A Mixed Legacy Explored

Book Chronicles Career of Fox News Founder

Posted June 16, 2008 at 4:20pm

Forrest Gump, Niccolo Machiavelli and the wizard from the Wizard of Oz might not seem to have much in common. But author Kerwin Swint compares media giant Roger Ailes to all three in his new book, “Dark Genius: The Influential Career of Legendary Political Operative and Fox News Founder Roger Ailes.”

The first characterization rings most true, at least in this book, as Swint chronicles the career of a man who “has been actively involved in most of the big political media moments of the last generation.”

The book opens with a

presidential debate between then-Sen. John Kennedy (D-Mass.) and then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, emphasizing the changing role of television in political campaigning. Ailes steps onto the scene shortly after, coaching Nixon through a media campaign that helped him rebound from his 1960 defeat and win the 1968 presidential election. From the outset, Swint praises Ailes’ creativity and savvy not only in orchestrating campaign events, but also in producing television programs, which seems to be his natural talent.

“He’s been part of that process that’s been really focused on staging appearances,” Swint said in an interview. “He has been a very good practitioner of that.”

Ailes’ story gains momentum with George H.W. Bush’s controversial 1988 campaign for presidency. Swint repeatedly returns to the subject of the Willie Horton ad, a commercial created by a group that supported Bush. The author argues that Ailes orchestrated the commercial, purposely using the menacing mug shot of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had attacked and brutalized a couple while on a weekend furlough authorized by Bush opponent Michael Dukakis, to stoke racial fears. It is this type of negative campaigning that Swint seems to see as a large part of Ailes’ legacy.

Though he explores extensively Ailes’ other business ventures, including his involvement in CNBC and eventually in founding Fox News, Swint said the attack campaigns that dominated the late 1980s and early 1990s are still very much present in politics today.

Ailes proved, according to Swint, “how effective dirty campaigning can be.”

“If you do it the right way, if you go after your opponent where he is vulnerable, it can be devastating,” Swint said.

Interestingly enough, the book ultimately suggests that the tactics that made Ailes a consulting powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s made him a kind of pariah on the political scene in the early 1990s. Swint said he wrote the book because Ailes is a “fascinating character” and less is known about him than other media figures because he “doesn’t seek out the limelight,” though his ruthless practices and big personality have often landed him there.

In the aptly titled “Dark Genius,” Swint gives Ailes credit for his brilliance and skill, but he becomes increasingly critical of Ailes’ involvement with CNBC and his later partnership with Rupert Murdoch. Swint suggests that Ailes used his various powerful positions at the short-lived Television News Inc. in the 1970s, CNBC and Fox to unabashedly push a conservative agenda. He devotes several chapters to media magnate Rupert Murdoch and the Ailes-Murdoch venture that is Fox News, taking particular aim at the network’s claims to be fair, balanced and objective.

“Dark Genius” is an engaging read, offering a perspective not only on a controversial figure and his work of the past four decades, but also a history of how politics and media have become intertwined. Swint offers enough background for readers unfamiliar with Ailes or his two worlds to appreciate the context in which he worked.

Swint’s book will be particularly interesting to readers following the presidential campaigns of presumptive nominees Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Swint said he believes themes raised throughout the book will surface in the months leading up to the presidential election.

In addition to very personal campaigning, Swint, who is a political science professor specializing in campaigns and elections and mass media at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said the issue of race is likely to come up at some point.

“I’m sure it’s going to be an issue,” he said. “Not [for] McCain himself, but I think a lot of people on McCain’s side see it as a target.”

“I think we’re going to see how much the country has grown in the last 20 years — or not,” Swint added. “It might tell us, also, are those kinds of [negative] attacks still credible?”