The Hydra-Headed Beast

Roger Ailes’ biographer on how the symbiotic relationship between Trump and Fox News has fundamentally changed American politics.

National affairs editor at New York, Gabriel Sherman
Gabriel Sherman in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2016.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Gabriel Sherman, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. In a recent piece for the magazine, Sherman reported that people in the White House were concerned about President Trump’s mental health and wondered whether he was in a state of decline. He is also the author of The Loudest Voice in the Room, a biography of Roger Ailes. Sherman’s reporting on Ailes’ conduct helped lead to his downfall at Fox News for sexual misconduct.

Below is an edited transcript of the show. In it, we discuss whether Trump’s behavior is really getting worse, how Fox News has changed since Ailes’ departure, and why Rupert Murdoch secretly “loathes” the president.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: We know each other a little bit, and I think the reason is because about five years ago we were probably the only two people in our extended social circle spending hours every day watching Fox News. You were watching Fox because you wrote a very informative book about Roger Ailes, and I was watching Fox because I’m a sad, pathetic person who wanted to make myself more depressed. And then we started text messaging and talking about Fox. What got you so obsessed with Ailes and writing about Fox News?

Gabriel Sherman: I’ve covered media and politics for the better part of my journalism career, and I had written a series of pieces for New York magazine about cable news. Reporting in that world, I realized that Roger Ailes, through the founding of Fox News, had just fundamentally rewired the way politics was practiced in America.

I looked and talked to my book agent and realized that there had not been a real rigorously reported and authoritative biography of Ailes. So I thought it was a great subject for my first book, and I naïvely didn’t really understand that the reason there had not been a book about Ailes is that he is—or was, now that he’s passed away—one of the most vindictive and paranoid people that have probably ever lived.

He did everything he could to thwart and attack and demean reporters who wrote about him, and I found myself for about three years in his crosshairs. He hired private investigators to dig into my past and commissioned right-wing websites to smear my reputation in not-so-veiled anti-Semitic ways.

But I think [my book explained] how Fox News worked from the inside and revealed it to be a real cult of personality that functioned as a megaphone for Ailes’ paranoid and really eccentric and bizarre worldview filled with Islamophobia, racism, and really extreme political viewpoints that a lot of people perhaps thought were just cynical ways to market a news network to an audience, but were in fact real expressions of his extremism.

Do you feel that you had some sort of insight into Trump early on because of this?

Without question. We should remember that Ailes gave Trump a weekly call-in segment on Fox & Friends, which is the id, the ideological core of Fox News. It’s where the talking points that Ailes wanted to inject into the bloodstream originated. Once a week, Trump would call in for unfettered, freewheeling discussion to put out his worldviews, and that’s where Trump really pushed a lot of the birther and racism ideas and the anti-immigration positions that became the bedrock of his candidacy.

You were saying that Ailes was not taken seriously as someone who actually had this frightening worldview, and I think aspects of Trump are made for TV. But I also think that one thing we’ve learned in the past two-plus years is that many of these views that he expresses are probably more honestly held by him than people assumed when he rode the escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015.

Without question. We all need to remind ourselves that Donald Trump has been a race-baiter pretty much for most of his adult life. In fact, going back to his early years, his father famously was tried by the Justice Department for housing discrimination in their middle-class housing developments in Brooklyn and Queens. Donald Trump in the 1980s took out a full-page ad after the notorious Central Park jogger case.

What is your sense of how Fox News has changed since Ailes left the network?

In some ways, it’s changed a lot. The culture of fear that he presided over with the PR department functioning like an internal security service—spying on employees, leaking damaging info to media about it, wayward employees—that’s mostly gone by the wayside.

The lockstep talking points that emanated out of his second-floor office have also subsided. The network does not function as a pure expression of one person’s worldview. What I see now is more of a business. And Rupert Murdoch, who privately loathes Donald Trump—I think it’s a little bit of a false narrative that’s been out there in the press that Murdoch and Trump have forged this bromance. I think this is purely a business decision.

You think actually “loathes”? That’s a strong word.

I know from my reporting that people who have been in private settings with Murdoch say that he makes dismissive comments of Trump and tells him to stop tweeting, which is something that Trump will be doing till his last dying breath. Yeah, this is not a close, personal relationship. This is, from my reporting, a business relationship, and Murdoch was smart enough to know that the audience Ailes had assembled are die-hard Trump voters, so it doesn’t make sense really to shift the network ideologically.

You say that Murdoch may loathe Trump, and it’s clear that his sons do not like Trump and do not like the ideas Trump is putting into the country.

We should point out that James Murdoch’s wife just recently tweeted comments about sexual assault and harassment being wrong on both sides, which people took to be a veiled swipe perhaps not only at Donald Trump but at Roger Ailes.

OK, but while I get that, and I get why the Murdochs are not going to turn Fox News into a left-wing or centrist network because it’s incredibly important part of the business, it does seem that they could do something about things like Fox & Friends, which is full of conspiracy theories and fake news and seems to influence Trump in a negative way. We often see him tweeting ridiculous things that he clearly has seen minutes before on Fox & Friends. I’m surprised that there’s been no effort by the Murdochs if this is how they feel to at least clean up some of the crazier stuff on Fox.

No, I agree. I don’t think you would perhaps dramatically lose their viewership if they dialed back the conspiracy theories by even 25 percent, but I think Rupert Murdoch’s philosophy since he replaced Ailes after Ailes was fired in July of 2016 has been to do no harm. Murdoch has, with a light touch, removed the internal fear and paranoia that presided over the network, but externally the programming on air has largely remained intact. I don’t think there is a necessarily compelling reason for that other than they know that Fox News is the profit center of 21st century, and they don’t want to mess with it.

You have these surreal moments where the Wall Street Journal editorial page—which Murdoch owns and which I think a lot of people see as being close to Murdoch’s actual views—will write something about Trump is doing this well, but he needs to stop tweeting crazy things, and then that morning, he will have tweeted something crazy that he saw on Fox.

It’s a hydra-headed beast. We should also mention Sean Hannity. I know you talked about Fox & Friends, but Hannity, who Trump just gave an hour sit-down interview with, is perhaps the most influential outside adviser to the Trump administration. I was talking to a very prominent Fox person recently who was telling me how often Hannity talks to Trump. Trump calls him almost every night after Hannity’s prime-time show just to give him feedback and bat around ideas and gripe about all the people who are sliding him. Between Fox & Friends starting the day and Hannity ending the day, the network is really book-ended by the most pro-Trump media. It’s something much closer to the way Putin’s media and Russia state-run media functions than it would be historically an American media institution.

One of the points of your book is that Ailes was a brilliant showman and made great hires, including people like Bill O’Reilly, who people may find distasteful but are incredible television personalities and talents. Now you see people like Tucker Carlson, who has failed at basically every TV show he’s ever had until now and who I do not think is a particularly skilled broadcaster. You see their 9 p.m. hour, which has been a mess, and they can’t quite figure out what to do with it, and they’re still getting great ratings. Ailes obviously was a television genius, but it also seems like we’re at this point with the right-wing audience in America—not to sound condescending—where you can put anything on the air and you will get extremely good ratings. It almost reminds me of the fact that the Republican president can do anything he wants and still have a 35 percent approval rating.

There is something to that. Ailes used to joke around the office that the Fox News audience was aged 55 to dead. And there is a kernel of truth to that joke. But the Fox News audience is really an actuarial game at this point. They get older ever year. I believe some of the statistics I saw were like 68-something years old for the [average] age of the Fox News viewers.

These are people whose habits are set, and they come home or they sit at home—a lot of these people are shut-ins—and they click on Fox in the morning and they just keep it on all day. It doesn’t really matter the content of the programming, except it has to remain reliably conservative and somewhat conspiratorial.

At this point the audience is baked in, and it’s a very stable audience. But we should point out that it’s not a growing audience. The ratings still dominate the cable race, but it’s a very static, set number. This is not a growth industry, and we’ve seen in fact, in online media, the growth and explosion of sites like Breitbart, which have tapped into this new generation of the younger, gamergate kind of guys. That is the more dynamic part of the ring-wing movement.

To turn to Trump: Do you really sense that he’s declining in noticeable ways, and is this a widespread fear in the White House?

One thing that I reported this week in my Vanity Fair piece is that one of the reasons Trump has cocooned himself inside the Fox News bubble—granting basically his only live television interviews to Sean Hannity, Fox & Friends, and Mike Huckabee—is that, if you talk to Trump advisers, they’ll tell you he has lost a step.

Recently, he was supposed to appear on the season premiere of 60 Minutes, and Trump declined to do the interview, but it was discussed, and Trump advisers breathed the sigh of relief that that interview didn’t happen. The idea of Trump being in an adversarial live TV interview where the audience and viewers could see him flailing and rambling I think was cringe-worthy to his inner circle.

When I hear usually secondhand from people who worked for Trump or talk to reporters who talked to these people, there seems to be almost nobody in the White House who has anything other than contempt for Trump—no one who really seems to believe in him, and everyone seems to treat him like a child. Is that a fair accounting, according to your reporting?

I think that’s generally fair. There are a few exceptions—some of the campaign loyalists, like Dan Scavino and Hope Hicks, and some of the longtime Trump confidants who he’s brought into the West Wing.

I think the best way to put it is that these men and women say, This man was democratically elected. This is the system. We had the Electoral College for better or worse. The American people wound up with this president, so they are doing their best to serve the country even if they see on a daily basis things that are completely illogical.

So when they express dismay over Trump’s mental state or his managerial abilities or lack thereof, do people talk about him like he’s like an uncle who says embarrassing things? Are people actually scared of where the country is headed? Did they not care because they’re nihilists? I think it’s all of the above. I can’t speak, obviously, to the calculations that I’m sure anyone in the West Wing is making about why they’re there and why they’re working in this administration.

I had a very senior Trump adviser tell me this week that Trump’s lost a step. This adviser said that Trump reminded him of his grandmother when she started to lose it a little bit in her later years. This is the man that people who work with him see. People are there for their own ambition. People are there for the safety of the country—Gen. John Kelly and James Mattis and people who genuinely want to protect the national security of the United States. I think this will be a storyline that will continue to play out.