The Loudest Voice in the Room

How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News--and Divided a Country


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January 16, 2014 | ISBN 9780804194181

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January 14, 2014 | ISBN 9780679644095

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About the Book

A revelatory journey inside the world of Fox News and Roger Ailes—the brash, sometimes combative network head who helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump


When Rupert Murdoch enlisted Roger Ailes to launch a cable news network in 1996, American politics and media changed forever. With a remarkable level of detail and insight, Vanity Fair magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman puts Ailes’s unique genius on display, along with the outsize personalities—Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Megyn Kelly, Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, Gretchen Carlson, Bill Shine, and others—who have helped Fox News play a defining role in the great social and political controversies of the past two decades. From the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to the Bush-Gore recount, from the war in Iraq to the Tea Party attack on the Obama presidency, Roger Ailes developed an unrivaled power to sway the national agenda. Even more, he became the indispensable figure in conservative America and the man any Republican politician with presidential aspirations had to court.

How did this man become the master strategist of our political landscape? In revelatory detail, Sherman chronicles the rise of Ailes, a frail kid from an Ohio factory town who, through sheer willpower, the flair of a showman, fierce corporate politicking, and a profound understanding of the priorities of middle America, built the most influential television news empire of our time.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews with Fox News insiders past and present, Sherman documents Ailes’s tactical acuity as he battled the press, business rivals, and countless real and perceived enemies inside and outside Fox. Sherman takes us inside the morning meetings in which Ailes and other high-level executives strategized Fox’s presentation of the news to advance Ailes’s political agenda; provides behind-the-scenes details of Ailes’s crucial role as finder and shaper of talent, including his sometimes rocky relationships with Fox News stars such as O’Reilly, Hannity, and Carlson; and probes Ailes’s fraught partnership with his equally brash and mercurial boss, Rupert Murdoch.

Roger Ailes’s life is a story worthy of Citizen Kane. Featuring an afterword about Ailes’s epic downfall during the extraordinary 2016 election, The Loudest Voice in the Room is an extraordinary feat of reportage with a compelling human drama at its heart.
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Praise for The Loudest Voice in the Room

“[An] actually fair and balanced, carefully documented biography.”—Jacob Weisberg, The New York Times Book Review
“The book excels at compiling data establishing Ailes’s control freakishness and authoritarian nature. . . . A veteran of the New York media-reporting scene, Sherman nails the Fox News palace intrigue and brings to light interactions that Ailes clearly never wanted to go public.”—Erik Wemple, The Washington Post
“[An] enormously entertaining new biography.”The New Republic
“A thoroughly reported look behind that curtain . . . Part of the reason [Ailes] and his allies have campaigned against the book is not because it is false, but because it tells a true story.”—David Carr, The New York Times
“Sherman is at his best writing with sweep about the history of cable news and placing Ailes in context.”Los Angeles Times
“[An] eye-opening biography of the would-be political kingmaker and Fox News mastermind . . . A well-reported, engaging book. A bonus: Bill O’Reilly won’t like it, either. Politics and media junkies, on the other hand, will have a field day.”Kirkus Reviews
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The Loudest Voice in the Room

THE RAW MATERIALS FOR ROGER AILES’S MYTH of an America in danger of being lost come from his hometown of Warren, in the northeastern corner of Ohio. In the late 1800s, Warren became a center of trade and manufacturing, a city that worked. The town of six thousand boasted five newspapers, seven churches, and three banks. In 1890, two sons of Warren founded the Packard Electric Company, which would one day employ Roger’s father. They produced the first Packard motorcar in their Warren factory in 1899, and made Warren’s streets the first in America to be illuminated by incandescent light. Through the twentieth century, the company’s growth was spurred by deposits of coal and iron ore in the Mahoning Valley. The region became one of the largest steel manufacturers in the country.
In 1932, the General Motors Corporation acquired Packard Electric to manufacture cables for its automobiles. Roger’s father, who had been working at the plant since around the time of the 1929 stock market crash, held on to his job under the new management. Packard continued to thrive, as did the rest of Warren. In 1936, Neil Armstrong, age five, went for his first airplane ride in Warren in a Ford Tri-Motor. After World War II, Warren’s industries boomed, and throughout the middle part of the last century it was a seat of limitless American potential.
That was the world into which Roger Eugene Ailes was born, on May 15, 1940. Warren residents earned incomes that were nearly 30 percent above the national average, redefining the middle class in ways that still have painful resonance today. “There were no slums,” recalled Ailes’s childhood friend Launa Newman. Warren, like blue-collar towns across postwar America, had been built on a benevolent compact between management and labor, which spread prosperity widely, as long as profits were growing. Packard, which employed six thousand workers in 1953, was like a city unto itself. It had its own newspaper, the Cablegram, and sponsored annual picnics for tens of thousands, where kids competed in pie-eating contests and lucky penny scrambles. The career of Roger’s father, Robert Sr., who rose to the rank of foreman in the maintenance department, benefited from this arrangement. He raised his children in a tidy home on Belmont Street, with enough yard for his prized tomato garden and the family beagle hound, Tip. He worked for forty years at the company, retired in 1969 in his early sixties, and lived the last years of his life on a company pension.
Warren was a labor stronghold, but there were conservative currents coursing through the city’s politics. Growing up in the 1920s, Robert Ailes Sr. was drawn toward them. He recoiled from unions. To him, they were arbitrary, often rewarding people who were undeserving. At the Packard plant, Robert was considered management, and thus excluded from the benefits of joining the union. But without a college degree he had no chance to advance into the corporate hierarchy. “I never could understand why he’d ever be a Republican. Ninety-nine percent of the people who came up through the school of hard knocks were Democrats,” his son Robert Jr. said. His conservatism was a reaction against those who got breaks he never did, and his resentments consumed him.
Robert Sr. came of age at a time in which Warren was engaged in a culture war brought on by increasing ethnic and racial discord. Rapid industrialization brought waves of immigrants—Hungarians, Romanians, Italians, Yugoslavians, Greeks—to northeast Ohio. They came in search of work in the mills. In Warren, the immigrants lived in the Flats, a scruffy neighborhood by the rail depot. It was the Prohibition era, and corruption bloomed. The foreigners operated betting parlors and speakeasies—“vice dens”—in the back rooms of social clubs in the Flats. The city’s Protestants blamed the newcomers, many of whom were Catholics and Orthodox Christians, for subverting their efforts to curtail bootlegging. One minister complained to the Dry Enforcement League that the county was “rich enough to lock up every bootlegger,” but refused to do so.
As an adult, Robert joined Freemasonry, a fraternal organization that also stood up against the city’s changing character. Robert devoted himself to the Masons. He became a 32nd-degree master and served for twenty-five years as chaplain of the Carroll F. Clapp Lodge in Warren. As a Master Mason, he was given entrée into an affiliated body called the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets, for which he served as Shriner and Past Monarch. The organizations were the pride of his career. They gave him the titles and the respect he was denied at Packard. His wife complained that he spent far too many hours at the lodge. “One of his disappointments in life was that Roger and I didn’t become Masons,” Robert Jr. recalled.
Robert Sr. and his wife, Donna, met at church. She was a famous beauty, lithe, nine years younger than he, with brown hair and wide-set eyes. She had come to Warren from Parkersburg, West Virginia, when she was less than a year old. Her father, James Arley Cunningham, who lacked a high school diploma, sought work in the local steel industry. He was a religious man, who took his family to the fervent Evangelical United Brethren Church every Sunday. “They didn’t believe in movies or dancing,” Roger said. Robert and Donna had a swift courtship, and less than a year into their marriage she became pregnant with Robert Jr.
When Roger Ailes spoke of Warren, he invoked a small-town idyll, a lost American dream, but those images were only part of his childhood story, one in which tenebrous parts were edited out. The difficulties started with his illness. At the age of two, not long after learning to walk, Roger fell and bit his tongue. His parents couldn’t stop the bleeding. Terrified, they rushed him to Trumbull Memorial Hospital. A doctor diagnosed their child with hemophilia, a genetic disorder that hinders the ability of the body’s blood to clot. There was no cure for the little-understood condition. “Well, you died. That’s what you knew about it,” Roger later recalled. “I was told many times I wasn’t going to make it.” “The treatment for hemophilia back then was terribly crude,” remembered Robert Jr., who would become a doctor. Their parents did what they could to keep Roger out of trouble, protecting him from uneven stretches of sidewalk where he could trip and scrape his knee, and from getting into backyard scuffles. The average life expectancy of a severe hemophiliac at the time was eleven years.
Notwithstanding his hemophilia, or perhaps in angry defiance of it, Roger had an incongruous physical boldness, with sometimes dire consequences. In grade school, when his parents weren’t looking, Roger sneaked up onto the roof of his family’s garage. He jumped to the ground and bit his tongue on impact. His father rushed him to Trumbull Memorial. This time the doctors there were unable to help him. “I heard the doctor say—I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I heard him say, ‘We really can’t do anything,’ ” Roger said. His father, a short, obstinate man, pugnacious by nature, refused to give up. Robert Jr. remembered the incident vividly: “My dad bundled Roger in a blanket and put him in the family Chevy and drove to the Cleveland Clinic.” Driving eighty miles an hour down Route 422, they were soon stopped by a state police car.
“Look, my son’s bleeding. We’ve got to get to the hospital,” Robert pleaded to a man in a Mountie hat standing outside his window.
The trooper looked at the boy wrapped in a blood-stained blanket in the backseat. “Get behind me,” he said and escorted them, his lights flashing the rest of the way to Cleveland.
A whole crew of Robert’s work friends, who had names like “Dirty Neck Watson,” went to the hospital to donate their blood. Many were so filthy that the doctors had to scrub them down before they gave Roger a direct blood transfusion from their arms to his. “Well, son,” his father said after he pulled through. “You have a lot of blue-collar blood in you. Never forget that.”
The hospital traumatized the young boy, and the threat of returning there denied him many of the pleasures of childhood. “Roger told me one time, when he was really young, he was suspended upside down for hours at the hospital to keep the blood from pooling in dangerous ways,” Launa Newman said. During recess, Roger often sat at his desk as the other kids played outside. But after school hours, his teacher could not stop him from playing touch football and sandlot baseball. “He participated until he got so black-and-blue he couldn’t move,” his brother said.
Simply walking to and from school was hazardous. A passing car clipped him once when he was in the second grade, an accident that landed him back in the hospital. “What saved me was a little square lunch box that I had,” Roger said. “He hit the lunchbox and I flew into the air and into the curb.” On another occasion, some neighborhood boys roughed him up on his walk home. “My dad, I saw tears in his eyes for the first time,” Roger recalled. “I’d never seen it. And he said, ‘That’s never going to happen to you again.’ ”

About the Author

Gabriel Sherman
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. Most recently, Sherman served as national affairs editor at New York magazine, and he is a regular contributor to NBC News and MSNBC. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The New York Observer, and GQ, among other publications. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jennifer Stahl. This is his first book. More by Gabriel Sherman
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