RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Roger Ailes is a hero to the political right and a boogeyman to the left for leading the Fox News Channel to be the top rated force in cable news. The competition is not even close. A new biography argues Roger Ailes has used Fox to divide the nation.
NPR's David Folkenflik has reported extensively on Fox for this network and in his own book, "Murdoch's World." As David reports, the book, "The Loudest Voice in the Room," paints a picture of Ailes as a television news executive operating unlike any of his rivals.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Author Gabriel Sherman says Fox reflects Ailes' world view, which Sherman depicts not just as conservative but paranoid.
GABRIEL SHERMAN: It's funny how the sets on Fox are the most candy colored and bright in cable news, but the news itself is black and white. And so he has divided the country by framing headlines in ways that there are only one or two answers: Is Obama a socialist, is he a capitalist? It goes back to his network. He has divided the nation into two camps: Fox fans and Fox haters.
FOLKENFLIK: Sherman, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, reaches back to Ailes' small town beginnings in Warren, Ohio; a sickly boy with an abusive father, who grew up to be a star television talk show producer, an adviser to the White House bids of Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, and a top executive at CNBC - all experiences that Sherman says combined in a cocktail of flash and bombast and theatricality that you see on Fox every day.
SHERMAN: And so, when you hear the phrase: The second floor wants, you know that Roger Ailes wants a certain story on the air. And that's why the producers, you see the story lines that run throughout the day: Fast and Furious, the Benghazi terror attack, the Solyndra bankruptcy. Over and over again, these story lines percolate out through the network.
FOLKENFLIK: Each story worth covering - each damaging to the Democrats and the Obama administration - and each given extraordinary treatment on the network. The motto: We Report You Decide - a marketing fiction in Sherman's telling, as Sherman argues Ailes very much wanted to tell the nation what to think: Achieving political ends by media means.
But there is another way to look at Ailes. Christopher Ruddy is the CEO of the conservative Newsmax Media group
CHRISTOPHER RUDDY: The reason that Fox is such a success is that there is a market for the news and information that he's offering.
FOLKENFLIK: Ruddy argues that Ailes is simply tapping into an already existing and legitimate resentment, against elites on both coasts, especially stories told by news and entertainment media in New York, Washington and Hollywood.
RUDDY: Take their thing about Christmas. You know, there's been an increasing trend in society to do away with saying Merry Christmas. And Fox was really the originator in bringing this up. And they have countless stories about it every Christmas season. It's a big ratings winner to talk about it. It touches a nerve with the public.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIPS)
BILL O'REILLY: Thoughts on the war on Christmas.
SARA PALIN: When you start to say you can't say Merry Christmas.
O'REILLY: And you can't have Christmas carols by school choirs.
O'REILLY: That's part of our culture.
PALIN: Well, and that's the double standard that's applied and that's what I'm not going to sit down and accept...
FOLKENFLIK: There, Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin. Sherman says there is no such true trend and that the storyline is cynical, but that Ailes actually believes Christmas is under attack and that he is fighting liberal forces on and off the air.
SHERMAN: Roger Ailes and Fox get away with so much that any other media organization would be brought to heel for. And Fox would probably be on the barricades demanding someone's head if the very same thing was found to be taking place inside, you know, The New York Times or The Washington Post.
FOLKENFLIK: Back in spring 2011, a Fox News national security analyst named K.T. McFarland traveled to Kabul to meet General David Petraeus, then overseeing U.S. operations in Afghanistan. McFarland carried an urgent message from her boss, Roger Ailes. Petraeus tells her repeatedly that he's not going to challenge President Obama for the White House in 2012, even with Ailes' promise to run his campaign.
K.T. MCFARLAND: I know, I know.
GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: But if I ever ran, I'd take him up on his offer.
MCFARLAND: OK. Alright, so we're...
PETRAEUS: He said he would quit Fox.
MCFARLAND: I know.
FOLKENFLIK: That tape was later obtained by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward. Ailes claimed to be joking but Sherman reports Ailes was serious and had also been urging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to run for president. Several former executives at other television news divisions said that would be a firing offense, but that Ailes is insulated; first, by Fox's huge profits and the backing of a boss who plays in politics too, media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Yet as Newsmax's Chris Ruddy notes, Ailes didn't get his favored candidate and Obama won twice.
RUDDY: So the idea if Roger Ailes got up and said: I'm going to run the Republican Party, I'm going to pick the Republican candidate for president in the primaries, I'm going to then get him elected - you know, none of that happened. So it's a bit laughable sometimes that people have this view that somehow he's controlling the Republican Party.
FOLKENFLIK: Media critics reviewing Sherman's book in Slate and The Washington Post questioned whether it proved Ailes influence in dividing the nation. Fox News's best rated show commands about one percent of the country nightly. Its ratings are falling and the average age of its audience is rising.
Sherman says that misses the point.
SHERMAN: Cable news defines where the end zones are and where the terms of debate are. And it's this kind of ambient background conversation that's on in doctors' offices, and airports and people clicking on at home. And while the numbers are small, it's always there. And so, you know, whenever there's a headline - heath care debate, debt ceiling - the impact on American life is huge.
FOLKENFLIK: Ailes and Fox refused to cooperate with Sherman and have denounced him for failing to review his findings with them before publishing. Nor did Fox respond to requests for comments for this story.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.