN, Swint reports. In a 2004 C-SPAN interview, Ailes claimed that he had only been a TVN “consultant,” even though he bragged to the Columbia Journalism Review in 1974 of his power to “hire, fire, and program” the news service.
Swint labors to establish TVN as the ideological progenitor of Fox News by comparing Wilson’s comments to the famous set of news-twisting memos addressed to the Fox newsroom by Fox News Executive Vice President John Moody in 2003 and published by Media Matters for America. Moody was one of Ailes’ first hires at Fox News, and the two men are simpatico in the extreme. Even though Ailes left no discernable fingerprints at TVN, Swint declares him the TVN-Fox “common denominator” who “appears to have picked up TVN’s technique of managerial manipulation and filed it away for future use.” Continuing on this tack, Swint attempts to show that such Fox News slogans and buzz phrases as “Fair and Balanced,” “We Report, You Decide,” and “We’re an alternative to the ‘liberal’ media” were derived from the mouths of TVN’s founders. I’m not completely convinced.
At its high point, TVN employed 50 people and claimed to feed 20 news segments a day to 80 subscribing stations in North America. By October 1975, TVN’s money-losing news division was dead, its bureaus in Washington, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles shuttered. (See Slate staffer James Ledbetter’s book Made Possible by …: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States to learn how Coors’ nomination to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting played a role in TVN’s demise. It’s too weird to summarize.)
Dark Genius never really assesses TVN’s quality. In the Washington Post archives, I found a May 5, 1975,feature reporting that three Washington, D.C., outlets—Channels 5, 7, and 9—found TVN’s work of high-enough caliber to air. Citing the Columbia Journal Review article, the Post reported that “most of the output of TVN has been free of a noticeably conservative slant.” The Post article did, however, allow that fired staffers complained that Wilson and his managers had pushed them to tilt the news to the right.
Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, who helped Joseph Coors steer his TVN venture, complains in the Post piece of a lack of influence at the service. “In fact, it’s been the single most frustrating experience I’ve ever had,” Weyrich said. “I think it comes down to the fact that if I suggested something, that was enough for it not to be covered. I think they were afraid they would get tagged.” Weyrich was obviously trying to be modest: The CJR story has him giving a list of questions to a TVN reporter to ask at a Capitol Hill news conference. But there you are.
A pair of TVN obituaries pass no critical judgment on the service, noting only that its founders had sought to “balance” (Washington Post) the major networks and to provide “an alternative source of television news to what [Coors] considered liberal-oriented news departments of the three major networks” (New York Times). Ledbetter’s book describes TVN’s quality as “spotty” but concedes it “filled a genuine need.” ABC News anchor Charles Gibson still includes TVN on his official biography.
(Where did the TVN archives go? A Dumpster? Somebody’s basement? Wouldn’t it be cool to YouTube every TVN reel found?)
That nobody can point to tainted or distorted TVN coverage tells me that despite the managerial madness at the service, the guys actually in charge of producing the news feed must have done an OK job. That would have to include Roger Ailes, too, wouldn’t it?
Dark Genius quotes from my Slatecolumnstwice,both favorably. If you’ve got the TVN archives, digitize and send them via YouSendIt to email@example.com. Or send your usual cranky e-mail. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Ailes in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.