C&E: Because you are George Bush’s media strategist, we cannot resist at least one question about the George Bush/Dan Rather confrontation last January. What precisely was your role in the affair?
Ailes: Well, somebody once wrote that it was not a coincidence Ailes was in the room with the vice president when the whole thing happened. I think that is an astute observation.
C&E: Let’s look at the ramifications. Since that interview, the tactic of bashing the media has been emulated by many politicians at the local level. Is media bashing generally a good strategy?
Ailes: Fighting with the media almost always is a mistake. You can’t win the argument, the media has the last word, and most times your argument is not justified. Just because someone thinks he is being attacked by the media doesn’t mean he is. Many times the media actually is being fair, and they’re attacking for good reason.
In the Rather/Bush incident, it was totally unfair. CBS was trying him and convicting him and trying to execute him on national television. They had made up their minds. CBS made the fatal error of trying to become the political opposition to George Bush. And, when they did that, they put themselves in an arena where they can get knocked on their fanny.
C&E: Because there are many national media outlets is it politically easier for a national candidate to attack, as opposed to a local candidate who may be dealing with one newspaper, one radio station, and maybe a TV station 50 miles down the road?
Ailes: Candidates rarely win battles with the media, and—unless you really know what you’re doing—you should not tangle with them. The exception is when you know this is a search-and-destroy mission on the part of the media and your case is very strong, you are very articulate, you know what you’re trying to accomplish—and you have no alternatives. But you have to look at what you’re up against. And, boy, I’ll tell you, taking on the media is something I would never tell a candidate to do. I’d advise him what I would do in that circumstance, but that’s about it.
I think the media is dangerously close to creating their own product. They used to cover the product, which was whatever’s happening. Today, they set up media events of their own. There was no news in the Dan Rather piece. They didn’t say [to Bush]: “We found a piece of paper that was overlooked in the 300,000 pieces of paper that were covered in the Iran-Contra hearings, and we have a piece of news we’d like to ask you about.” CBS decided to create a media event and cover it in its own fashion.
This was unprecedented in American history. CBS cancelled two-thirds of the newscast…to get a guy and take him out. When the media gets into creating their own product and then deciding to cover it, they are becoming part of the process—and therefore, could be damaged. In those circumstances, I would advise people to occasionally to take the media on—but only when you know it’s a manufactured product and not a news interview.
C&E: Based in 20 years in this business, what general advice can you offer candidates seeking elected office?
Ailes: Don’t do it unless you know what you’re doing, you’re made of steel, and you don’t mind sacrificing your personal life. It is a tremendous sacrifice to run for political office in America today. One of the reasons I’m in this business is because I have absolute respect for the people who say, “You know what? I think I can make this a little better and I’m willing to get in and try.” Because, I’ll tell you, there are a hell of a lot of reasons to stay away from running for office today.