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The Long Shadow of Roger Ailes

The ousted Fox News giant, who died Thursday at 77, helped forge today’s chaotic and divisive political media climate

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Roger Ailes made a long career for himself — and helped build a TV news empire in the process — by picking winners and sticking by them to the bitter end.

As Donald Trump tells it, Ailes promised the 2016 GOP field’s most divisive and erratic candidate that he would always be “treated fairly” on Fox News. Ailes offered this assurance even after Ailes’s boss, Rupert Murdoch, publicly disparaged Trump; and even as his star anchor, Megyn Kelly, suffered Trump’s gross insults in response to critical coverage of his campaign. Ailes defied Murdoch. He betrayed Kelly. He defended Trump. And, ultimately, Trump won.

Last July — less than four months before Trump won the presidency — Ailes stepped down as chairman and chief executive of Fox News following a wave of horrific revelations regarding allegations of his predatory sexual relationships with several network staff members. In a recent memoir, former network star Megyn Kelly accused Ailes of a series of unwanted romantic advances in her earliest years at Fox News. Other accusers include various hosts, correspondents, contributors, producers, and consultants, many of whom have reported incidents of verbal and physical harassment that they suffered during Ailes’s career. Following his resignation after 20 years at the network, 21st Century Fox revealed that the company had paid out $45 million in settlement costs related to the many harassment claims made against Ailes. The embattled Ailes, a notoriously vindictive figure who prized loyalty above all other personal and professional virtues, denied these allegations until his death.

His wife, Elizabeth, announced that Roger Ailes died Thursday morning, due to unspecified causes. He was 77. As the man who shaped Fox News into the massive right-wing news organ that it is today, his legacy is vast and divisive. Ailes was, at once, a latter-day savior of the Republican Party and a harbinger of all things wrong and broken about our politics. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the strength of Ailes’s hold over U.S. political culture, which has always been coarse, but which cable news accelerated to the point of incurable, hyperactive distraction.

Ailes began his career as a small-time variety-show producer in the 1960s, where he met Dwight Eisenhower’s former vice president, Richard Nixon, at a taping of The Mike Douglas Show. Nixon later hired Ailes to advise him in the dawning age of TV, for which Nixon had proved poorly suited in his failed 1960 presidential bid against Jack Kennedy. Ailes helped soften Nixon’s image during his successful 1968 presidential campaign, and he would go on to develop strategy for the efforts to elect Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush before returning to TV journalism in the 1990s.

When the Australian news mogul Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News in October 1996 to report “hard news” “without bias” — the sort of dramatic and disingenuous sloganeering that would come to define the network among loyal viewers and detractors alike — he tapped Ailes to run the company as its first chief executive. Together, Murdoch and Ailes designed Fox News as a conservative bulwark against the right’s favorite bogeyman of the Clinton and Bush years: “the liberal media.” After 9/11, Ailes quickly established the network’s loud nationalist ethos and conservative policy bona fides, developing evening hosts Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck into leading right-wing commentators throughout the 2000s. (In April, Fox News fired O’Reilly — the “crown jewel” of the network’s evening programming — due to the anchor’s own onslaught of sexual harassment accusations, which he has denied.)

In less than half a century, Ailes had overseen a revolution in TV newsmaking. Where network TV anchors like Walter Cronkite once promised an admittedly elusive objectivity in covering national affairs, cable news anchors such as O’Reilly and Hannity instead promised frothing partisan allegiances. In political discussion beyond the networks — on Twitter, Facebook, and in online publications such as Breitbart and Infowars — the hot-blooded red vs. blue dynamic colored every corner of discourse, from Beltway political analysis to popular culture. Fox News propagated the idea of the War on Christmas, a trivial debate about seasonal pleasantries that O’Reilly repackaged for his millions of nightly viewers as a showdown over religious freedoms in American life.

Ailes taught us how to hatewatch newsmakers and news anchors alike. Before Fox News’s launch, there was some early precedent for hotheaded public-affairs programming on shows such as CNN’s Crossfire and Comedy Central’s Politically Incorrect in the 1990s. But Fox News — with Ailes’s firm guidance — was the first network to establish partisan conflict as its modus operandi, offering 24/7 support of the conservative movement’s agenda as its core viewership appeal. The network’s ratings soared in the early George W. Bush years, and they soared once again during the tea party movement’s formative months of opposition to President Obama. Together, the daytime news segments and evening commentary slots provided a workshop for GOP talking points about the Iraq War, counterterrorism, tax policy, budget cuts, and yes — even Barack Obama’s birth certificate, which was once a great concern for Donald Trump.

Ailes turned Fox News into an editorial operation so provocative that other networks, publications, and media watchdog organizations would run their own coverage of how false and unfair Fox News’s coverage was, further amplifying the intended polarization. Gabriel Sherman, an Ailes biographer and foremost media critic of the network, has described Fox News as an “anti-journalism” TV news network, a campaign-style operation that “would run against the American media, that would convince millions of Americans … that Fox News would be the only place on television where you could find the truth.” (Ailes reportedly kept a 400-page opposition research file on Sherman, as much a testament to the reporter’s tenacity in covering the network as it is proof of Ailes’s obsessive bitterness in the face of criticism.)

For a decade, Fox News was the future of politics. As MSNBC and one-time industry leader CNN lost ground in the ratings, they grudgingly adopted many components of Fox News’s success. MSNBC hired Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes as liberal counterparts to the likes of O’Reilly and Hannity; CNN reassigned the populist squawk box Lou Dobbs to rant against Mexican immigration to the U.S. Gradually, the entire U.S. cable-TV news ecosystem became an unsavory blend of party politics, talk radio, and professional wrestling, with little to offer in the way of credible, substantial news reporting. Ailes was the god of all this innovation and the author of all our contempt for the anchors whose leanings, lies, and insults infuriate us most.

Ailes advised Donald Trump in the debate-prep stages of the 2016 general election, playing a kingmaker in the last U.S. presidential race of his lifetime. Yet, in the first year of Trump’s first term as president of the United States, Fox News — without Ailes at its helm — has shown signs of faltering. A special counsel is now investigating potential Russian government involvement in the 2016 presidential election to Trump’s benefit, and Fox News’s ratings have slid to a similar crisis point. Finally, the late Ailes’s old spin machine is running up against its limits. Now is an exceedingly chaotic period in American political life; the circus has gotten out of hand, and its ringmaster Roger Ailes passed his baton to no clear internal heir, but rather to Donald Trump himself.