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Of the many reasons for Ailes's current success, his acolytes and rivals top the list with his flat-out refusal to lose. He takes what might be called a relativistic approach. To win, you don't have to be the best candidate--you just have to look like the best candidate. And that can be done just as easily by bringing your opponent down a few notches as by building yourself up.
Knockout. The same strategy, it turns out, can be applied to cable news ratings wars. "It's a bit of a one-two punch," says an executive at a competing network. "People find you by channel-surfing. The Fox screen has so much more going on--more whooshes and things spinning, more action, more things changing--that even if viewers don't like the coverage, when they get to MSNBC and CNN, they seem old and stodgy by comparison." Ailes's all-or-nothing competitive strategy, this source says, can be summed up as: "Watch me. And if you don't watch me, then don't watch the competition either."
Roger Ailes, by all appearances, is not a fastidious man. His face is jowly and heavy-lidded, his thin, graying hair combed straight back from a balding pate with no hint of vanity. Of middle height and quite exceptional girth, he has his tie loosened and his white shirt rumpled by 8 a.m. If there is a coffee table within reach, his slip-on-clad feet rest upon it; if there is a TV screen within view--and there are always several--he gazes at it distractedly. In profile, Ailes is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock or Winston Churchill. He could easily be mistaken for a retired Rotarian--content, reasonably successful, and in no way ambitious.
That impression, of course, could not be more wrong. Sitting at the head of a conference table at Fox headquarters in midtown Manhattan one morning recently, Ailes is clearly in command. Speaking with his vice presidents and Brit Hume, Washington bureau chief, he is preparing for coverage of Hurricane Rita. His manner is quiet, almost detached, and decidedly informal. But his light-blue eyes focus with intelligence as he runs through a remarkable range of topics--from the outline for the day's news coverage to the logistics of establishing satellite uplinks in Rita's path, the design details of a storm-related graphic, and the latest financial and ratings reports. Ailes's questions are fast and on target, his decisions firm.
"There aren't many parts of the business I haven't worked in," Ailes says later. "I am a director, I've been in the control room, I was a production assistant, I was a booker, I was a producer, I was an executive producer, I've been an executive, I've been a salesman, I know enough about what to ask engineers because I've had to make things run all these years. So I watch our screen, I listen to what they're saying, I watch the competition, and I think, 'Well, this seems like the right thing to do.' Most of what I do is gut instinct."
Ailes has no trouble listing his recipe for leadership success: "Take responsibility and make decisions, encourage your troops, joke with 'em, make sure work's fun, tell 'em the truth, stay open, take responsibility if you screw it up, change the decisions that are bad as quickly as possible." It may sound simple enough, Ailes says, "but it's not terribly easy sometimes. There are always the things that you wanna . . . protect yourself and cover your ass and all that." But to be a leader, says Ailes, "you have to take the punch yourself."
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