After Republicans scored historic victories in the 2010 midterm elections, Roger Ailes met with Fox News executives and ruminated on the network's success. "We're making a lot of money – that's fine. But I want to elect the next president."
Gabriel Sherman's much-anticipated book "The Loudest Voice in the Room," released today, chronicles Ailes's political ambitions as he left the world of political consulting to run Fox News. In an interview with Brian Stetler on CNN's Reliable Sources this Sunday, Sherman made clear his book's thesis: that Fox News is "a political machine that employs journalists" and Ailes is "the quintessential man behind the curtain."
That Great-and-Powerful-Oz depiction of Ailes is compelling – and certainly something Ailes himself believes. ("You know I elected two presidents?" Ailes said by way of introduction to a Fox News host, referring to his role in the Nixon and George H. W. Bush campaigns.) And Sherman is onto something when he describes Fox News as "the expression of one man, with all his obsessions and idiosyncrasies." What's missing in this must-read book, though, is the broader context: Ailes was only one in a long line of conservative media activists working to take over the GOP and elect a president of their own.
It wasn't long after the birth of conservative media in the 1940s and 1950s that activists set their sites on the presidency. In 1959 Clarence Manion, a right-wing radio broadcaster, became convinced Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater would make the ideal conservative standard-bearer. Wanting to raise Goldwater's national profile in advance of the 1960 election, Manion convinced him to publish a book outlining his political philosophy. Manion lined up Brent Bozell as the ghostwriter, set up a small publishing outfit and in early 1960 published "Conscience of a Conservative." The best-selling book didn't nab Goldwater the nomination, but it did elevate him as the primary spokesman of the conservative movement.
For 1964, a much broader conservative media complex arrayed behind Goldwater. Bill Rusher, publisher of National Review, played a central role in the Draft Goldwater campaign, and the magazine lauded the senator as "no Sunday-go-to-meeting conservative, but a 24-hour, deep-down conservative inside and out." Pro-Goldwater paperbacks like Phyllis Schlafly's "A Choice Not an Echo" were treated like campaign literature. Over 15 million of the three most popular books were distributed by Election Day.
All for naught, some would argue, given Goldwater's landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson. But then, since leaving the world of political consultancy for right-wing broadcasting, Ailes hasn't hand-picked a president, either. He couldn't get Chris Christie, his preferred 2012 candidate, to run, much less win.
But the media activists who backed Goldwater share with Ailes a common effect on the Republican Party and on the national media. Both pulled the GOP to the right, realigning it around conservative ideology. And both carried out an assault on the concept of journalistic objectivity, inveighing against liberal bias and advocating ideological balance in news. Their successes in that field make conservative media activists the loudest in a room specifically designed to amplify their voices.