THE RIGHT'S CHOICE MARCH 20, 2013
“I asked Roger, ‘Why’d you agree to let me do the book?’” Zev Chafets told me yesterday. We were speeding up Central Park West in a News Corp.–provided town car. “And he said, ‘Because you have a kind face.’ I laughed.” The 60-something Chafets, whose goateed face actually is somewhat kind, laughed again now, and continued. “He said, ‘I also checked you out.’ And what he checked out, obviously, was that I am not a guy who has a hard-on for people like Roger Ailes.”
If you are the head of Fox News, and you want a convincing yet friendly portrait published, you need a writer whom the mainstream media won’t dismiss as a partisan hack, but one who also will play ball. That’s Zev Chafets. The author of more than a dozen books, Chafets has established himself as someone with special access to conservative figures, earned by the sympathetic profiles he writes of them. He seems credible, writes well, does actual reporting, and is published in center to center-left outlets like the New York Times Magazine and Newsweek. He frequently identifies himself as a member of the “mainstream media” or “lamestream media,” complete with quotation marks to deny an endorsement of either appellation. While not airbrushing his subjects’ warts away completely, his method is to err toward letting his subjects get the last word in—as he writes in Roger Ailes: Off Camera, out yesterday, “I have left him front and center, allowing him to speak for himself.”
“I picked Zev,” Ailes told Howard Kurtz in an interview published today. “He’s an actual author, a good journalist. He’s mature and thoughtful and not out to hurt people.”
Later in our conversation, Chafets expressed the same sentiment, more bluntly. “Ailes is a good judge of character,” he said. “And he figured out that I wasn’t going to fuck him. And he was right. I didn’t.”
Perhaps a better question for the press-averse Ailes, then, would be: Why pick anyone at all? Ailes, whose spokespeople at Fox did not return repeated requests for comment, reportedly tapped Chafets to write the book—which is not authorized, in the sense that Ailes did not have final cut over it—in part to counterbalance another biography, likely to be more hostile, that journalist Gabriel Sherman was already working on.
“You want to know if this is a trick that I wanted to pull on Gabriel Sherman?” Chafets asked. He insisted that to his knowledge Ailes had not, in effect, handpicked him specifically to write a more favorable book. When I pressed him, he told me a story.
When Chafets was a press secretary to Menachem Begin, the first right-wing prime minister in Israel’s history, in the late 1970s, he accompanied Israel’s ambassador to Cairo. Returning to their apartment one night, they found a large wreath of dead flowers on the doorstep. An expert on the Arab world convinced them this was a message from the Egyptians: the nascent peace process was dead. But soon, they learned that the occupant of the apartment next door to theirs had thrown a party, from which the flowers had been left over. “Putting things together like that,” Chafets concluded, “sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong.”
The evidence that Ailes intended Chafets’s book to counterbalance Sherman's The Loudest Voice in the Room, out May 211—is much stronger than a wreath of dead flowers. Sherman’s book deal was announced in February 2011. That May, he published a long, damning article in New York arguing, with many fresh facts, that several Ailes missteps—including the hirings of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin—had left the Republican Party vulnerable heading into 2012. As late as December 2011, Sherman reported that Ailes was working on an autobiography—a project whose existence Chafets confirmed to me (Sherman declined to comment for this story). Then, in April 2012, the New York Daily News—rival to Rupert Murdoch’s Post—reported that Ailes “is helping Zev Chafets fast-track a book” about Fox out of fear for Sherman’s tome. (A month later, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller insinuated the same thing.) According to Chafets’ own timeline, he completed the book in less than a year,2 and even so, its publication schedule would seem to be expedited. The publisher is Sentinel, an explicitly conservative Penguin imprint. It did beat Sherman’s book, by more than two months. And it is very kind to Ailes, even obsequious. “For the most part,” wrote Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani yesterday, “Chafets serves as little more than a plastic funnel for Mr. Ailes’s observations.”
“Did Ailes like the book?” said Chafets. “Yeah, he did like the book. Am I surprised that he liked it? No, I’m not surprised. He wanted me to do the book.”
A little after noon yesterday, I met Chafets at News Corp.’s midtown headquarters, where he had been doing a radio hit (the day before, he had appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and Fox News’ “The Sean Hannity Show”). In the car, he began to tell me how the book came to be. After the 2010 publication of his biography Rush Limbaugh: Army of One, he was angry at Fox News, which at the last minute had cancelled several appearances (reportedly a Limbaugh-Bill O’Reilly feud was to blame). Still, Chafets recognized Ailes as an obvious follow-up: after all, Ailes had produced Limbaugh’s short-lived 1990s television show; Chafets interviewed Ailes for the Limbaugh book and thanked him in its acknowledgements. Limbaugh vouched for Chafets, which got him in Ailes’ door for a cup of coffee. (Limbaugh told me over email that Ailes “asked about my experience with Zev and I told him it was pleasant and enjoyable and that the end result was cool.”) Over coffee, Ailes, planning to write an autobiography, passed on Chafets’ book idea. Chafets countered with the idea for a profile, which would appear in the New York Times Magazine. Ailes said he would think about it. An Ailes spokesperson got back to Chafets: the profile was a no-go, but Ailes would be interested in doing a book.
Though Chafets was not able to pinpoint exactly when this happened, he guessed it was the spring or summer of 2011, and added, “I can assure you it was before I heard the name Gabriel Sherman.”3 He hashed out details with Ailes. “What I told him at the beginning was that I’m going to play with the cards face up, and I wanted him to play with the cards face up,” Chafets said. Ailes assented, promised him access, and was not offered final cut, making the biography “unauthorized.” And Chafets negotiated a deal with Sentinel. He was at work by the end of 2011.
“What Roger’s motives were didn’t really concern me very much,” he said, “as long as they didn’t seem to me to be criminal or deleterious to me getting the book that I wanted.”
“My approach to this book—which was the same approach I normally take to books and articles—is that I want to see the person as much as I can, I want to get as close as I can and watch,” Chafets told me. By this point, we were eating lunch—fried chicken and yams—at the cafeteria on the second floor of the United House of Prayer For All People, a church around the corner from the Apollo in Harlem. Chafets sometimes comes here two or three times a week: He likes the soul food, and it’s not far from where he lives. “I didn’t write a muckracking book about Roger Ailes,” he said. “I didn’t set out to eviscerate Roger Ailes. People who want him eviscerated in print will never be happy with anything less than that.”
Roger Ailes: Off Camera immaculately follows Chafets’ method. It veers not infrequently into hagiography (“Fox News was now up and running. Ailes had his team. Now he was ready to take on the world”). It is incurious: You hear from professional liberal press critics like Mark Danner, but nobody with actual beefs, like Glenn Beck. It is stenographical where its source would want it to be stenographical and, just as importantly, critical where its source would least mind it being critical.
For example, when Vanity Fair’s website published an Off Camera excerpt earlier this month, the “news” was Ailes’ off-color, even inappropriate remarks about Newt Gingrich, Vice President Biden, and President Obama—as though we would expect Roger Ailes thinks anything different of these men. Indeed, Ailes told Kurtz this morning, “I looked at it and thought, someone’s made outrageous statements about our leaders, and that someone sounded like me.” Kurtz’s article’s headline? “Roger Ailes Couldn’t Care Less What You Think About His Obama Comments.”
Moments like these are plentiful in the book, but they are like bombs deliberately exploded out of harm’s range. One hears the explosion and so assumes there is journalistic balance. But the subject has not been hurt.4
This is Chafets’s M.O. He aggrandized Mike Huckabee, suggesting the then-presidential aspirant could prove the next Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell; at the same time, he acknowledged of a proposal, “Huckabee does not have an impressive grasp of its details,” and noted, as any remotely fair profile of Huckabee would, that as Arkansas governor, he “took a lot of gifts.” His profile of Jim Cramer painted the Mad Money host as a sell-out, but went easy when it came to Jon Stewart’s critique that Cramer and CNBC5 had helped inflate the financial bubble that popped spectacularly in the fall of 2008. Limbaugh was “far from pious on matters of adult behavior,” in Chafets’ words, and had an extremely high opinion of himself. Rudy Giuliani was a hero who now makes a lot of money off of being a hero. Guerilla sting-artist James O’Keefe was unscrupulous. Hardly risky, groundbreaking stuff. Chafets seems uninterested in using his access to convey larger or unlikelier truths about his subjects.
This is not about politics. (Indeed, it’s not only conservatives he does this to: his profile of San Antonio mayor Julián Castro is overwhelmingly positive, and also features the subject’s mother talking about how she hates the Alamo.) Chafets, who was born William Chafets but took the name “Zev” when he moved to Israel decades ago,6 says he is a liberal who would have voted for Barack Obama both times. “He is the kind of guy who will always be contrarian,” said his good friend the writer Michael Kramer. “If he’s among a group of people whom you would define as right-wing, he’ll go way over to the other side. He’s a delight to talk to because of that.” Chafets's book on the Baseball Hall of Fame argues that players whom we believe or even know used illicit performance-enhancing substances should not be barred entry. Friends additionally describe a boisterous, big personality. It is not difficult to see how he could have been seduced by similar personalities once they were his subjects, politics aside. “You can’t think of an issue on which I don’t disagree with those guys—except Israel,” Chafets said, “those guys” being Fox News. “I’m not a right-winger, and right-wingers aren’t stupid enough to mistake me for one.” They are, however, evidently smart enough to recognize him as a friendly profiler.
Partly, one imagines, Chafets does this for the gig. More than once he mentioned that a prime goal was, well, to sell books. A sympathetic, access-driven profile of a conservative in the mainstream press can birth a self-fulfilling niche. Limbaugh confirmed that he agreed to cooperate for the book after reading the profile, and that he had agreed to the profile after reading Chafets’ iconoclastic New York Daily News columns from the beginning of the last decade.
But Chafets’s apolitical style is also the result of a distinct journalistic philosophy. “I think it’s all entertainment,” he argued. “I think reporters who go out on news stories know what they’re looking for before they get there. I think that they’re almost always obligated to get what they get because of where they work, and even when reporters tell me, ‘Oh, no one ever told me what to write’—sometimes I don’t laugh out loud.” Not coincidentally, Chafets shares this philosophy with his subject. “That’s Ailes’s genius,” he told me. “He took all the pretensions and bullshit and phoniness of this profession and turned them on their head. ‘Fair and balanced.’ ‘We report, you decide.’ Those are ways of saying, ‘I know what you’re up to.’”
For someone who views journalism this way—and in moments of despair, it’s hard not to agree with it—a retreat into “putting the subject front and center” makes a certain kind of sense. As Chafets put it, “I’ll just play it the way it lies, and the readers will be smart enough to figure it out—some people will admire him, some won’t.”
If Chafets were writing this profile of Chafets, it would end now. While Chafets understands that there is a difference between pure stenography and what he does, he fails to appreciate how crucial that difference is; how much onus is placed on the journalist to compensate for that difference; and how the journalist lets the reader down when he fails to provide proper context.
“Let’s say somebody else had the access to Roger that I had,” he said. “I don’t think my report is the only report that there could be. I’m sure that anyone who had access to him would come out with their own report.” He added, “So ultimately it’s a matter of my taste, my judgment, and my insights, such as it is.” But those tastes, judgments, and insights—and not just the facts—are why we read journalism. To omit them is a more serious abdication than he allows. It’s a “Fair and Balanced” approach that might be even more insidious than Fox News’.
At one point during our interview, I floated my theory that Chafets only shows those faults that don’t really damn his subjects. Few supporters—or detractors, for that matter—of Ailes or Limbaugh care that they were married multiple times. Doesn’t a “true” portrait of those men require tougher probing and more context? His retort: “Most people don’t know a goddamn thing about Roger Ailes. And most people don’t care about Roger Ailes.”