In mid-2016, the average age of a primetime Fox News Channel viewer was 68. For Roger Ailes, a founder of the network and its longtime CEO, that wasn’t such a bad thing.
Ailes, who died at 77 Thursday morning, built the country’s most successful and profitable cable news channel on that demographic. A longtime confidant of and consultant for the country’s most powerful conservative political leaders, Ailes helped get Donald Trump, one of his most famous and ardent viewers, elected president.
“There is no one in television or the media who has had a bigger impact on U.S. politics than Roger Ailes,” said Rick Perlstein, a historian of the modern conservative movement and author of “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”
In the last year and a half, however, Ailes’ power and stature had waned considerably. In July he was forced to resign from Fox News after nearly 20 years as CEO amid a series of lawsuits and public accusations of sexual abuse by current and former employees of the company, including anchors Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly.
Ailes was hired by Rupert Murdoch in 1996 to help launch and run the news network after spending decades in television and Republican politics. He produced the popular “Mike Douglas Show” in the mid 1960s; backstage at the talk show, he met Richard Nixon, who then tapped Ailes to mastermind the TV and media strategy for Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential run.
In his own statement on Ailes’ death, Murdoch called him “a brilliant broadcaster” who “played a huge role in shaping America’s media over the last 30 years.”
The tools and techniques Ailes used to make the awkward Nixon appear telegenic and warm, which were famously captured in Joe McGinniss’ book “The Selling of the President,” later helped make Ailes the most powerful executive in television news media. In his 1970 memo “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” which was unearthed by Gawker in 2011, Ailes constructed a strategy for combating what he perceived as liberal bias in the media. Instead of attempting to quiet liberal media, his goal was to provide an alternative.
After spending the 1980s producing off-Broadway theater shows and television programs, and consulting for Republican politicians including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Ailes was tapped to run the then 4-year-old CNBC news network in 1993. He resigned three years later, reportedly in part due to allegations that he called a fellow NBC executive “a little fucking Jew prick.”
Murdoch, looking to gain a toehold in cable television, soon hired him to launch Fox News, setting off a cable news revolution. At NBC, one of Ailes’ final projects was a failed cable news network called America Talking that aimed to fuse talk radio sensibility with cable news presentation — a formula he would deploy to much greater success at Fox.
“Fox News was a really smart creation in multiple respects,” said MIT Media Lab visiting scholar and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward. “It brought entertainment value, shock value, and the emotional impact of talk radio, combined with news. It positioned itself aggressively as an alternative to the mainstream media, which it portrayed as biased.”
Heyward dismissed the belief held by many liberals that Fox News deals in so-called fake news.
“Don’t get trapped by the easy trope that Fox peddles fake news,” he said. “It gives its viewers, even in its news coverage, just a different point of view that really marked it as an alternative [to other networks]. It was bringing… that brilliant recognition that there was a large niche that felt badly underserved by mainstream TV.”
Heyward pointed to Fox News’ story selection — what Rolling Stone once famously termed the Ailes “fear factory” — with its focus on stories that appealed to the id of conservative and mostly white audiences. Fox News was all but alone among TV news organizations in covering these things, things like the dubious rise of the New Black Panthers or the imagined “Obamaphones” allegedly given out for free to reward Democratic voters.
For Ailes, the election of Trump should have been a proud capstone on his long career. Early Trump campaign advisers crafted their policy platform by aping Ailes: They listened to “thousands of hours” of talk radio, and elevated the issues that talk radio listeners — and by extension many Fox News viewers — cared about.
But Ailes was effectively fired during last year’s Republican National Convention after a firestorm of sexual harassment allegations became impossible for Murdoch and others at the network to ignore. His accusers described an atmosphere of fear and cruelty in which Ailes extorted sex for career advancement. One Fox News employee said she was effectively under Ailes’ complete control for 20 years.
Ailes reportedly received a $40 million payout from the network.
His family did not release a cause of death, but the Associated Press reported that Ailes, who suffered from hemophilia, died of complications related to a head injury sustained in a fall in his Palm Beach home last week.