The Loudest Voice in the Room, the new Roger Ailes biography by Gabriel Sherman, is getting pretty good press, but a couple of early readers agree on one criticism. Jill Lepore in The New Yorker:
Sherman sees Ailes as a kingmaker, which isn't entirely convincing.... Between 1952 and 1988, an era marked by the Fairness Doctrine (and, according to conservatives, a liberal media), Republicans won seven out of ten Presidential elections. Between 1988 and 2012, during the ascendancy of conservative media, Republicans won only three out of seven Presidential elections. When Mitt Romney lost, Ailes blamed the Party. "The G.O.P. couldn't organize a one-car funeral," he said. Another explanation is that the conservative media drove the Party into a graveyard.Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic:
Sherman is so awed by Ailes’s skills ... that he ends up overstating his influence, and taking Ailes's own narrative too much for granted. "Roger Ailes has the power, more than any single person in American public life, to define the president," he writes in his prologue.... Ailes has certainly revolutionized television news, but winning audience share is a far cry from winning the White House....Well, yes, Ailes couldn't elect a president in 2012 or 2008 -- but no, he can't be "tuned out." Ailes doesn't seem capable of electing a president, but he and the rest of the conservative noise machine absolutely seem capable of preventing a Democratic president from governing as a Democrat.
Sherman quotes Ailes saying in 2010, "I want to elect the next president." And: "If there was anyone who could deliver on such a boast, it was Ailes." ... Sherman sticks to this belief, even though the picture his reporting draws doesn't really support it. Ailes couldn’t stand Romney, who didn't have an easy ride on Fox News, but the former Massachusetts governor nevertheless won the Republican nomination in 2012; Ailes tried to convince Chris Christie and David Petraeus to run, to no avail; and the portrait Ailes sketched of Obama for over four years was not nearly entrenched enough to keep the president from handily winning re-election.
Despite liberal paranoia over the effect that Fox News has, ... the rise of Fox has changed the Republican Party: it's more close-minded, more anti-intellectual.
The idea that we live in a country where Roger Ailes -- or any television executive -- can decide who is president is horrifying. Fortunately, we don't. Roger Ailes will go down in history as a disturbed genius who is indeed the loudest voice in the room. But even the loudest voices can be tuned out.
Ailes and his allies have a firm grip on the Overton window, which means that Bill Clinton was looking over his shoulder at the right all through his 1992 campaign. As a candidate, he knew he needed to avoid the mistakes of Michael Dukakis: skepticism about the death penalty, apparent softness on crime. It's no surprise that Governor Clinton ordered Ricky Ray Rector executed despite Rector's severe brain damage -- after all, the 1988 Bush campaign, in which Ailes was a key figure in his pre-Fox days, had hammered away at the Willie Horton case relentlessly, effectively dooming Dukakis. And the persona Barack Obama constructed for himself from his 2004 Senate campaign on was as a potential builder of bridges to, in effect, the Fox News audience. When Obama said, in his 2004 Democratic convention speech, that "We worship an awesome God in the blue states," it was his way of trying to reassure Fox watchers, or at least the less rabid ones, that you could elect Democrats without unleashing the kind of war on Christianity every Fox viewer constantly fears.
Once Bill Clinton was in office, right-wing media outlets spent eight years hobbling him; Fox and the rest of the media right have spent five years doing the same thing to Barack Obama, and being a force multiplier for other conservative forces (the tea party, the Supreme Court, the Congressional Crazy Caucus) engaged in the same task. There's a case to be made that there hasn't been a true Democratic administration in decades, because so many Clinton and Obama initiatives have been blocked.
So Ailes and his allies may not make kings -- but they can break kings.