Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News
Republican media strategist Roger Ailes launched Fox News Channel in 1996, ostensibly as a "fair and balanced" counterpoint to what he regarded as the liberal establishment media. But according to a remarkable document buried deep within the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, the intellectual forerunner for Fox News was a nakedly partisan 1970 plot by Ailes and other Nixon aides to circumvent the "prejudices of network news" and deliver "pro-administration" stories to heartland television viewers.
The memo—called, simply enough, "A Plan For Putting the GOP on TV News"— is included in a 318-page cache of documents detailing Ailes' work for both the Nixon and George H.W. Bush administrations that we obtained from the Nixon and Bush presidential libraries. Through his firms REA Productions and Ailes Communications, Inc., Ailes served as paid consultant to both presidents in the 1970s and 1990s, offering detailed and shrewd advice ranging from what ties to wear to how to keep the pressure up on Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the first Gulf War.
The documents—drawn mostly from the papers of Nixon chief of staff and felon H.R. Haldeman and Bush chief of staff John Sununu—reveal Ailes to be a tireless television producer and joyful propagandist. He was a forceful advocate for the power of television to shape the political narrative, and he reveled in the minutiae constructing political spectacles—stage-managing, for instance, the lighting of the White House Christmas tree with painstaking care. He frequently floated ideas for creating staged events and strategies for manipulating the mainstream media into favorable coverage, and used his contacts at the networks to sniff out the emergence of threatening narratives and offer advice on how to snuff them out—warning Bush, for example, to lay off the golf as war in the Middle East approached because journalists were starting to talk. There are also occasional references to dirty political tricks, as well as some positions that seem at odds with the Tea Party politics of present-day Fox News: Ailes supported government regulation of political campaign ads on television, including strict limits on spending. He also advised Nixon to address high school students, a move that caused his network to shriek about "indoctrination" when Obama did it more than 30 years later.
All 318 pages are available here. First, some highlights:
The Idea Behind Fox News Channel Originated in the Nixon White House
"A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News" (read it here) is an unsigned, undated memo calling for a partisan, pro-GOP news operation to be potentially paid for and run out of the White House. Aimed at sidelining the "censorship" of the liberal mainstream media and delivering prepackaged pro-Nixon news to local television stations, it reads today like a detailed precis for a Fox News prototype. From context provided by other memos, it's apparent that the plan was hatched during the summer of 1970. And though it's not clear who wrote it, the copy provided by the Nixon Library literally has Ailes' handwriting all over it—it appears he was routed the memo by Haldeman and wrote back his enthusiastic endorsement, refinements, and a request to run the project in the margins.
The 15-page plan begins with an acknowledgment that television had emerged as the most powerful news source in large part because "people are lazy" and want their thinking done for them:
Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.
With that in mind, the anonymous GOP official urged the creation of a network "to provide pro-Administration, videotape, hard news actualities to the major cities of the United States." Aware that the national television networks were the enemy, the writer proposed going around them by sending packaged, edited news stories and interviews with politicians directly to local television stations.
This is a plan that places news of importance to localities (Senators and representatives are newsmakers of importance to their localities) on local television news programs while it is still news. It avoids the censorship, the priorities, and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators.
This was before satellite, so the idea was that this GOP news outlet would record an interview with a Republican lawmaker in the morning, rush the tape to National Airport via truck, where it is edited into a package en route, and flown to the lawmaker's district in time to make the local news. Local stations, the writer surmised, would be happy to take the free programming. The plan is spectacularly detailed—it was no idle pipe dream. The writer estimated that it would cost $310,000 to launch and slightly less than that to run each year, sketched out a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule with shooting times, editing times, flight times, and arrival times, and estimated that the editing truck—"Ford, GMC, or IHS chassis; V8 engine; 5 speed transmission; air conditioning; Weight: 22,000GVW"—could be "build from chassis in 60 days." In other words, they were serious.
According to Ailes' copious margin notes, he thought it was an "excellent idea" that didn't go far enough and might encounter some "flap about news management."
Basically a very good idea. It should be expanded to include other members of the administration such as cabinet involved in activity with regional or local interest. Also could involve GOP governors when in DC. Who would purchase equipment and run operation—White House? RNC? Congressional caucus? Will get some flap about news management.
And Ailes thought he'd be just the guy to run such a project, telling Haldeman he wanted in:
Bob—if you decide to go ahead we would as a production company like to bid on packaging the entire project. I know what has to be done and we could test the feasibility for 90 days without making a commitment beyond that point.
A November 1970 memo recounting a meeting between Ailes, Haldeman, and two of Haldeman's aides shows that Ailes got the gig, and that Haldeman had proposed a name:
With regard to the news programming effort as proposed last summer, Ailes feels this is a good idea and that we should be going ahead with it. Haldeman suggested the name 'Capitol News Service' and Ailes will probably be doing more work in this area.
The idea as initially envisioned doesn't appear to have gotten off the ground. But Ailes obviously did do "more work in this area," first with something called Television News Incorporated (TVN), a right-wing news service Ailes worked on in the early 1970s after he got fired by the White House. According to Rolling Stone, TVN was financed by conservative beermonger Joseph Coors, and its mandate sounds exactly like a privately funded version of Capitol News Service: "[TVN] was designed to inject a far-right slant into local news broadcasts by providing news clips that stations could use without credit—and at a fraction of the true costs of production." Ailes was "the godfather behind the scenes" of TVN, Rolling Stone reported, and it was where he first encountered the motto that would make his career: "Fair and balanced."
Ailes at Fox News in 2006 (Getty)
Though it died in 1975, TVN was obviously an early trial run for the powerhouse Fox News would become. The ideas were the same—to route Republican-friendly stories around the gatekeepers at the network news divisions. In Nixon's day, the only way to do that was to pump stories directly to local stations. By 1996, cable television offered a much more powerful alternative. And the whole project began—on the taxpayer's dime—in the White House under the direction of a Watergate felon. One can only imagine how Fox News would report a similar scheme hatched in the Obama White House.
Some of the documents hint obliquely at Ailes' involvement in Nixonian black ops, though none of the ones that ballooned into Watergate. In a 1970 memo to Haldeman (read it here), he wrote "to guard our flank I would like to see us get one of our people inside the Wallace organization immediately," adding that he would "discuss this in more detail in person." The "Wallace organization" was almost certainly a reference to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whose 1968 third-party campaign for president as a segregationist won five southern states and almost cost Nixon the election. At the time Ailes was writing, Wallace was preparing a 1972 run; Ailes apparently sought to infiltrate the campaign in order to gather intelligence or perhaps to sabotage it if it became necessary. Wallace ran for the Democratic nomination, but an attempted assassination in May 1972 left him paralyzed and thwarted any later independent run.
Another apparent dirty trick that never got off the ground involves a 1970 television production Ailes was working on as a response to an anti-war CBS News special. The idea appears to have been to interview pro-war Democrats—including Sens. John Stennis and John McClellan—ostensibly for a news show of some kind (it's not clear from the memo what format the final product would take). But the program was in fact being directed by Ailes and financed by the Tell it to Hanoi Committee, a pro-war Nixon front group. A June 1970 memo (read it here) from someone apparently hired by Ailes to put the show together explained that he was pulling the plug because "the fact that this presentation is White House directed, unbeknownst to the Democrats on the show, presents the possibility of a leak that could severely embarrass the White House and damage significantly its already precarious relationship with the Congress. Should two powerful factors like Stennis and McClellan discover they are dupes for the administration the scandal could damage the White House for a long time to come."
Given the enthusiasm in right-wing circles—including on Fox News—for the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which dealt an enormous blow to the federal government's prerogative to regulate the role of money in political campaigns, Ailes used to hold some rather contrary views on political campaigns. In a June 1971 speech called "CANDIDATE + MONEY + MEDIA = VOTES" (read it here), Ailes argued forcefully for the role of television in political campaigns while lamenting the rise of the canned political ad:
I am in favor of limiting the number of commercials shown shown on TV during a campaign, and in fact would favor a clause requiring no less than 35% of broadcast monies available to a candidate be spent on buying program time instead of commercial time.
That's a radically intrusive proposal, and I'm not aware of anyone serious on either side of the political spectrum who advocates it today. Ailes even goes so far as to endorse the British model of banning political ads except during the three weeks preceding an election:
Three weeks is much too short for this country but, on the other hand, the fatiguing situation we have now with seven semi-announced candidates a year and a half away from the election running around the country Monday morning quarterbacking is also going too far. In my opinion, if the news media would quit trying to create false excitement by covering all potential presidential candidates in terms of a popularity poll, which is meaningless at this stage, they would be taking a giant step forward in journalistic responsibility.
We're about a year-and-a-half away from the 2012 presidential election right now. We've got a bunch of "semi-announced" candidates in the running. I wonder if Fox News is trying to generate any excitement around them by covering them in terms of a popularity poll?
Lighting the Christmas Tree
Ailes' December 1970 memo (read it here) outlining Nixon's role in lighting the White House Christmas tree is a masterwork in political pageantry. Rather than simply throwing a switch, Ailes recommended that "at the end, instead of bringing a child up to the president to light the tree, he walk down to the children seated in front, pick up a small boy, stand him on his chair and ask him to light the tree" because "this simple gesture will do much to humanize him with all the parents."
Ailes' memo scripts the entire event—Nixon is to pick the boy in the "sixth seat of the front row on the right side" and "the president should face camera (2) and keep his arm around the boy"—and recommends that applause be banned since most of the audience will be wearing mittens or gloves and it will therefore "sound like a herd of elephants." Hilariously, the memo includes this bit of megalomaniacal wisdom from Nixon press secretary Ron Zeigler:
Ziegler indicated to me that it is important the president ask the child to help him light the tree and both throw the switch together. Otherwise, the press will play up the boy's name as lighting the Christmas tree.
Don't let the six-year-old steal the spotlight!
Eliminating Poverty and Pollution by 1980
In a 1969 memo (read it here), Ailes argued that the major issue facing the American people was "quality of life," and urged Nixon to devote the rest of his administration to easing it. His solution? Declare the end of poverty and pollution:
He should make a major address on this and state publicly that poverty, air and water pollution will be eliminated in America totally by 1980. This is similar to Kennedy's challenge for the moon. It isn't met in this administration but when it's reached he gets the credit.
When poverty is finally defeated decades or centuries from now, Americans will no doubt look back on the Nixon White House with pride and admiration.
Ailes can be forgiven for inaccurately predicting the end of pollution—his job was just to come up with useful things for Nixon to say. What's less forgivable is his galactically wrong assessment of Nixon's prospects in his 1972 re-election effort. For someone whose job it was to understand public sentiment, Ailes' advice was exactly wrong: "Unless a single major event captures the headlines close to that election we will not see a landslide of any kind.... It will probably be a very close contest." In 1972, Nixon won 60% of the popular vote and carried every state save Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
Nixon's Address to High School Students
When Barack Obama announced early in his administration that he would conduct a live nationwide address to high school and students, Fox News hyperventilated and described it as an attempt to "indoctrinate children to support him politically." When Richard Nixon decided to address high school and college students in 1970, as this memo to Haldeman from deputy assistant to the president Dwight L. Chapin makes clear (read it here), Roger Ailes produced the event:
Roger Ailes is developing a plan which he is going to phone in to me tomorrow morning.... Ailes likes the idea of having the president originate live from one of the schools and then shift to the other schools to answer questions.
"I will look into the president's ties."
Among Ailes' chief duties, according to this 1970 memo he wrote to Haldeman (read it here), was selecting Nixon's ties:
I will view the videotape of the HEW Veto to see if there were any shimmers from the design on the tie. My preliminary investigation, however, shows that there were none and whoever reported it may have a set that is not scanning properly. I will look into the president's ties and select those that can definitely be used.
Ailes stopped his consulting for the White House some time in 1971—he was essentially fired by Nixon after he was quoted disparaging the president in Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President 1968. But he was a feared figure, known back then for the cut-throat brand of corporate politics that has served him so well at News Corp. While he was being eased out and replaced with two new Hollywood men, Bill Carruthers and Mark Goode, Chapin warned Haldeman in a memo (read it here) that Ailes could go rogue if he wasn't handled properly:
I have a gut feeling we are bordering on disaster if we do not get Roger Ailes in and squared away soon. If we can handle Roger in a proper way and quickly, I think we can avoid any bad feelings. If Roger finds out that Carruthers and Mark Goode are coming on his own, he just may launch a small offensive which I doubt that we need very much at this time.
An undated memo (read it here) laying out talking points for Haldeman in a meeting with Ailes shows the White House trying to let him down gently:
We have not been able to build the relationship between you and the president which we had hoped to see. It is no one's fault. We face this sort of thing everyday. There are different directions that we can go which I think you can explore and which will continue to reap you rewards. The president wants to try a new direction and feels we should not only have a new approach, but new people.
The consolation prizes offered by Haldeman included a consulting gig with the Republican National Committee; a talk show featuring Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell; or the "development of a TV series with a pro-administration plot."
A Megatonnage Dose of Media Hammering
Ailes with George H.W. Bush in 1998. (White House Press Office)
Most of the records in the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library detailing Ailes' work for the first Bush administration have not been released yet. But the documents that the library did provide in response to our request show Ailes helping Bush navigate a perilous political environment that should be familiar to Obama: A lingering recession, a crisis in the Middle East, and a persistent sense fed by a hostile news outlets that the president is out of touch.
So in August of 1990, days after Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait, Ailes wrote a memo (read it here) to Bush's chief of staff John Sununu warning that the press was preparing to paint Bush as disengaged and shrewdly laying out a plan to combat the perception:
I have had at least half a dozen calls very recently from the press trying to lead me into discussions like, 'fiddling while Rome burns,' 'golfing while Americans are being taken hostage,' etc. The only reason this is of concern to me is that I notice the networks beginning to show more and more footage of the president in the golf cart. It is very clear that they have a point of view which does not represent a fair picture of how the president is handling the crisis... It is my judgment that the American people simply don't believe this about George Bush, and therefore there will not be a major repercussion. On the other hand, I know first hand what a megatonnage dose of media hammering the same message can do.... Do a little more fishing and less golfing.
Ailes at the launch of Fox News in 1996 alongside his boss, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch (AP)
Ailes, of course, knows from using golf to paint a president as remote and out of touch. Here are some recent Fox News headlines: "Obama Finds Time for NCAA Bracket, Golf Amid Global Turmoil," "Obama Chooses Golf Over Funeral," and "Barack Obama Plays Golf More Times than George W. Bush."
In a November 1990 memo to Sununu (read it here), Ailes lays out Bush's wardrobe in detail—"it is my judgment that he should not wear helmets or hats"—and recommends using military resources to concoct a fake briefing between Bush and his commanders in order to "heighten the drama for the news media."
For ceremonial functions, the president should dress in suit and tie and be the president of the United States. In the field he should where khaki slacks, open shirts, long sleeves with the sleeves rolled up. It is my judgment that he should not wear helmets or hats. A fatigue jacket would be fine in the field with soldiers on Thanksgiving Day.
I am sure he will schedule a briefing session with a commander in the field. If the session is scheduled for one hour, and lasted for five hours, it will heighten the drama for the news media and intensify the pressure on Hussein.
All in all, the documents show Ailes to be an engaged, brilliant, and often catty adviser with an obsessive, almost evangelical focus on the power of television to manipulate people for political purposes. It's almost as though, frustrated by the failure of candidates and presidents to hew closely enough to his political instructions, Ailes founded a network to demonstrate their practical application—see, this is how you use golf to undermine a president. And they show a sustained effort across two White House administrations to undermine and control the press—an effort that, were it revealed to be taking place inside the Obama White House, would send Ailes and his televised outrage machine into epic fits of apoplexy.
Ailes did not respond to a request for comment.
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