Fox News’ Roger Ailes Biographer Gabriel Sherman Rebuts Criticism of Sourcing, Defends Reporting

Sherman Ailes

During a Q&A, author of “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” tells TheWrap about his quest to understand Ailes

Soon after Gabriel Sherman began investigating Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes for a new book, he  started to feel like he was being investigated, too.

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As Sherman notes in his unauthorized biography of Ailes, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” a Dec. 21 Breitbart column quoted a “Fox source” calling him “Jayson Blair on steroids” — a reference to the New York Times reporter who famously fabricated stories.

The criticism didn’t end with the book’s release last week. Some reviews, including one in The New York Times, have noted that Sherman didn’t get to talk with Ailes for the book, and said it hurts his narrative. TheWrap went to Sherman for his response — and to talk about whether he’s been offered a movie deal yet. (Full disclosure: Interviewer L.A. Ross previously worked at Fox News.)

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TheWrap: What was the genesis of the book?

Gabriel Sherman: I’ve covered media for a decade, and on the media beat there’s no bigger story than Fox News. You know, it has revolutionized the news business, it generates around a billion dollars of profit for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. And I had written a series of articles for New York magazine about cable news and I really felt that there was so much more to explore.

And early on in my reporting I realized that the way to tell the Fox News story was through the remarkable life and career of Roger Ailes. Because the network is the complete expression of his world view. And to understand Fox, you need to understand Roger Ailes.

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The book has received a lot of attention–it’s slated to debut on Feb. 2 at No. 9 on the New York Times Bestseller list, which is huge for a media book. How have you been handling how the book has been received by critics, by the news media (which has a vested interest in the subject matter), and the public at large?

Sherman: I’m thrilled that there is so much interest in this book. As a first-time author, I love that my work is being debated and engaged with in a serious way. And you know, what’s interesting to point out is the intense interest and speculation about this book began long before it was published. You know, I had the unique situation of being written about and covered while I was working on it. And to me that is all revealing – that reveals that there is an intense interest in the culture to understand who Roger Ailes is and how he’s revolutionized media. And so the fact that this book is being debated and argued about is a good – I’m thrilled about it.

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Ailes’ camp didn’t authorize the book or give you interviews, even though you made many overtures to him. The response from Fox News whenever TheWrap does stories on “Loudest Voice” is “we never gave access.” Tell me about the process of trying to get comment from Ailes.

Sherman: It’s all laid out in the Note on Sources which I – you know, as an investigative reporter, I want to be very transparent with my readers about the sourcing of my work. So I laid it out in detail in my Note on Sources. But, you know, I can tell you that I reached out to Fox News at the very beginning of the process and was completely straight with them about my intentions – that I was going do this book, I welcomed and wanted their participation, and I made it clear that the book was going to happen either way.

I was not going to allow them to, you know, control or dictate the terms by which I could do my reporting. But I solicited their cooperation early on, and, as I write in the Note on Sources, both in person and in writing I communicated with Roger Ailes about my progress and wanted to sit down, and told him I would discuss every single fact in the book.

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Speaking of that Note on Sources, your book is very well researched and cited, but there’s been some criticism about why you didn’t put that note up front and dispense with it at the beginning.

Sherman: I would just say that this book follows a long tradition of works of investigative reporting that have very detailed notes on sources. It’s clearly marked in the table of contents. Any reader who is interested in my book can flip – see in the table of contents there is a Note on Sources, and they can flip to the back, and it’s all listed right there. So I don’t understand this notion that – whether the note should be placed at the front or the back. It doesn’t change the fact that I am completely transparent with my readers about my sourcing.

I want to make one more point on that. It’s important to point out: I am not a character in this book. This is a book of reported history. It is written in – I don’t appear in the first-person at all in the narrative itself. The story is about Roger Ailes and Fox News. And so the Note on Sources, which comes after the narrative, is the only place in the book where I appear in the first person to explain to the reader the process by which the book was reported. So there was a lot of consideration put into you know, where – where and how I would explain the sourcing.

And so this idea has no merit that it is somehow tucked away in the back of the book. It’s clearly listed in the table of contents, and as I mentioned, any reader who is interested in the book can clearly open to the Note on Sources, and I state very clearly the means by which the book is reported.

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Now that the book is out, have you tried, or will you try again to get Ailes on the record?

Sherman: Well, I mean, since the book has been out it’s been a whirlwind of media coverage, so I have not reached out to Roger Ailes. I’ve been consumed with all of the attention on the book. But I would of course welcome the opportunity to sit down with Roger Ailes any time. I continue to cover the media, and Ailes continues to be a huge story on this beat. So I would jump at the opportunity to sit down with him.

Some of the pushback that I’m getting from folks close to Ailes is that the people you got to speak to you agreed to do so because they have an axe to grind. Is that the case? How did you get so many people to share such juicy stories?

Sherman: Has Fox challenged any specific facts in the book?

No. It’s always the “we never gave him access to Ailes” boilerplate.

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Sherman: I think it’s important to note that since the book has been out and the explosive revelations have been reported on widely in the media, Fox has not challenged any of the specific accuracy of the reporting, because the reporting is bedrock and solid. And so this idea that they’re making general statements about the book to me seems like an effort to distract from the rigorous reporting that went into it.

As to the sources I talked to – I went out and talked to everybody. And as a reporter, it’s my job to understand sources’ motivations, and I feel the book takes into account everyone’s motivations and provides a measured and nuanced portrait of how Ailes built Fox into a phenomenon. And you know this effort to try to characterize my sources seems to me to be transparent on their part about distracting from the actual reporting that’s in the book.

I think it’s important to note I went out and talked to everyone. Friends of Roger Ailes, his brother, his closest colleagues, his rivals, his political – former political clients. This is a book that puts the camera at all different angles on Roger Ailes. You know, I try to capture him from many different angles and perspectives to give the reader a full portrait. And so, you know, this idea that sources have an axe to grind just has no merit.

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Did you get any information from Brian Lewis, the former Fox News exec who was fired in July 2013 and allegedly paid $8 million to keep from spilling what he knew about the network?

Sherman: I don’t discuss sourcing. I don’t discuss sourcing one way or the other. Brian Lewis was Roger Ailes’ spokesperson, and I write in the Note on Sources that I communicated with him when I was reaching out to discuss the book project. People can speculate all they want about my sources. … I think it’s interesting that people would play a guessing game as to my sources. But you know, when you see in the Note on Sources when I went out and interviewed hundreds of people – we could be here all day playing a guessing game and I’m not going to participate in it.

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Were you worried, when he left Fox, that he would spill all his secrets and undercut your book and all the research you did?

Sherman: It’s such a hypothetical question. What I would say is that this book is not a work of breaking news. It’s the product of three years of reporting that spans more than 50 years of history and captures the sweep of Ailes’ life and career and places Fox News into a historical context, which has never happened — which has not happened prior to this book.

So I – there was lots of media coverage of Fox in the run up to the publication of my book, including my own New York Magazine cover story on Roger Ailes. I wasn’t overly concerned with any single news development on the Fox News beat, because what this book was trying to do – in addition to breaking news and shedding new light on the inner workings of Fox – was also to step back and to take a broader look at what Ailes has created.

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In the research and the writing of this book, what was the most surprising, shocking, or interesting story you came across?

Sherman: Oh well, there are so many. To me as a reporter – this was a reporter’s dream to work on this book. Because, you know, every day got more interesting. I mean to me what was so surprising is that Fox is so much more than a media story. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Roger Ailes is, you know, one of the few people of his generation that has really changed the world, and he’s done it by creating this cult of personality around him that — it’s a secret hidden world.

And the most surprising thing for me was getting inside that world and revealing all of its complexity, its weirdness, its dark side, its inspiring side – I mean, Ailes the charismatic figure. I mean to many people inside Fox he is almost like a spiritual figure. So to me the most surprising thing was just how much better of a story it was than I even could have dreamed of at the beginning of the reporting.

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I’ve met Roger Ailes once, and I know what you mean. There are always two people with him at any time – he never walks down a hallway by himself.

Sherman: I mean, there’s one episode I write about in the book, when he has a meeting with [an] executive and he calls him into his office – and this is when Ailes had an office on the eighth floor of the then-News Corporation headquarters in Rupert Murdoch’s executive suite, and Ailes is facing – has his back faced to the door, and he doesn’t turn around, and this executive was very put off by it because Ailes wasn’t where he thought he would be or how he would greet him. That shows you how Ailes is a master at controlling the space around him and creating this aura of power.

And he writes in his book, “You Are the Message,” which if you haven’t read I would recommend it – it’s a fascinating window into how he’s amassed power, into how he’s used communication to amass power – but he writes in his book “You are the Message” that if you can project yourself, you can control the time and the space around you, and I really think Ailes does that. And that’s what makes him such a compelling figure to write about, and that’s why he transcends his own world of media. He is a cultural figure.

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Fox is a cultural phenomenon and people are interested in Fox, but they’re also interested in this person.

Sherman: Yeah. I mean, I always view stories as – at their heart they’re human stories. They take place in different worlds, but at the end of the day the world of media is populated by human beings. And in the same way [AMC’s] “Mad Men” is a story that takes place inside an advertising agency, you know, one of the reasons why the show connected with such a wide audience is because the characters resonated with people.

And in that way, I think of Fox News in a similar light. It is in the world of cable news and media and politics, but it ultimately is this world of people, and Ailes is at the center of it, and he’s this larger than life figure and he’s collected these people around him who are all fascinating character studies in their own way. And my book brings them to life and recreates this world that it’s not only designed for media people, it’s a great story from beginning to end. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that’s why I’m excited that the book is being widely received far beyond the confines of the media world, it’s being received by a wide readership.

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Now since I’m in Hollywood, I have to ask the question. Have you gotten any offers from studios or production companies to turn this into a movie?

Sherman: Well I – it’s too early to talk about that, but I think Ailes is an incredibly cinematic character, and would find a natural home on the big screen.

So no offers yet?

Sherman: No comment.