UPDATE: On Thursday, Ailes apologized to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for describing NPR brass as “Nazis.” He wrote: “I was of course ad-libbing and should not have chosen that word but I was angry at the time because of NPR’s willingness to censor Juan Williams for not being liberal enough... My now considered opinion 'nasty, inflexible bigot' would have worked better.” Abraham H. Foxman, ADL’s national director and a Holocaust survivor, responded: “I welcome Roger Ailes apology, which is as sincere as it is heartfelt. Nazi comparisons of this nature are clearly inappropriate and offensive. While I wish Roger had never invoked that terminology, I appreciate his efforts to immediately reach out and to retract his words before they did any further harm.”
NPR took sharp exception to the latest Ailes statement, with spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm saying: “We are disappointed that Mr. Ailes directed his apology only to the ADL, and amazed that his statement substituted a new insult to replace his original scurrilous remark. This ongoing name-calling is offensive to NPR, its member stations and the 27 million listeners who rely on us."
When Jon Stewart was appearing on the O’Reilly Factor a few weeks back, he stopped by Roger Ailes’ office for an hour-long chat about politics.
“He’s obviously really, really smart,” the Fox News chairman says. “He openly admits he’s sort of an atheist and a socialist. He once told me he would’ve voted for Norman Thomas.”
Ailes was appraising the Daily Show star in a friendly, good-natured tone. But that tone changed when the conversation turned to Stewart’s continuous carping about the excesses of cable news:
“He hates conservative views. He hates conservative thoughts. He hates conservative verbiage. He hates conservatives.”
There was more.
“He’s crazy. If it wasn’t polarized, he couldn’t make a living. He makes a living by attacking conservatives and stirring up a liberal base against it.”
I tried to interrupt.
“He loves polarization. He depends on it. If liberals and conservatives are all getting along, how good would that show be? It’d be a bomb.”
But Stewart played clips of MSNBC as well as Fox at his Washington rally last month, casting them as part of the “24-hour politico, pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator.” He says his concern is not the ideology of cable channels but the tone of the discourse.
“Oh, horseshit,” Ailes shot back. “Look what he does to Sarah Palin.” If Stewart wants to go after cable hosts for the entertainment value, fine, “but don’t give me a social speech on the steps of the Washington Monument. Don’t lapse into non-comedy.”
The onetime Republican strategist is a man of strong opinions, in case that wasn’t clear, and he also puts his money where his mouth is. When Juan Williams was fired by National Public Radio for remarks he made on Fox about fearing airplane passengers in Muslim garb, Ailes rushed to award him a three-year, $2 million contract.
• Lou Dobbs’ Big Fox Comeback • Vicious Infighting at NBC News• Part I: Roger Ailes on Obama, Murdoch, and Beck “A guy who gets fired and humiliated in the press can lose a lot of confidence,” Ailes says. Calling Williams “a pure liberal,” Ailes says he wanted to compensate the pundit for his losses because he was “mad” and “I didn’t want him to have to call his wife and say we lost money.”
Then he turned his sights on NPR executives.
“They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view. They don’t even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda. They are basically Air America with government funding to keep them alive.”
It’s hardly surprising that Ailes would defend Williams or castigate NPR. But trotting out such Third Reich rhetoric seems, shall we say, disproportionate to the situation. NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher says only that “we will let Mr. Ailes’ words speak for themselves.”
Speaking of going too far, I asked Ailes about a recent crack by Bill O’Reilly that seemed to envision a violent end for Dana Milbank. The Washington Post columnist had criticized Fox’s election coverage as biased and neglected to acknowledge that numerous Democrats had appeared as commentators.
“Does Sharia law say we can behead Dana Milbank?” O’Reilly asked his colleague Megyn Kelly. He added: “That was a joke for you Media Matters people out there.” Milbank wrote a follow-up column objecting to the violent imagery, saying he was a friend of Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in that fashion in Pakistan. O'Reilly then accused the reporter of casting a bit of humor as a serious threat.
So should O’Reilly be joshing about beheading Milbank?
Ailes couldn’t resist: “Well, I would have cut a little lower.”
He quickly got serious: “No, he shouldn’t joke about beheading… Bill knows he probably shouldn’t have said it. He just shot off his mouth.”
Ailes maintains that Fox’s reporting—along with such factors as good video, high morale, and low turnover—contribute to its ratings success. But he does not quarrel with the notion that his brand is most closely identified with such conservatives as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Karl Rove and a slew of potential GOP presidential candidates.
“If you’ve got a big star like O’Reilly, it does overshadow what the hard-news guys do during the day. That’s the nature of television,” he says.
My own view is that Fox’s opinion lineup has become more aggressively conservative. Two years ago, Beck was still working at HLN. Sarah Palin was an ex-vice-presidential candidate. Bernie Goldberg, the author of Bias and other books, was regularly paired with American University’s Jane Hall in media analysis segments; now he appears alone. Hannity was sharing his prime-time program with Alan Colmes.
Ailes notes that Hannity has plenty of Democrats on in his Great American Panel segment. Actually, one out of three guests is usually of the Democratic persuasion. Nice try.
Despite these examples, the Fox chief isn’t buying the argument that the network has shifted rightward.
“Bill has not moved to the right,” Ailes says. “He’s moved to the left. He’s been very fair and balanced on Obama, Bush, everyone.”
What’s more, “he’s never given money to political candidates.” Ailes paused. “Because he’s cheap.”
That was a joke, Media Matters folks.
Ailes has nearly 2-1/2 years left on a contract that pays him roughly $15 million to $20 million a year, much of it based on incentives for hitting certain targets. The 70-year-old executive shows no signs of slowing down, which should delight those who admire Fox News and depress those who view it as a menace.
“With the country in the trouble it’s in,” Ailes says, “it’s important to stay in the debate and make sure the information is getting out.”
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources , Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.