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Roger Ailes Will Live Forever

The FOX News founder and alleged serial sexual harasser changed American media for good—and for the worse.

by Eve Peyser
May 18 2017, 6:16pm

Image by author; photos by Charles Eshelman, Joseph Clark, Tim Boxer, Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Roger Ailes died old and left an ugly legacy. Nothing has damaged American politics and media more over the past 20 years than FOX News, the network Ailes founded in 1996, which went on to become the country's premiere right-wing propaganda outlet. No other mainstream outlet has been as eager to spread outright lies—whether that meant furthering Donald Trump's despicable claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, or advancing the talking point that Obama's healthcare plan would mean "death panels."

Ailes was ousted (and given a $40 million golden parachute) as FOX News's CEO after a slew of women, including former FOX anchors Greta Van Sustren and Megyn Kelly, accused him of sexual harassment and assault. (Van Sustren sued the company and settled for $20 million.) But that scandal didn't limit the network's reach—Trump himself watches it—and many at the channel obviously still worship Ailes:

Ailes worked for Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, and the origins of FOX News are intertwined with Republican politics. In 1970, Nixon aides discussed a plan "to circumvent the 'prejudices of network news' and deliver 'pro-administration' stories to heartland television viewers," according to a 2011 Gawker report that uncovered a 318-page memo from the Nixon Presidential Library. Called "A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News," the memo served as an effective prototype sketch of FOX News—it envisioned a pro-GOP media operation that would deliver "prepackaged pro-Nixon news to local television stations," as John Cook wrote. (The memo's authors were anonymous, but Ailes apparently endorsed it.)

The memo reckoned that TV news was more popular than newspapers or radio because, "People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you." Years later, with the rise of 24-hour cable news, Ailes birthed a network that did the "thinking" for its viewers—inciting much of the Islamophobia and fear of terrorism that would come to define 21st-century America.

Ailes said publicly he wanted FOX offset a Media Establishment he saw as liberal. But the network became a platform for conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and hateful gibberish. In one infamous segment, it was suggested that "poor" people weren't really that bad off because they had fridges. It gave Bill O'Reilly a platform to tell the son of a 9/11 victim to "shut up" and for Megyn Kelly to remind the children of America that Santa Claus is, in fact, white.

In 2015, a guest said that there were areas in Britain and France where Muslims ruled by Sharia law—a lie so outrageous the network actually apologized for it. More recently, Andrew Napolitano said that Obama had British intelligence spy on Trump, and was allowed to come back on the air despite there being no evidence for that claim. This week, Sean Hannity spread a conspiracy theory about a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer even though the reporting he was repeating had been debunked.

FOX News was designed to propagate lies that would benefit the GOP, and stays true to that mission today. An enthusiastic cheerleader for the Iraq War (along with many other media outlets and commentators), the network focused its post-9/11 coverage on "phantom menaces like the planned 'terror mosque' near Ground Zero, inspiring Florida pastor Terry Jones to torch the Koran," wrote Tim Dickinson in Rolling Stone.

Promulgating lies have not hurt FOX, which is the country's most popular cable news network. Gabriel Sherman, in his 2014 book detailing Ailes's rise, explained the network's success: "More than anyone of his generation, he helped transform politics into mass entertainment. Through FOX, Ailes helped polarize America, drawing sharp with-us-or-against-us lines, demonizing foes, preaching against compromise."

Unsurprisingly, the success of FOX has led to imitators—Breitbart and Infowars couldn't have happened without FOX News, and neither could the network of shady liberal websites that treat the news as a partisan game. It's been said that we now live in a post-truth era. Ailes's media empire is responsible for that.

Thanks to Ailes, the country is a more panic-stricken and partisan place. He demonstrated you could build a media empire on grievance, distrust, and terror. That he was so successful says something about America.

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.