The source of Roger Ailes’s power: Un­end­ing griev­ance

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY JON KLEIN The writer is co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of TAPP Me­dia and former pres­i­dent of CNN/U.S.

The one with the lower rat­ings had to pay. That was the deal at our an­nual lunch at Michael’s, the restau­rant of choice for Man­hat­tan’s me­dia elite, when I was pres­i­dent of CNN’s U.S. di­vi­sion and Roger Ailes ran Fox News. It was an ex­pen­sive way for me to get to know the en­emy.

We were at Roger’s ta­ble, No. 4 — the best one in the house, a cor­ner with a com­mand­ing view of the en­tire room. Long be­fore the sex­ual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions against him came to light, he was trot­ting out his stan­dard case about the lack of re­spect he re­ceived in New York, de­spite his im­mense pro­fes­sional ac­com­plish­ments. “They think I’m this rube from Ohio,” he said. “They all look down their noses at me.” Roger was hav­ing trou­ble mak­ing his point, though, be­cause of the pa­rade of well-wish­ers who kept in­ter­rupt­ing to shake his hand, kib­itz and flat­ter. Even­tu­ally, I couldn’t re­sist stat­ing the ob­vi­ous: “Kind of un­der­mines your point, doesn’t it? Half this restau­rant is kiss­ing your ring.” “Yeah,” he replied with­out irony. “But they hate do­ing it.”

That world­view of un­end­ing griev­ance was the corner­stone upon which Ailes, who died Thurs­day, erected the Fox News Chan­nel. When the net­work launched in 1996, few re­al­ized that Ailes had hatched the pro­to­type news or­ga­ni­za­tion of the 21st cen­tury: in­for­ma­tion with at­ti­tude; facts yoked to a point of view, the more provoca­tive the bet­ter; a tribal vibe, out­siders un­wel­come and openly scorned. The In­ter­net did not, as is so of­ten al­leged, usher in the siloed me­dia en­vi­ron­ment in which we find our­selves to­day and likely for­ever. Ailes did that — by prov­ing that there is money, in­flu­ence and power to be found in serv­ing well-de­fined in­ter­est groups in­stead of try­ing to please the widest pos­si­ble audience.

What’s more, by un­re­servedly in­fus­ing news with a right-of-cen­ter agenda, Ailes pop­u­lar­ized the no­tion that all jour­nal­ists are bi­ased. “At least we’re hon­est about who is of­fer­ing opin­ion, un­like CNN,” Ailes would of­ten say. A life­long po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive, he could not imag­ine jour­nal­is­tic scru­ples trump­ing par­ti­san goals. As a mas­ter of mes­sag­ing, Ailes knew that rep­e­ti­tion is the key to buy-in — and sure enough, two decades af­ter he crafted the bumper-sticker slo­gan “Fair and Bal­anced,” trust in main­stream news out­lets is at an all-time low, with the Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­port­ing that three-quar­ters of Amer­i­cans now be­lieve that news or­ga­ni­za­tions tend to fa­vor one side.

It made busi­ness sense for Ailes to paint the com­pe­ti­tion as the prob­lem and Fox News as the only so­lu­tion. He fash­ioned his net­work into a haven for mil­lions who, like Roger him­self, had for decades felt adrift in hos­tile ter­ri­tory — postKennedy Amer­ica. It be­came a com­fort­able home base for the tar­get audience, who would watch twice as long as CNN view­ers watched my net­work on any given day. The chan­nel’s ide­o­log­i­cal prism also in­su­lated Fox News from the bane of tra­di­tional out­lets — the slow news day. Pro­duc­ers could al­ways un­earth ob­scure sto­ries that would be judged triv­ial by tra­di­tional jour­nal­is­tic stan­dards and fit them into a larger nar­ra­tive about the as­sault on val­ues their audience held dear. The War on Christ­mas, any­one?

Of course, keep­ing an audience of mil­lions on a foot­ing of con­stant alert for many years has the ef­fect of stok­ing anx­i­ety on a na­tional scale. So­lu­tions are rarely forth­com­ing; prob­lems are never solved; few of­fi­cials or in­sti­tu­tions can be trusted. Iron­i­cally, in the later years of his reign, Ailes was acutely aware that Fox News it­self was be­gin­ning to come un­der sus­pi­cion as be­ing too main­stream, out­flanked by con­ser­va­tive up­starts such as Bre­it­bart News, News­max and Glenn Beck’s the Blaze. In 2013, the sub­scrip­tion video plat­form I run was con­tem­plat­ing launch­ing a stream­ing chan­nel for Sarah Palin, at the time un­der con­tract as a Fox News con­trib­u­tor. I called Roger to de­ter­mine whether there was a con­flict. “It’s okay as long as you play nice,” he said. “But if you try to come af­ter me from the right, I’ll have to kill you.”

In 20 years, Fox News went from not even qual­i­fy­ing for Nielsen rat­ings mea­sure­ment to be­ing the most watched ca­ble net­work in Amer­ica (in­clud­ing en­ter­tain­ment chan­nels). Ad­ver­tis­ers, ca­ble dis­trib­u­tors and pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rants were kiss­ing the ring. Yet from that cor­ner ta­ble, Roger was still on the look­out for as­saults and in­sults.

Roger Ailes founded a news net­work but never claimed to be a jour­nal­ist. As the most suc­cess­ful po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tor of his time, he had a dif­fer­ent ob­jec­tive: turn talk­ing points into news items for mil­lions of per­suad­able eye­balls. He leaves be­hind a na­tion that feels very strongly about what we think we know, and is woe­fully, will­fully ig­no­rant of any­thing that doesn’t fit the pic­ture.

By in­fus­ing news with an agenda, Ailes pop­u­lar­ized the no­tion that all jour­nal­ists are bi­ased.

FRED PROUSER/REUTERS

Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive, in 2006.

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