For two years, as an ambitious twentysomething, Joe Lindsley had a closer relationship with Roger Ailes than any Fox News executive. He lived, for a time, on the Aileses’ property in upstate New York, vacationed with Ailes and his wife, Beth, and served in effect as a surrogate son. Ailes’ secretary even leaned on Fox News staffers and on-air talent to make themselves available as dates for Lindsley, who, starting in 2009, served as editor-in-chief for two newspapers Ailes had purchased in upstate New York—and, apart from the Aileses, led a relatively isolated life there.
But then Lindsley suddenly decided to leave, throwing the then 71-year-old media mogul into a panic. Ailes was so furious about his departure that he tried to ensure Lindsley could never work as a journalist in Washington. Or, at least, that’s what he told Bill Kristol shortly after Lindsley’s departure.
Lindsley had come to Ailes from Kristol’s Weekly Standard, where he had served as a research assistant to the magazine’s executive editor, Fred Barnes. His dramatic exit was widely reported at the time because, those news reports alleged, News Corporation security guards tailed him through the Hudson Valley’s quaint local towns, seeking either to lure him back or to shut him up.
Ailes’ relationship with Lindsley was all the more extraordinary because the late Fox News chief didn’t cultivate protégés—he decapitated them. Since the founding of Fox News in 1996, several executives who had served a rung beneath him had found themselves suddenly exiled to the outer reaches of the network or fired outright. But Lindsley, four decades Ailes’ junior, was different. Ailes treated him like a son, laid out a promising path for his advancement, and, according to Lindsley, introduced him to people as “Ailes Jr.”
When Ailes died this year of complications after slipping in his bathroom, few people had more insight into the man and, in retrospect, Lindsley’s departure from Ailes’ orbit foreshadowed the sensational events that led to his demise.
Shortly after Lindsley’s departure in 2011, alarmed by what his newly liberated deputy might say, Ailes, at a meeting in his office at News Corporation headquarters in Manhattan and again in subsequent phone conversations, pressed Kristol to blackball Lindsley in Washington media circles, according to several sources familiar with the conversation. Kristol told Ailes he didn’t have the power to do that. When Kristol’s Fox News contract expired at the end of 2012, the network did not renew it, and his relationship with the network was permanently severed.
Now, a little more than six years after Ailes’ failed attempts to silence and banish him, Lindsley has written a novelistic memoir about the two years he spent at Ailes’ side. He spoke with POLITICO in his first on-the-record interview since he left Ailes’ employ in April 2011.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night shouting, ‘I gotta tell this story,” Lindsley says. “When I left Fox, I was not beholden. I had never signed nondisclosure papers; I was in a unique position.”
He has spent the past 2 1/2 years writing Fake News, True Story, a process he describes as an unburdening as well as a psychological reckoning of the sort Ailes would never have allowed.
“When Ailes was at the top of his game, he was raging at something—everything would melt out of his way. And I was the same way. I considered rage my chief talent,” Lindsley says. “The rage was a cover for deep wounds that were never healed, that were never even addressed.”
The most puzzling thing about the book is that Lindsley couldn’t find anybody to publish it. Instead, he’s using the self-publishing platform Inkshares to get the manuscript out. If he can sell 750 advance copies, Inkshares will edit, publish and distribute the book. When this article went to print, he had sold 176.
The publishing industry has hardly shied away from Fox News memoirs. HarperCollins is seeking more than $1 million from Ailes’ estate—the hefty advance the publisher had paid the 77-year-old media titan, who died in May, for an autobiography he will never deliver. His immediate successor as Fox News president, Bill Shine, who has since been ousted and is the subject of numerous lawsuits, is currently shopping a memoir even though he is constrained by a tight nondisclosure agreement, according to a publishing executive and a Fox News employee. And Megyn Kelly retroactively added a chapter to her book, Settle for More, before it hit the printer when Ailes’ ouster from Fox opened an avenue for her to recount sexual harassment she said she had suffered at the network.
Lindsley is calling his book a memoir, but it takes an unusual format. Written in the third person—he says the protagonist, Jack Renard, who becomes an apprentice to Roger Ailes, is his alter ego—it lands somewhere between memoir and roman à clef. It opens as Renard has a flashback induced by a bout of post-traumatic stress disorder, itself induced by his experiences with Ailes—so the book almost begs readers to question its veracity. During Renard’s first meeting with Ailes, the Fox chief declares, “The President of the United States”—Barack Obama, of course—“is a terrorist.”
And though Ailes himself doesn’t get a pseudonym, others do. Lindsley writes, for example, about network anchor Susie Sunseed, whose “exposed, tanned, toned, smooth legs sway gently underneath her clear glass desk.” He changed names and personal details to protect the privacy of friends and former colleagues, he says.
One publishing executive to whom the book was pitched—Lindsley’s agent, Matt Guma, shopped the book extensively throughout the Manhattan publishing world, and has represented the likes of Jay-Z, the Dave Matthews Band and Usain Bolt—said the book reads like “somebody having a manic episode” and left him uncertain what was real and what was made up.
As far as Lindsley is concerned, that’s precisely the point. He doesn’t disguise the fact that the bookwriting process, and the book itself, was part of a long recovery that is still running its course. The experiences of young women subject to the Fox News Channel’s sex-fueled culture have drawn interest, but Lindsley makes evident there is at least one young man whose life was deeply affected by the paranoid culture of the network and its chief executive.
There’s also the element of sour grapes. Lindsley let me read only two chapters of his book, one of which is also available online, but it’s clear he did not part with the Aileses on good terms. Lindsley wouldn’t speculate on why he thought publishers turned down the book, but he did say: “I have to remember why I fled the stagnant, vapid, stifling old world of media, where Ailes’ Fox reigned supreme.”
The emotional toll of Lindsley’s experience is evident in the book, spilling out in purple prose. “I am hounded by images, by fears, by phantoms. My head hurts, the café around me spins, my chest tightens. I want to explode, cry, shout, punch. I want to yell like a madman, ‘What have we wrought!’” he writes. “I type one word, then another, each one a stepping stone to a semblance of sanity.”
Renard’s breaking point with Ailes comes during a conversation with the media titan on a day Renard had taken off after a bitter editorial disagreement. He is badly hungover. Ailes calls him to ask, rhetorically, “You in church praying for answers?”
“Well, maybe God’s not home,” Ailes tells Renard. “He’s not home today. I heard from Him. He’s busy. He doesn’t have time for you.” He goes on to tell the impressionable young journalist that truth doesn’t exist—only narratives. “That’s why we have five Supreme Court justices,” he declares. “Everything must be made into a narrative … Facts don’t matter.” Then he invites him to dinner at the Olive Garden.
In person, Lindsley’s breathing is labored, something he attributes to anxiety. At 34, he is almost completely gray. A former high-school track star, he now has a stocky build, and he jokes that under Ailes’ tutelage, he began to look like the guy, too. In the book, Renard describes Ailes thusly: “His bejowledness gave him a natural commanding presence, like Winston Churchill, Orson Welles, Henry VIII, Gerard Depardieu, or Cowboys Stadium. The globular wideness contributed to his narrative-mystery, like the mystery of the moon, and his narrative-mystery gave him power. Though prone to anger and impatience, he could also be quite jolly. He could live and laugh in a way that lean, treadmill-running individuals, for whom life is one constant stress test, cannot. This aura of jolliness surrounding a bitter, angry, and perhaps fearfully sad core made him absolutely mysterious and hence ferociously powerful.”
Reading Fake News, True Story, it’s hard to tell where real life ends and the novel begins. Lindsley is coy about the details of the experience: He wants people to buy the book. But he says that, living in Roger’s world, he felt himself taking on Ailes’ attributes—not just physically but emotionally. “I would wake up in the middle of the night with these realizations of who I had been and how I was changing. On a basic level, you could say I was driven by a brilliant rage … but I had a spiritual inner level of knowing I wanted to be a different person, I didn’t want to live being governed by rage and hate,” he says.
A Notre Dame graduate and a devout Catholic, Lindsley is a student of the great books and of conservative doctrine. He is a more serious reader and thinker than the rank-and-file Fox News staffer—and for that reason, perhaps, was more likely to revolt. He also had big ambitions and an old-school love of the newspaper business. “I was a newspaper guy, I never was a big TV watcher. I loved newspapers, and that was the thing I jumped at in working for Ailes.”
Lindsley told me that, though he remains a conservative, he doesn’t think highly of Fox News—and it’s not clear how much his anger and regrets color his retelling of events. “It’s a disservice to good reporters and a disservice to the republic when they claim to be a fantastic news source,” he says of the network.
Living in Cold Spring, New York, and isolated from people his own age, Lindsley threw himself into his work, redesigning the Ailes newspapers and transforming them into partisan broadsheets. He made national news when the New Yorker’s Peter Boyer chronicled the vicious dispute playing out over Ailes’ acquisition and transformation of the newspapers he was editing, the Putnam County News & Recorder and the Putnam County Courier. The town’s liberals were in open revolt against the Ailes family and against Lindsley himself. They launched a competing outlet and hired away half of his Lindsley’s staff.
Boyer says the bitterness went both ways. “I do know that both Roger and Beth came to feel badly betrayed by him,” Boyer said of Lindsley. (After a long tenure at the New Yorker and a brief stint at Tina Brown’s Newsweek, Boyer was hired by Ailes at Fox News, and they became colleagues and friends. 21st Century Fox, the parent company of Fox News, directed questions to a lawyer for Ailes, Susan Estrich, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Lindsley and the book.)
Lindsley, wrote Boyer, was clearly Ailes’ stand-in at the paper: “a smart, combative, burly man with a booming voice,” who “seemed a younger version of Ailes, bringing to the job an intense competitiveness, an aggressive news instinct, and a willingness to provoke.” The article was published in the magazine’s January 31, 2011, issue, and though Lindsley would skip town just 2 1/2 months later, there is no indication in Boyer’s report that anything was amiss.
In reality, Lindsley says he had come to feel increasingly suffocated by Ailes’ paranoia. (“Paranoia was his great comfort,” he says.) Ailes was convinced, for example, that President Obama was working an operative inside Fox News, and he hounded staff members in an effort to out the mole, according to one Fox News executive. “He couldn’t rest easy at all in life. Peace was a phantom. He was always raging,” Lindsley says of Ailes.
Lindsley was unnerved by what he felt was his inability to escape from his boss. “There was no freedom, and I had no time for reflection,” he says. He planned a vacation to his family’s ancestral homestead on Ireland’s Beara Peninsula—and Ailes joined him, tagging along to meet his great-grand-uncle in a 400-year-old cottage. As their relationship soured, he began to notice black Lincoln Navigators following him on the road, driven by men he eventually concluded were News Corporation security officers who had been sent by Ailes.
Initially, Lindsley had been seduced by the proximity to power and by the professional path Ailes laid out for him, which was to culminate in succeeding the Fox News chairman, he believed.
But it was impossible to keep Ailes, and his paranoid worldview, at arm’s length, something Lindsley intimates is as true for Fox viewers as it is for the network’s executives or for anyone who worked as closely with Ailes as he did. “I was involved in every key thing Roger was dealing with,” he says. “I was living in the channel, and I had to decide to change it by getting out of it. I was swept up in the same way the viewers were.”
After leaving Ailes, Lindsley decamped out West, working for the Republican mega-donor Foster Friess and searching for an identity separate from “Ailes Jr.” He goes by J.P. now, not Joe, and he moved to New Orleans in 2014, managing the bluegrass band Scythian before writing his book—which, incongruously, is set in New Orleans.
The book’s manic tone, Lindsley says, is by design. “When people read the story, I want them to feel as paranoid, as crazy, as disturbed as I felt,” he told me. “I want the reader to feel that sort of frenzy and to understand deeply what this world is like, this world that has affected all of us.”
In addition to his personal discomfort with Ailes, Lindsley was also disappointed in the news product. He concluded they were impossible to disentangle—that Ailes’ brutishness and anger weren’t affecting only him, but also the news he was putting out in Cold Spring and at Fox and that, by extension, they were corroding the country. “Many Americans invite Bill O’Reilly into their living rooms more often than their neighbors,” he says.
He suggests that the network, with its catchy graphics and busty blondes, seduces viewers and creeps up on them in the same way that Ailes did on him—and to the same effect, producing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of paranoid, angry, and agitated voters. Though he won’t say it outright, he also suggests the network and its viewers helped to produce the election of Donald Trump. Fox News Channel, he says, is more a brand than a news outlet, and Ailes succeeded in “convincing a large part of the American people” that Ailes was “on their side.”
Lindsley’s story may be extraordinary, but he believes the lessons he drew from his experience with Ailes are broadly applicable in the Trump era. He wants to explain, he says, “how a young guy got caught up in this and how he got out. And, maybe, how America can get out.”