In the nineteen-thirties, one in four Americans got their news from William Randolph Hearst, who lived in a castle and owned twenty-eight newspapers in nineteen cities. Hearst’s papers were all alike: hot-blooded, with leggy headlines. Page 1 was supposed to make a reader blurt out, “Gee whiz!” Page 2: “Holy Moses!” Page 3: “God Almighty!” Still, you can yank people around for only so long. Wonder ebbs. Surprise is fleeting. Even rage abates. In 1933, Hearst turned seventy. He started to worry. How would the world remember him when he could no longer dictate the headlines? Ferdinand Lundberg, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, was beginning work on a book about him; no one expected it to be friendly. Hearst therefore did what many a rich, aging megalomaniac has done before and since: he hired a lackey to write an authorized biography, preëmptively.
In 2010, one in four Americans got the news from Fox News. That year, Roger Ailes, its head, turned seventy. Gabriel Sherman, an editor and reporter for New York, was beginning work on a book about him. Sherman interviewed more than six hundred people for “The Loudest Voice in the Room” (Random House). Ailes, who is known for menace, was not among them. “Take your best shot at me,” Ailes is said to have told another New York writer, “and I’ll have the rest of my life to go after you.” Unwilling to sit down for an interview with Sherman, Ailes met instead with Zev Chafets, a former columnist for the Daily News, a contributor to the Times Magazine, and the author of a biography of Rush Limbaugh. Chafets shadowed Ailes at Fox News; watched his son play basketball; walked with him, flanked by his bodyguard; and visited his home, in Garrison, New York, where Ailes has bought up not only the land around his nine-thousand-square-foot mansion but also the local newspaper, to which he named, as publisher, his wife.
The subtitle of the piece is particularly damning:
Critics of Roger Ailes have found it easier to denounce him than to think hard about the audience he appeals to.