(Random House, $28)
“The only worthwhile biography of Roger Ailes is an unauthorized biography,” said Erik Wemple in The Washington Post. Gabriel Sherman’s scathing new study of the controversial Fox News chief makes that point clear when it discloses that a Fox publicist refused to let the first-time author talk to Ailes unless he agreed that the book would include no reporting that made its subject look bad. Instead of accepting that condition, the New York magazine media writer interviewed people around Ailes—614 in all—and came back with “a portrait of a manipulating, conniving, controlling, petty, and fear-mongering man.” If you happen to already hate Fox News and its conservative slant, you’ll eat up every scene.
Not for 500 pages you won’t, said Michael Wolff in Slate.com. Sherman “is not a very good writer,” and he dislikes his subject so much that there’s no compelling reason to follow Ailes’s five-decade rise from a rural Ohio childhood to the inner circle of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign before he’s finally asked to launch Fox News in the mid-1990s. Ailes speaks frequently to liberal journalists, so it’s inexcusable that “people out to settle scores” with Sherman’s subject get to tell almost every anecdote. Worse, the author is “telling the wrong story,” trying to convince readers that Ailes has destroyed the mainstream news culture and “divided the country.” In reality, Fox is one small corner of America. Network news once enjoyed an audience of 40 million. Ailes’s crew regularly reaches just 1.1 million.
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If Sherman’s goal was to paint Ailes as an evil genius, he gets only half the job done, said Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic. His reporting “leaves little doubt about the maliciousness of his subject,” but he appears “so awed” by Ailes’s skills as a media innovator and political strategist that he consistently overstates the impact of those skills. Reading the 1968 passages, “one gets the sense Sherman might really believe that Ailes made Nixon president.” Reading about the 2012 presidential campaign cycle, you might forget that Ailes not only failed to prevent President Obama from winning a second term but couldn’t even convince his preferred Republican candidates to run. “The idea that we live in a country where Roger Ailes—or any television executive—can decide who is president is horrifying. Fortunately, we don’t.”
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