The effort by Fox News chief Roger Ailes and his wife, Elizabeth, to transform their bucolic weekend retreat in upstate New York into the sort of paranoid swamp they're more at home in continues apace: Spy on reporters for the charming small-town newspapers they own? Check. Compulsively call the local cops because you're convinced people are out to get you? Check. Start physical confrontations with the aging owner of a competing tiny newspaper and threaten to sue him? Check.
The Aileses own two of the three main local papers in their adopted home of Putnam County, New York: The Putnam County News and Recorder and the Putnam County Courier. Elizabeth Ailes runs their day-to-day operations. The third, the weekly Putnam County Press, has been owned by local publisher Don Hall for 53 years. And since Ailes can't really function without an enemy to destroy—even in his mountain retreat—he's set his sights on Hall and his paper.
Tensions between the two men boiled over two weeks ago at a Putnam County business expo, where Ailes confronted Hall to complain about things he'd written in his tiny paper. According to Hall—who is 80 years old—Ailes pushed him in the chest and threatened to sue him. Hall's offense? The Putnam County Press had referred to a February New York Times story accusing Ailes of urging his former employee Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators about her relationship with Bernie Kerik.
"He told me if I ever published a story like that again, he'd sue me," Hall told Gawker. "He wasn't happy about it. He stuck his finger at me in my chest, and I said, 'Don't push me.' He said, 'I didn't push you.'" Hall says he distributes about 11,000 copies of the Putnam County Press and a sister paper, the Putnam County Times, each week. The story Ailes threatened to sue him over had already been seen by the Times' 950,000 print subscribers and 20 million monthly web readers.
"He also called me a liar," Hall said, "over a story about my circulation." (Hall claims that his papers' combined circulation is double that of the Ailes papers. It's unclear whether that's true or not; none of the papers are audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.)
When Hall threatened to sue Ailes right back, things got weird: "He said I didn't have enough money to sue him. Then he said he knew things about me. He said he knew things and that I didn't want to sue him." By the time their discussion was over, Hall said, there were three Putnam County Sheriff's deputies surrounding him. He told Gawker that the local sheriff routinely details deputies to provide security for Ailes when he attends public events.
Ailes, in a statement to Gawker, disputed Hall's account and portrayed the conversation as just another charming interaction with a colorful, if dim, local:
The sheriff deputies were at the event when I arrived and they were still there when I left. According to what I'm told, they routinely provide security at large events for everyone. There was no dispute with Don Hall — we had a joking conversation, but he may have missed the point — he's not exactly a barrel of laughs. As for suing Don, that would be fruitless because he's broke. I also never 'poked him in the chest' — if I did, he would have toppled over since he's only 60 pounds.
If I had poked Don Hall, he would have known it! A spokesman for the Putnam County Sheriff's Department said it was department policy not to comment on "whether or not a particular person is the subject of enhanced security efforts, as such disclosure would obviously be detrimental to any such efforts and could pose a threat to life and safety." But he added that it is routine for sheriff's deputies to provide crowd control at "public gatherings...and other venues attended by large crowds or dignitaries."
Ailes' beef with Hall goes beyond circ figures and Judith Regan—it's about business. Until now, each year Putnam County has designated Ailes' News and Recorder and Courier and Hall's Press as "official newspapers," entitling them to be paid by the county for publishing various official announcements. The deal netted the Ailes papers $23,000 in 2010. Yes, that's correct: Roger Ailes feeds at the government teat and reels in taxpayer dollars. Hall says he received roughly $15,000 in 2010.
This year, however, a move is afoot to cut Hall and his papers out of the official notices contract, leaving it to Ailes exclusively. Such a move could mean the end of the Press and the Times, and many in Putnam County say Ailes is behind it. According to Hall and to Lynne Eckardt, the chairperson of the Putnam County Democratic Party, the effort to ice out the Hall papers is being led by GOP New York State Sen. Greg Ball, who has been a frequent target of the Press—one notable headline was "Greg Ball: Manure Spreader." A news story in the current issue of the Press [pdf] accuses Ball of making "threatening phone calls to [Putnam County] legislators, vowing, vehemently at times, not to support Putnam's needs in Albany should they not support his need to halt Hall and eradicate his papers from Putnam." Indeed, Putnam County Legislator Richard Othmer confirmed to Gawker that Ball had done just that, pressuring him to oppose designating the Press as an official newspaper and threatening to scotch state approval of a much-needed extension of the county's sales tax if he doesn't get his way. "He's contacted a whole slew of officials about this," Othmer said.
What does this have to do with Ailes? Several Putnam County observers say Ball and the Aileses are close, and that Ball is carrying the Aileses water in trying to eliminate a common enemy. "They're definitely favorable to Ball," Eckardt said of Ailes papers. "Ailes is a supporter of his." The politics are byzantine, but Ball conducted a years-long bitter rivalry with fellow Republican State Sen. Vincent Leibell, who pleaded guilty last year to obstruction of justice and tax evasion. Hall and the Press were on Leibell's side, and the Aileses were on Ball's. And now that Leibell's gone, with Ball in his seat, some locals say, the Aileses are collecting their due. The News and Recorder has helped provide fuel for Ball by publishing two stories so far this year questioning the Press' accounting practices and accusing Hall of overbilling the county for legal notices.
The county legislature hasn't made a final decision yet on the official papers; insiders expect it to put out a request for proposals forcing each paper to bid on the contract.
Keep in mind that Ailes was paid $22.7 million by News Corp. last year, and somehow he finds the time for small-town intrigue and shitfights in tiny burgs.
Indeed, if you had any doubt as to how paranoid the Aileses are, or how seriously they take their country papers, consider this: At 11:52 a.m. today, I purchased a digital subscription to the News and Recorder in order to read its coverage of the official papers issue. At 12:20 p.m., I sent an e-mail to Elizabeth Ailes seeking comment for this story. At 12:56 p.m., I received an e-mail from the News and Recorder informing that my subscription had been canceled.
Elizabeth Ailes never responded to the e-mail seeking comment.