Few people have been able to infiltrate Fox News’ Kremlin-like gates of secrecy to report anything about the right-wing message machine’s inner workings, but New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman has somehow managed to do so, first last year with a lengthy profile of News Corp honcho Rupert Murdoch, and again this week with a massive piece on how Roger Ailes — the Jabba the Hut-looking former Republican media strategist who created Fox News and still rules over it with an iron fist — and Fox News are destroying the Republican party.
While the whole piece is compelling, I found one snippet particularly so: The part detailing the White House’s secret back-channel attempts to get the right-wing cable news outlet to be less, well, crazy — dispatching Obama adviser David Axelrod to try to reason with Ailes to tone down the “Obama is a Muslim/communist foreigner” nonsense that was spawned by the network’s extensive roster of lying, evil talking heads.
Inside the Obama White House, there was a debate unfolding over how to deal with Fox. Michelle Obama was said to particularly loathe the network and was most turned off by Hannity. Obama’s advisers began to talk about ways to fight back … from the moment of Obama’s inauguration, Fox went on the offensive. Its pundits pushed stories including tales of voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party, ACORN fraud, Obama’s czars, and Obama’s rumored $200 million–per–day trip to India. As the summer of 2009 unfolded, with tea-party anger over the stimulus and health care ratcheting up, Fox and the White House went to war. In June 2009, Obama gave an interview to CNBC’s John Harwood and lashed out. “I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration,” he said. “That’s a pretty big megaphone. You’d be hard-pressed, if you watched the entire day, to find a positive story about me on that front.”
But it wasn’t until a month later that a succession of media controversies convinced the White House that Fox was a dangerous opponent that needed to be taken on. On July 28, Beck went on Fox and Friends, called Obama a “racist,” and declared that his response to the dustup between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge Police Department exposed the president’s “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Beck’s next target was Obama’s green-jobs “czar,” Van Jones, who had been blasted for signing a 9/11 “Truth Statement” in 2004. Jones resigned on September 6. Four days later, Fox broke the undercover video of conservative prankster James O’Keefe’s ACORN sting. “I had never heard of Glenn Beck before,” (former WH Communications Director Anita) Dunn told me. “Obviously, August of 2009 was a disaster.”
While Dunn and others publicly engaged Fox, David Axelrod worked back-channel diplomacy as the good cop. About a week before Dunn’s CNN appearance, Axelrod secretly sat down with Ailes at the Palm in midtown. They met before the restaurant opened to avoid drawing attention. Axelrod told Ailes they should try to defuse things and work together.
Going back to the 2008 campaign, Axelrod had maintained an off-the-record dialogue with Ailes. He had faced off against Ailes in a U.S. Senate campaign in the early eighties and respected him as a fellow political warrior and shaper of narrative. But early on, Axelrod learned he couldn’t change Ailes’s outlook on Obama. In one meeting in 2008, Ailes told Axelrod that he was concerned that Obama wanted to create a national police force.
“You can’t be serious,” Axelrod replied. “What makes you think that?”
Ailes responded by e-mailing Axelrod a YouTube clip from a campaign speech Obama had given on national service, in which he called for the creation of a new civilian corps to work alongside the military on projects overseas.
Later, Axelrod related in a conversation that the exchange was the moment he realized Ailes truly believed what he was broadcasting.
The other great revelation in Sherman’s piece: Even Roger Ailes thinks Sarah Palin is “stupid” and an “idiot.”