Con­tro­ver­sial Fox News founder made peo­ple lis­ten

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARC FISHER

Roger Ailes, who mas­tered the art of sell­ing po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates like Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties and was the ar­chi­tect of con­ser­va­tive­ori­ented TV news, died Thurs­day at age 77. He was the long­time chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Fox News Chan­nel, build­ing it over two decades into a po­lit­i­cally influential jug­ger­naut un­til his abrupt ouster last year amid sex­ual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions.

He was a he­mo­phil­iac and died of com­pli­ca­tions from a head in­jury suf­fered in an ac­ci­den­tal fall, ac­cord­ing to the med­i­cal ex­am­iner in Palm Beach County, Fla.

At Fox News, Mr. Ailes presided over a ca­ble out­let that com­bined tele­vi­sion news from a con­ser­va­tive per­spec­tive with the rab­ble-rous­ing rhetoric of right-wing talk ra­dio to pro­duce a sin­gu­larly influential me­dia ma­chine. He was a skilled show­man, a savvy po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tor and a proudly ple­beian coun­ter­point to the East Coast elite that he be­lieved dom­i­nated the news busi­ness.

To Democrats and lib­er­als, he was a ma­nip­u­la­tor of the news, a pup­pet mas­ter who used his net­work to turn mi­nor sto­ries into blaz­ing scan­dals, os­ten­si­bly in ser­vice of his per­sonal politics.

To Repub­li­cans and con­ser­va­tives, he was an es­sen­tial coun­ter­weight, a tough but fair par­ti­san, a mid­dle Amer­i­can from a blue-col­lar back­ground who glee­fully and ef­fec­tively poked holes in the left-lean­ing bi­ases of the news me­dia es­tab­lish­ment.

The ti­tles of bi­ogra­phies about him — four were pub­lished within seven years at a peak in Fox’s pop­u­lar­ity dur­ing the Obama

ad­min­is­tra­tion — demon­strated the wrath and re­sent­ment he could en­gen­der: He was a “Dark Ge­nius,” “The Loud­est Voice in the Room,” ruler of a “pro­pa­ganda ma­chine.”

Mr. Ailes es­chewed po­lit­i­cal la­bels and pre­ferred to por­tray him­self as a crafts­man of the air­waves, more con­cerned about how to frame a shot or drive a story than about the fate of in­di­vid­ual can­di­dates or poli­cies. He told a bi­og­ra­pher that his dream for Amer­ica was that it be al­lowed to re­turn to its best self, which he put in the Mid­west in about 1955.

As found­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive of Fox News in 1996, Mr. Ailes de­fined the chan­nel in op­po­si­tion to the tra­di­tional jour­nal­ism of CNN and the lib­eral bent of MSNBC, and he brought Fox from a dis­tant third to clear dom­i­nance, rid­ing to the top along the wave of pub­lic dis­may that arose over Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s af­fair with a White House in­tern.

Mr. Ailes’s reign at Fox ended abruptly in 2016, in the mid­dle of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, af­ter an on-air host at Fox News, Gretchen Carl­son, al­leged that Mr. Ailes had sab­o­taged her ca­reer when she re­fused to have sex with him. Fol­low­ing Carl­son’s ac­cu­sa­tions, 25 other women, in­clud­ing Fox’s most prom­i­nent fe­male an­chor, Megyn Kelly, came for­ward to say that Ailes had sex­u­ally ha­rassed them over his five decades in the TV busi­ness.

Fox’s par­ent com­pany quickly pushed Mr. Ailes to re­sign his po­si­tions, though he said the al­le­ga­tions — which ranged from kiss­ing women against their will to telling women that they had to pro­vide him with sex­ual fa­vors if they wanted their ca­reers to flour­ish — were false. Mr. Ailes’s bosses, Lach­lan and James Mur­doch, the sons of Fox’s long­time owner, Ru­pert Mur­doch, an­nounced the res­ig­na­tion in a state­ment that em­pha­sized the com­pany’s “com­mit­ment to main­tain­ing a work en­vi­ron­ment based on trust and re­spect.”

Fox paid Carl­son $20 mil­lion to set­tle her ha­rass­ment claim against Mr. Ailes. Within weeks, Ohio Univer­sity re­moved Mr. Ailes’s name from the news­room it had named af­ter one of its most fa­mous alumni; the univer­sity also re­turned to Mr. Ailes a $500,000 gift he had made to his alma mater. Less than a month af­ter he left Fox, Mr. Ailes reemerged as leader of the prep camp where busi­ness­man and Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump pre­pared for his TV de­bates against former sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Clin­ton, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee.

Like Richard M. Nixon, the first pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Mr. Ailes worked with, he seemed driven as much by so­cial and class re­sent­ments as by ide­ol­ogy or a lust for power.

He was an em­ployee of Ru­pert Mur­doch, the world­wide me­dia ty­coon, but wielded power on his own, too, reg­u­larly be­ing courted by Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

“At Fox, Ailes has ush­ered in the era of post-truth politics,” con­cluded David Brock, a con­ser­va­tive-turned-lib­eral ac­tivist who wrote a book on Mr. Ailes, “The Fox Ef­fect.” “The facts no longer mat­ter, only what is po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent, sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic, and de­signed to con­firm the pre­ex­ist­ing opin­ions of a large au­di­ence.”

Fox gave in­ten­sive cov­er­age to sto­ries that later col­lapsed un­der closer in­spec­tion: The idea that Barack Obama, the first black U.S. pres­i­dent, was born out­side the United States; or that Obama’s health re­form ini­tia­tive would im­pose death pan­els to de­ter­mine which Amer­i­cans might be re­fused med­i­cal care; or that hu­man be­hav­ior played no role in global cli­mate change. Many Democrats dis­missed Mr. Ailes’s net­work as a par­ti­san ag­i­ta­tor.

Crit­ics and ad­mir­ers alike agreed that Fox was a mir­ror of Mr. Ailes’s ideas about con­tent and pre­sen­ta­tion. “Roger Ailes is not on the air, Roger Ailes does not ever show up on cam­era, and yet ev­ery­body who does is a reflection of him,” talk ra­dio host Rush Lim­baugh, whose TV show Mr. Ailes pro­duced in the early 1990s, once said.

Mr. Ailes of­ten re­sponded to his crit­ics by say­ing that they in­ten­tion­ally elided Fox’s straight-ahead news re­port­ing with the frankly con­ser­va­tive views of its com­men­ta­tors. He noted that the net­work reg­u­larly broke sto­ries crit­i­cal of lead­ing con­ser­va­tives, in­clud­ing Ge­orge W. Bush’s ar­rest as a young man for drunken driv­ing, a story that Fox re­ported the week be­fore the 2000 elec­tion, when Bush won his first term as pres­i­dent.

Mr. Ailes, de­rided on the left as a Repub­li­can king­maker, was ac­tu­ally more of “an en­ter­tainer,” New Yorker writer and Har­vard his­to­rian Jill Le­pore wrote. “He’s also a bo­gey­man,” an easy tar­get for those who want to be­lieve that the con­ser­va­tive move­ment was ma­nip­u­lated from above rather than a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring po­lit­i­cal phe­nom­e­non.

Sev­eral aca­demic stud­ies of Fox’s con­tent con­cluded that the net­work, as the Project for Ex­cel­lence in Jour­nal­ism put it in 2006, “was mea­sur­ably more one-sided than the other net­works, and Fox jour­nal­ists were more opin­ion­ated on the air.” But a study in 2007 by the Cen­ter for Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs, a me­dia watch­dog non­profit that calls it­self non­par­ti­san, but which some lib­eral groups con­sider con­ser­va­tive in ori­en­ta­tion, found that Fox News’s state­ments about Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates were al­most ex­actly evenly di­vided be­tween pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive.

Nev­er­the­less, Mr. Ailes and his ap­proach to broad­cast­ing pro­voked a long-stand­ing and deep rift within the Mur­doch clan over the politics and di­rec­tion of Fox.

In 2010, Mur­doch’s then-sonin-law, Matthew Freud, a Lon­don pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tive who did not work for the fam­ily me­dia em­pire, de­nounced Mr. Ailes’s lead­er­ship of Fox News, say­ing that “I am by no means alone within the fam­ily or the com­pany in be­ing ashamed and sick­ened by Roger Ailes’s hor­ren­dous and sus­tained dis­re­gard of jour­nal­is­tic stan­dards.” But Mur­doch stood by his man, giv­ing him larger re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and free rein to shape the hugely suc­cess­ful net­work.

A pas­sion for show busi­ness

Roger Eu­gene Ailes was born in War­ren, Ohio, on May 15, 1940, and was the mid­dle child of a phys­i­cally abu­sive fa­ther, who worked as a su­per­vi­sor at an au­to­mo­bile plant, and a de­mand­ing but emo­tion­ally with­hold­ing mother.

His fa­ther, ac­cord­ing to a story that biog­ra­phers called Mr. Ailes’s “Rose­bud” mo­ment, once urged young Roger to jump from the top of his bunk bed into his fa­ther’s open arms. But as the boy leapt, the fa­ther stepped away and Roger landed hard.

“Don’t ever trust any­body,” Robert Ailes told his son.

The young Mr. Ailes was of­ten picked on and beaten by bul­lies. He was 9 when his fa­ther told him: “The worst thing that can hap­pen to you is you can die. If you’re not afraid of that, you don’t have to be afraid of any­thing.”

Mr. Ailes traced his pas­sion for show busi­ness to his time as an ac­tor in high school theater and to his de­vo­tion to his col­lege ra­dio sta­tion. In 1962, straight out of Ohio Univer­sity, Mr. Ailes got a job at “The Mike Dou­glas Show,” a TV talk show then based in Cleve­land and that within a few years be­came one of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar pro­grams. Mr. Ailes moved up quickly, be­com­ing the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. In 1967, Nixon, pre­par­ing to run for pres­i­dent, met Mr. Ailes while he was wait­ing to ap­pear on the Dou­glas show.

“It’s a shame a man has to use gim­micks like this to get elected,” Nixon told the pro­ducer, ac­cord­ing to jour­nal­ist Joe McGin­niss’s book “The Sell­ing of the Pres­i­dent 1968,” a land­mark ac­count of mod­ern me­dia pack­ag­ing on the po­lit­i­cal cam­paign.

“Tele­vi­sion is not a gim­mick,” Mr. Ailes replied. Impressed, Nixon told an aide to hire the pro­ducer. Mr. Ailes was charged with cre­at­ing one-hour, live pro­grams called “The Man in the Arena,” fea­tur­ing the can­di­date re­spond­ing to vot­ers’ ques­tions.

Nixon, no friend of the TV cam­era, ap­pre­ci­ated Mr. Ailes’s at­ten­tion to the kind of the­atri­cal de­tail that tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers didn’t no­tice. When Mr. Ailes saw that the set for the cam­paign pro­gram in­cluded turquoise cur­tains as a back­ground, he or­dered them re­placed with plain wooden pan­els — a look he said would cre­ate “clean, solid, mas­cu­line lines.”

Mr. Ailes be­came a core mem­ber of the team that pack­aged Nixon, ap­ply­ing the tools of Madison Av­enue and Hol­ly­wood to a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign for the first time. Mr. Ailes ad­vised Nixon to use more “mem­o­rable phrases,” main­tain “a fairly con­stant level of healthy tan,” and stop say­ing “Let me make one thing very clear” so of­ten.

The young pro­ducer be­lieved he could over­come the pub­lic’s view of Nixon as cold and dis­tant by show­ing that he could han­dle tough sit­u­a­tions. “Let’s face it, a lot of peo­ple think Nixon is dull,” Mr. Ailes told McGin­niss. “They fig­ure other peo­ple got foot­balls for Christ­mas, Nixon got a brief­case and he loved it. . . . That’s why these shows are im­por­tant. To make them for­get all that.”

Mr. Ailes sensed that the cam­paign’s em­pha­sis on pro­duc­tion val­ues was “the be­gin­ning of a whole new con­cept,” he told McGin­niss. “This is the way they’ll be elected forever­more. The next guys up will have to be per­form­ers.”

Though the Nixon White House oc­ca­sion­ally called upon Mr. Ailes to stage im­por­tant events, such as the an­nounce­ment that U.S. troops would be­gin with­draw­ing from Viet­nam, Mr. Ailes turned his en­ergy to­ward ad­vis­ing cam­paigns and kept his hand in the more the­atri­cal end of the me­dia, pro­duc­ing a rock mu­si­cal on Broad­way and a late-night talk show on NBC. In 1975, he ran Tele­vi­sion News Inc., a short-lived TV news ser­vice funded by con­ser­va­tive brew­ery owner Joseph Coors Sr. that some of Mr. Ailes’s col­leagues would later see as the in­spi­ra­tion for Fox News.

In 1984, he coached Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan af­ter Demo­cratic chal­lenger Wal­ter F. Mon­dale, the former vice pres­i­dent, had done well in their first de­bate; Mr. Ailes ad­vised Rea­gan to re­spond to Mon­dale’s in­evitable ques­tion­ing of the pres­i­dent’s ad­vanced age with a Rea­gan line that would be­come an iconic mo­ment in TV de­bate his­tory: “I am not go­ing to ex­ploit for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses my op­po­nent’s youth and in­ex­pe­ri­ence.”

As time went on, Mr. Ailes be­came known in his field as “the dark prince of neg­a­tive ad­ver­tis­ing,” pro­duc­ing com­mer­cials, such as one at­tack­ing Mas­sachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Demo­cratic can­di­date for pres­i­dent in 1988, for giv­ing “week­end fur­loughs to first-de­gree mur­der­ers.” The spot was cred­ited with help­ing Ge­orge H.W. Bush pre­vail in that elec­tion. Bush’s cam­paign man­ager, Lee At­wa­ter, said that year that Mr. Ailes “has two speeds: at­tack and de­stroy.”

Build­ing Fox News

In the 1990s, Mr. Ailes moved from po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing to TV news. He told a re­porter in 1994 that he hadn’t stayed in politics be­cause “I wanted con­ser­va­tives to run the world. Ac­tu­ally, it was the money.”

But TV was, he said, “the most pow­er­ful force in the world. Politics is noth­ing com­pared to this.” (In 2012, the last year for which Fox dis­closed Mr. Ailes’s pay, his to­tal com­pen­sa­tion was $21 mil­lion. Fox News’s profit that year was es­ti­mated at $1 bil­lion.)

He pro­duced a TV show for Lim­baugh, then in 1994 cre­ated a ca­ble talk chan­nel for NBC called Amer­ica’s Talk­ing, which fea­tured shows called “Pork,” about waste in gov­ern­ment; “Bugged!” about things that an­noy peo­ple; “Am I Nuts?” star­ring a psy­chol­o­gist; and his own talk pro­gram, “Straight For­ward.” The chan­nel lasted only two years, but one of its pro­grams, “Politics with Chris Matthews,” re­mained a ca­ble main­stay for decades un­der the ti­tle “Hard­ball.”

Along the way, NBC chas­tised Mr. Ailes for his over­bear­ing and in­sult­ing ap­proach to co-work­ers; a net­work in­ves­ti­ga­tion said that Mr. Ailes had “a his­tory of abu­sive, of­fen­sive, and in­tim­i­dat­ing state­ments/threats and per­sonal at­tacks.”

At NBC, Mr. Ailes signed an agree­ment pledg­ing not to call staffers names. In later years, he showed lit­tle com­punc­tion about bash­ing politi­cians and news peo­ple. He told bi­og­ra­pher Zev Chafets that Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den was “dumb as an ash­tray” and that former House speaker Newt Gin­grich (R-Ga.) was “a prick.”

In 1996, Mur­doch — who con­cluded when he first met Mr. Ailes that “ei­ther this man is crazy or he has the big­gest set of balls I’ve ever seen” — asked him to launch a con­ser­va­tive al­ter­na­tive to CNN. But Fox News Chan­nel would not tout it­self as con­ser­va­tive be­cause, as Mr. Ailes said, “if you come out and you try to do right-wing news, you’re gonna die. You can’t get away with it.”

In­stead, Mr. Ailes pro­posed to build a “fair and bal­anced” news op­er­a­tion in which re­port­ing would blend with largely con­ser­va­tive talk show hosts.

Fox News Chan­nel, an out­growth of Fox TV, which Mur­doch built into a fourth broad­cast net­work by buy­ing six TV sta­tions from Metro­me­dia in 1985, started with ac­cess to only 17 mil­lion ca­ble sub­scribers; by 2015, it was in 87 mil­lion house­holds.

The chan­nel’s first big break came with the Mon­ica Lewin­sky scan­dal, the 1998 story about then-Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair. Fox’s cov­er­age brought the net­work a four­fold in­crease in rat­ings.

From its bl­iz­zard of on-screen alerts to its tabloid-style graph­ics and un­end­ing pa­rade of blond bomb­shell news­cast­ers, Fox News changed the face of TV news. The chan­nel wrapped it­self in pa­tri­o­tism. Fox added an Amer­i­can flag to its logo im­me­di­ately af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks. By Jan­uary 2002, Fox had passed CNN in the rat­ings, a re­ver­sal that would per­sist for more than a decade.

A few days af­ter the 9/11 at­tacks, Mr. Ailes, who of­ten said that he had left po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing be­hind to devote him­self to im­par­tial news cov­er­age, sent a memo to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s po­lit­i­cal ad­viser, Karl Rove (later a Fox News com­men­ta­tor), say­ing that the Amer­i­can peo­ple would wait pa­tiently for a re­sponse to the at­tacks, but only if they knew Bush would use the harsh­est pos­si­ble mea­sures.

Mr. Ailes said the memo was not meant as po­lit­i­cal ad­vice but as a non­par­ti­san ex­pres­sion of sup­port for the pres­i­dent. “I did not give up my Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen­ship to take this job,” he said.

Fox’s pop­u­lar­ity and in­flu­ence in set­ting the agenda for con­ser­va­tive politi­cians and vot­ers grew with each elec­tion cy­cle. The net­work and its view­ers started to talk about “Fox Na­tion,” a like-minded au­di­ence that closely fol­lowed the chan­nel’s in­ten­sive fo­cus on scan­dals and out­rages in­volv­ing lib­eral politi­cians.

By the 2012 cam­paign, can­di­dates in the Repub­li­can pri­maries were choos­ing to ap­pear al­most ex­clu­sively on Fox, rack­ing up more than 600 ap­pear­ances on Fox News and its sis­ter chan­nel, Fox Busi­ness, while mak­ing only scant vis­its to other ca­ble news chan­nels.

Repub­li­can can­di­dates re­peat­edly ar­gued that Fox had a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence on which can­di­dates rose or fell. At the same time, GOP can­di­dates of­ten com­plained that Fox an­chors were overly ag­gres­sive in their ques­tion­ing of Repub­li­can hope­fuls.

When a Fox News ex­ec­u­tive asked Mr. Ailes whether he was dam­ag­ing the GOP by pump­ing up con­flicts among the party’s pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, he replied that an in­tra­party bat­tle was a good way to build the next Rea­gan. “If there’s a fight, we should be the one do­ing the shoot­ing,” he said, ac­cord­ing to jour­nal­ist Gabriel Sher­man’s 2014 book, “The Loud­est Voice in the Room.”

Mr. Ailes’s first two mar­riages, to Mar­jorie White and Norma Fer­rer, ended in di­vorce. He is sur­vived by his third wife, the former El­iz­a­beth Til­son, and their son, Zachary. A com­plete list of sur­vivors was not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

The med­i­cal ex­am­iner said Mr. Ailes died of com­pli­ca­tions from a sub­du­ral hematoma af­ter he fell at his Palm Beach res­i­dence. He­mo­philia con­tributed to the death, the med­i­cal ex­am­iner found, and no foul play was sus­pected. Palm Beach po­lice had been called to Mr. Ailes’s home on May 10 af­ter a re­port that a 77-year-old man had fallen and was bleed­ing se­verely.

In a me­mory box that Mr. Ailes cre­ated for Zachary to open af­ter he died, the fa­ther left his child a pocket edi­tion of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, bi­ogra­phies of Ron­ald Rea­gan, ar­ti­cles about Mr. Ailes’s ca­reer, $2,000 in cash (“the al­lowance I owe you,” Mr. Ailes wrote), and a copy of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” in­scribed with this ad­vice: “Al­ways stand for what is right. If ab­so­lutely forced to fight, then fight with courage and win. Don’t try to win . . . win! Love, Dad.”


TOP: Roger Ailes and son Zachary at­tend an event at Lin­coln Cen­ter in New York in 2013. RIGHT: Mr. Ailes got his start in politics as an aide to Richard M. Nixon.

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