Very few figures in the history of television news have been as transformational as Roger Ailes — partly because Ailes transformed the definition of news itself.
The pugnacious founder of Fox News Channel gave the news an explicitly ideological edge. Long before Kellyanne Conway introduced the world to the phrase “alternative facts,’’ Ailes was harnessing the news to a conservative agenda with a distinctly populist flavor. In the process, Ailes played a crucial role in the rise of President Trump.
The death of Ailes at age 77 was announced Thursday, almost a year after he was forced out of Fox News amid a blizzard of sexual harassment allegations, and just weeks after his biggest star, Bill O’Reilly, was ousted because of similar allegations. Though both men denied the charges, the claims painted a damning picture of a workplace culture that was allegedly utterly toxic for women, and that picture will be an inescapable part of Ailes’s legacy.
From morning (“Fox & Friends’’) till night (“The O’Reilly Factor,’’ “Hannity’’), Fox News reflected Ailes’s worldview. The network provided not just a platform for his conservative beliefs (and those of owner Rupert Murdoch) but a way to fuse Ailes’s skills as a TV producer and a political operative. Ailes began his career in TV in the 1960s with “The Mike Douglas Show,’’ and he understood the medium of television as well as anyone who ever worked in it.
One day in 1967, Ailes got into a conversation with Richard Nixon when Nixon was waiting to go on as a guest on “The Mike Douglas Show.’’ Nixon complained, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.’’ The story goes that Ailes, then just 27, retorted: “Television is not a gimmick, and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.’’
I found Ailes to be equally blunt during an interview in 1998, in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that was bedeviling then-President Bill Clinton. When I asked him whether Fox News and other cable news channels were indulging in overkill in their coverage of the story, Ailes barked: “It isn’t every day you get a president with a semen-stained dress.’’
The no-holds-barred conservatism of Fox News has always been driven by culture as much as or more than policy. Ailes, who trusted his gut instincts absolutely, understood that many of his network’s viewers got less worked up about, say, the capital gains tax than about, say, transgender bathroom issues or a supposed “War on Christmas.’’ So the running theme of Fox News has always been “Look what those crazy liberals are up to now!’’ It was a formula that translated to high ratings.
Ailes branded his network with the slogan “Fair and Balanced,’’ but Fox under Ailes’s leadership seldom strove for either of those qualities. (You always got the sense he enjoyed hearing liberals gnash their teeth about that spurious slogan.) Ailes viewed traditional network newscasts (on CNN, CBS, ABC, and NBC) as naught but transmission belts for a liberal agenda. The cable revolution gave him a chance to punch back, and he took it.
Ailes didn’t just blur the line between politics and journalism; he didn’t seem to recognize or respect the existence of any such line. What Ailes did with Fox News was essentially to combine the sizzle of flashy TV presentation with the sensibility of talk radio.
Anyone who listened to talk radio in the 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s could tell that currents of right-wing populism were swirling through public discourse, and that those currents were only growing fiercer during the presidency of Bill Clinton, a Democrat. It was logical, and perhaps inevitable, that the politics of resentment would eventually find a home on TV. Starting in 1996, that home was Fox News — and two decades later the politics of resentment found their embodiment in Donald J. Trump.
The line between Nixon and Trump seems clearer than ever these days, and Ailes was the connection. After that fateful conversation on “The Mike Douglas Show’’ in 1967, Ailes became a top adviser to Nixon’s victorious presidential campaign in 1968, helping to craft a media strategy designed to foster the image of a “New Nixon’’ — a strategy that included the candidate’s appearance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,’’ where Nixon uttered the immortal words: “Sock it to me!’’
In 1984, Ailes helped prepare Ronald Reagan for his debate with Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, immediately focusing Reagan’s attention on how he would answer a question about his age. (Reagan’s response, delivered during the debate, won the laughs it was designed to get: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’’) Ailes later worked as a media strategist for George H.W. Bush in 1988, and he played a role in the Bush campaign commercial that mocked Michael Dukakis by using footage of him riding in a tank while wearing a helmet. That campaign also featured a notorious anti-Dukakis commercial featuring an African-American inmate named Willie Horton, who had assaulted a couple while out on furlough, that was condemned as racist.
After his ouster from Fox News in July 2016, Ailes advised Trump before the televised presidential debates. It was a fitting chapter in the entwined careers of two men — like them or loathe them, and there are few in between — who had done so much to upend both politics and journalism.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.