Photo Caption: Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News and alum of Ohio University, answers questions during the “George Washington Forum” on Monday at Baker Center.
The media mogul whom American liberals most love to hate – at least according to the man himself – gave a bravura performance at Ohio University Monday evening.
OU alum Roger Ailes, now chairman and CEO of the Fox News network, was relaxed, clever and aggressive during an appearance sponsored by the university's George Washington Forum. He clearly reveled in his image as the feared and hated bugbear of the left.
He sparred gleefully with moderator Andy Alexander, Scripps Howard visiting professional in OU's Scripps College of Communication, landing a few perfectly timed zingers at Alexander's expense and, to judge by the audience response, mostly delighting the packed crowd of some 300 people in OU's Baker Center Ballroom.
When Alexander asked a question referring to Ailes' critics, for instance, without missing a beat, the news exec shot back, "I have critics?"
When Alexander asked him to name his biggest mistake as head of Fox, Ailes answered deadpan, "Coming here."
Questioned whether, at age 72, he is "winding down" his involvement with Fox, Ailes answered, "Well, that's the hope of all liberals."
He did admit he's begun contemplating his exit from the company, and has a successor in mind, though he wouldn't give a name.
Though Ailes downplayed the notion that he's an extreme right-winger, or that Fox's news coverage has a strong conservative bias – "I'm not sure what my ideology is today," he insisted – he didn't hesitate to label other news outlets, including the New York Times, MSNBC and the Associated Press, as crusty bastions of the left.
High points of his talk included his description of the Times as "a cesspool of, basically, bias," and its writers as "a bunch of lying scum."
(In a piece issued Tuesday on the Daily Beast, Newsweek media critic Howard Kurtz reported that a Fox executive stated that Ailes said he regretted using the "lying scum" language in reference to New York Times reporters.)
Even the AP "tips left all the time now," Ailes alleged. "I would love for AP to go back to being a neutral news service."
As for MSNBC, he said, the station is "out of the news business now. It's all opinion, and it's all left… MSNBC is out where the buses don't run."
He also claimed that "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart has admitted to being a socialist. Grilled on this point by Alexander, Ailes said that in a barroom conversation, Stewart once told him that he, Stewart, would have been willing to cast a presidential vote for Norman Thomas (an American socialist politician who died in 1968).
"The Daily Show" often uses Fox News clips in its comedy news reports to depict, among other things, how much the network tilts to the right.
In his comments before taking questions from Alexander and audience members (the latter submitted on index cards), Ailes drew a sharp distinction between the network's straight news reporting and its spirited commentary shows like that of Sean Hannity.
"You have to separate them in your mind, because they are different," he said. Ailes added that at Fox, "we invite liberals to participate constantly," giving a forum to politicians such as Democratic members of Congress Dennis Kucinich and the late Geraldine Ferraro.
"Our motto is, 'We report, you decide,'" he said.
As for Fox's perceived right-wing tilt, Ailes suggested that this stems mainly from the station's unwillingness to blame America first in all situations.
"We are not quick to condemn America," he acknowledged. He added that in Fox's reporting, the approach is that "you should treat capitalism as fairly as other philosophies, because it's how we get paid."
He also argued that what is seen as conservative bias is, in fact, simply a willingness to allow conservative viewpoints, suppressed at other media outlets, to be aired at Fox.
"Any newsroom that doesn't have diversity of thought is in danger of failure," he warned.
Ailes was also unapologetic for taking a strong stance against what he called terrorism.
"Some people believe we're in a fight for civilization itself," he noted. "Why do we impose rules on ourselves, when terrorists don't care?... Imagine the world without America. All I can say is, if that were to happen, God help the world."
Defending the station's on-its-sleeve patriotism, Ailes warned, "We're distancing ourselves too far from our love of country. If we don't love it, who is going to?... We've become too much of an entitlement society."
Part of the way the United States has gone wrong, he suggested, is in bowing to environmentalists' concerns about resource extraction.
"We've been intimidated into not using our own natural resources," he alleged.
Alexander asked Ailes some mildly probing questions, while those submitted from the audience tended to resemble gently lobbed softballs.
Alexander did press Ailes on a widely expressed view that he tends to be "paranoid," surrounding himself with bodyguards. (A police presence was quite noticeable at Monday's appearance, and Ailes mandated that no video footage could be shot of the event.)
"Everybody needs to be a little bit paranoid," Ailes suggested. He said that reporting on his alleged paranoia in publications such as Rolling Stone and Esquire "wildly exaggerates and distorts that whole issue." A controversial figure such as he is, he said, does need to be concerned about genuine threats.
Asked by an audience member to contrast Fox's coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party movement, Ailes insisted that the network hasn't skewed its coverage to favor the latter, but has merely shown the truth.
"The difference was, the Tea Partiers weren't rioting and crapping in the street, and hitting police officers," he said.
Asked by Alexander about his willingness to let reporters on Fox wear U.S. flag pins on air after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ailes said that if his employees wanted to do so, he was not about to say them nay.
"I'm fairly squishy on killing babies, but I'm pro-choice on flag pins," he said.
Ailes graduated from OU in 1962, and served as radio manager for WOUB while he was here. In 2007, after Ailes made a large donation to the Scripps College of Communication, the college renamed its student radio and TV studio the Roger E. Ailes Newsroom.