Warren roots defined Fox News chief Roger Ailes

By WILLIAM K. ALCORN | alcorn@vindy.com


Warren native Roger Ailes, controversial president of Fox News and behind- the-scenes conservative president maker, took himself out of this small Northeast Ohio town to a national stage.

But the values absorbed growing up in this once-thriving industrial city in the Mahoning Valley stayed with him and helped define his life.

Ailes, a 1958 graduate of Warren G. Harding High School who grew up on Belmont Avenue Northeast, is the subject of a new, already controversial unauthorized biography, “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” It arrived in bookstores Tuesday.

In 2008, while visiting Warren to attend the dedication of the Trumbull County Veterans Memorial downtown, Ailes talked to Vindicator Reporter Ed Runyan about his roots.

“In my travels over the years, I’ve always taken Ohio with me. Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve taken the traditions ... the values I’ve learned in this town [Warren]. It’s a part of everything I’ve done, including Fox News,” Ailes said.

The new biography, “The Loudest Voice in The Room,” written by Gabriel Sherman, a contributing editor at New York magazine, places a lot of emphasis on his small-town roots as to what makes Ailes tick.

“From the time Ailes was a boy with hemophilia growing up in Warren, Ailes possessed a bottomless ambition to succeed and acquire power,” Sherman told The Vindicator via email.

“Warren is central to understanding Ailes,” Sherman told The Vindicator. “In the 1940s and ’50s when he grew up, Warren was thriving and presented an idyllic face of post-war American prosperity. Ailes imbibed the values and the frustrations of Americans who live in heartland towns like Warren. In interviews, Ailes has talked about how he programs Fox to appeal to these values.”

The 538-page book (if you count the lengthy Index), subtitled “Roger Ailes Divided a Country,” spends much of the first two chapters examining his early life growing up in Warren, attending Harding High School, matriculating to Ohio University and then landing a job as a $68-a-week prop boy with the Mike Douglas Show shortly after it began to air in Cleveland in 1961.

He was urged to work on the show by Launa Newman, a 1957 Harding graduate and friend from those days, who is quoted extensively in Sherman’s book.

Newman said Ailes was not a micro-manager, and if a team member was trusted “you knew you had someone in your corner no one else had. On the other hand, if you weren’t [trusted], then God help you. You’d get the full measure of his wrath,” Sherman quoted Newman as saying.

Former classmates of Ailes also weigh in on Ailes’ personality and what motivates him.

Steve Papalas, who went to school with Ailes from 1952 at Turner Junior High School through 1958 at Harding, said in an email interview with The Vindicator that he and Ailes were casual friends who attended some of the same parties and school functions.

He described Ailes as “always outgoing and friendly” but that he could also be combative.

“I do remember he was never shy to state an opinion or to verbally confront anyone whom he thought had wronged him ... and I speak from experience,” said Papalas, who became a Warren police officer in 1963 and was appointed the city’s safety-service director in 1980.

“Roger knows he is a polarizing personality and takes a great deal of pride in being so. He has always been his own man and will still confront anyone who disagrees with him. Because of that and his strong conservative ideals, many people demonize him. As I told you a few years ago, Roger was always a step ahead of everyone and still is,” said Papalas, who retired in 1997 as town manager for Belleair, Fla.

While working on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1968, Ailes met future president Richard Nixon, a guest on the show after it became a hit and had moved from Cleveland to Philadelphia.

According to Sherman, who said Ailes refused numerous requests to be interviewed for the biography, Nixon complained that it was a shame it was necessary to use television gimmicks to get elected.

Never shy, Ailes, who grew up as television was growing up and became a master at using it, told Nixon that television was not a gimmick and that “if you think it is, you will lose again.”

That, according to Sherman, was Ailes’ entry into the world of national politics.

It also was an example of the culture he grew up with in Warren.

Betty Cecconi Fluharty, said Ailes, who sat behind her in ninth-grade civics class at Turner, told her that one day he was going to be president of the United States.

“He didn’t make it, but he probably has a better job now anyway,” said Fluharty, speaking at a small gathering of Ailes’ friends when he was in Warren for the Class of 1958’s 50th reunion in 2008.

Another former classmate said Ailes came from a comfortable middle-class family and was very self-contained, had an air of self-confidence even in junior high and appeared intent on moving forward in his life. Manufacturing is a straightforward business and creates a direct and plain-speaking culture. Perhaps that is the part of Warren he takes everywhere with him.

Ailes’ Warren friends are, as Sherman noted, fiercely loyal to him.

“Say nice things in your article,” said another former Harding classmate.

“No one had specific unkind memories of Ailes,” Sherman said. “But some people remember him having a mysterious side.

“I most admire the loyalty he inspires in his employees and friends. They speak of him reverently.”

After the Mike Douglas Show, Ailes went on to be a television adviser for future Republican presidents Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

According to Sherman, Ailes later said: “I never had a political thought until they asked me to join the Richard Nixon presidential campaign.”

After his stint in national politics, Ailes delved into the entertainment business.

In 1996, Ailes was hired by Australian media giant Rupert Murdoch to launch Fox News, an empire that Sherman calls “The Biggest Voice in the Room.”

“The Loudest Voice in the Room” title works on several levels, Sherman said in an e-mail interview with The Vindicator.

“Fox News is the most powerful news network in America – its ratings are double those of CNN and MSNBC, and its profits exceed those of the cable news networks and broadcast evening newscasts combined. At the center of that remarkable success is the man whose voice stands out from the rest: Roger Ailes,” Sherman said.

Sherman said Ailes, whom the author described as an “American icon,” refused to be interviewed for the book. Likewise, Ailes did not respond to The Vindicator’s email request for an interview.

“I would have jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Ailes, but it would not have changed my approach to the research of this book,” he said. “I wanted to write an account of his remarkable life and career based on hundreds of sources to get the full picture.”

Before the book was released, Sherman faced some scorn by many on the far right and Fox News.

“If all of the pre-publication coverage of my book on conservative websites was a genuine story, they would be covering it now,” the author told The Vindicator in an email. “Their lack of coverage [after the book was released Tuesday] reveals their political agenda. I’m happy that now the book is in the hands of readers and they can see for themselves the care I took in telling both a true story and a compelling one.”

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