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How Roger Ailes Plays Hardball—And Keeps His Hands Clean

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Journalist Gabriel Sherman does not insert himself into his own biography of Roger Ailes until after the biography is over. In “A Note on Sources” following the conclusion of The Loudest Voice in the Room, Sherman reports that his subject “did not participate in this book, notwithstanding my numerous attempts over two and a half years to arrange a sit-down interview.” Yet there is another sense in which Ailes very much has participated in this book, or at least in the conversation surrounding it. Sherman continues: “He discouraged sources close to him from speaking with me and went to elaborate lengths to obstruct my reporting. Through surrogates, Ailes attempted to create a counter-narrative about my journalism.” Ailes, in other words, has allegedly been a key interlocutor in the conversation surrounding the book, trying to discredit it and its author from the beginning.

One can find little direct evidence that Ailes did this. And one wants to be careful about citing lack of evidence as proof simply of the conspiracy’s competence. In Ailes’ case, though, and as Sherman documents, there is a half-century track record to go on: Ailes’s modus operandi is precisely to fight his enemies—real or perceived—“through surrogates,” without fingerprints, and while maintaining plausible deniability. “Throughout his career, Ailes has dodged, weaved, and spun in ways that have allowed him never to be pinned down for his actions,” Sherman told me.

There are numerous examples from Sherman’s book. Sherman reports that Ailes frequently gets his message out by sending his lawyer, Peter Johnson, Jr., onto “Fox & Friends” to articulate it; that what was pilloried as a self-parodic four-minute anti-Obama attack ad was “Ailes’ brainchild”; that Ailes frequently used a different email under the alias “James Arlie” when communicating with advisers; that he established an anonymously written blog (actually penned by Fox News’ Jim Pinkerton) to insult cable-news rivals at outlets like MSNBC. Perhaps most amazingly, according to Sherman there remains mounds of circumstantial evidence but still no smoking gun linking Ailes, who served as a media consultant on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, to the infamous race-baiting Willie Horton ad.

Ailes’ alleged pushback against Sherman followed this career-long pattern. In his Note on Sources, Sherman reports that Bill Shine, Fox News head of programming, “encouraged Fox personalities to post derogatory comments about me on Twitter.” Several—including Sean Hannity, Karl Rove, and Brit Hume—did just that. Roughly a year ago, the conservative Breitbart website published several columns totaling nearly 10,000 words painting Sherman as a liberal bent on maliciously taking Ailes down; Sherman implies that the effort was connected to Ailes.

Sherman also cites Zev Chafets’ favorable biography of Ailes, Roger Ailes: Off Camera, published last spring, as an instance of Ailes trying to “shape his narrative.” “Release his own book,” is how Sherman describes what Ailes did. Chafets declined to comment on Sherman’s book, but said in an email Tuesday, “I do resent the idea—being pushed hard by the Ailes-haters—that Roger ‘commissioned’ my book. I informed David Carr, who wrote that yesterday, that it is factually wrong and invited him to publish a correction. Haven’t seen one yet.” (I reported last spring that Ailes agreed to cooperate with Chafets’ book, over which Ailes did not receive final approval, after Sherman’s book had been announced.) In recent weeks, Chafets’ book was advertised in the New York Times Book Review by a public-relations agency that Ailes has used in the past.

At one point, Sherman said, Sherman’s entry on Conservapedia, a sort of right-wing Wikipedia, contained the news that his wife, Jennifer Stahl, had left her job at The New Yorker—months-old news that had not been reported in any public venue, but which Sherman had disclosed to a Fox News source just a day before. Similarly, according to Sherman, a negative biography on the website Foundations Exposed disappeared within 48 hours of Sherman informing a Fox News source that he was aware of it. And over the past several months, Sherman said he has received a series of aggressive legal letters from Ronald Green, Ailes’ outside counsel. The Daily Beast reported last week that Fox News’ unofficial in-house oppo department “has been following Sherman’s work for years.”

Nearly 50 years ago, while working on “The Mike Douglas Show” in Philadelphia, Ailes discussed his philosophy of crisis-management. As described in The Loudest Voice in the Room, producer Bob LaPorta remembers Ailes telling him: “You can justify anything. You can have your back against the wall and you can talk your way out of anything.”

Ailes’ office did not reply to repeated requests for comment.