The great boogeyman of liberals everywhere, Roger Ailes, has been gathered in by his creator, and will never haunt their dreams again. The reinventor of Richard Nixon and the image-enhancer behind Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, he dragged the Republican Party into modernity. But it was as auteur of the Fox News Channel, which he launched in 1996 with media scoundrel Rupert Murdoch, that he seized the liberal amygdala and jolted it with the scariest right-wing agit-prop his underlings could fashion.
Ailes was a revolutionary in reactionary clothing. Before the advent of Fox, liberals might have to contest conservatives on the ballot, but their lock on media was unbreakable from the Kennedy era through the mid-1990s. Following the literary critic Lionel Trilling, who once dismissed conservatism as “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” the liberal media would host a few conservative writers on the premises—James J. Kilpatrick, William F. Buckley Jr., William Safire, George F. Will—but largely to remind the public of what kooks they were. Then came Ailes and Murdoch, betting that the market for conservative journalism and commentary was underserved by the broadcasters and CNN. In the words of Michael Wolff, Ailes didn’t divide the country, as liberals would have you believe, he merely “chipped off his own profitable piece” of the TV news market by turning politics into “a special interest category.”
Ailes was a witty man, reporters will tell you, happy to share an offending comment without worrying about the consequence. But nobody would look at his complete record and conclude that he was a good man. He was vengeful, as Gabriel Sherman’s book, The Loudest Voice in the Room, shows repeatedly. He engaged in thuggery. At Fox, he ruled by terror, trashing his reporters behind their backs. He used Fox to promote conspiracy theories. He spied on the reporters who worked on the small newspaper he owned in Putnam County, New York, and bullied his way around town. And, of course, he attempted to coerce sex from his employees. He was the villain in the novel of his life.
Whether you’re a Fox fan or a Fox hater, you can’t deny that Ailes broadened the range of opinion heard on TV and discussed at the barbershop. Practicing by-any-means-necessary methods one associates with the far left, he moved conservatism out of its media ghetto and into the mainstream. The liberal press never really understood his mission. Going back to the beginning of Fox, you can see the New York Times completely misreading what Ailes and Murdoch were trying to build. Writing before its launch, the paper’s TV reporter claimed that “given the current state of Fox News as described by some insiders, it may be less a toy than an imaginary friend.” CNN founder Ted Turner didn’t see what was coming either. He said, “I look forward to crushing Rupert Murdoch like a bug,” and later compared Murdoch to Hitler. Ailes retaliated by calling CNN the Clinton News Network and built his success on running an anti-Clinton News Network, one that placed showmanship ahead of shoe-leather reporting. The result has been one of the most profitable properties in all of cable TV: Fox News generates about $1.6 billion in revenue a year.
To the horror of news professionals, who think of journalism as holy text, Ailes infused his enterprise with the ethos of a bordello, placing raucous entertainment ahead of piety. Where most news outlets offered the dessert of commentary after a big meal of news, Ailes made his very partisan commentary the main course at Fox. And he placed the feast in prime time. Taking a cue from talk radio, Ailes took the right-wing fight over politics and culture to the tube. In doing so, he didn’t so much invent the modern approach to news, which was eventually copied by the liberals at MSNBC, as he rediscovered it. The newspapers of the mid-1800s, then the “yellow” journals of Pulitzer and Hearst, and finally Col. Robert M. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune—were more often entertaining than they were informative. Like Fox today, the newspapers of yore toed a party line (or their own line), actively promoting and demoting candidates. So when one of your liberal friends starts moaning of how Ailes’ Fox “poisoned” politics and “defiled” journalism, place an ice cube on their amygdala, dose them with fentanyl, and hand them a copy of Christopher B. Daly’s history of journalism, Covering America. After reading 100 pages, they’ll snap out of it.
Today, 10 months after Ailes was forced out over the sexual harassment charges, his Fox formula continues, zombie-like, and could probably toddle on another 20 years. The Fox formula’s essence can’t be gleaned by merely watching. One must conduct field research of the Fox audience, visiting the subjects in the habitat where they consume the channel. There they will find a mostly male, mostly older audience huddled around a TV set, their hands grown arthritic from resentment, holding their palms out to their sets like it was a lit hearth. Fox viewers, unlike most of their CNN and MSNBC cousins, talk back to the channel—mostly in the confirmative. They love Fox because Ailes turned the news into a soap opera for their weary, aging eyes. For the longest stretch, it was the only mass media that understood them and their anxieties, the only channel to create TV companions like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity that spoke for them.
And, for the benefit of the horny old codgers, Ailes made Fox the first news channel to raise hemlines, mandate the blondifcation of the female broadcasters, and to polish their lips with gloss until they shined. “Television is a visual medium,” Ailes told his authorized biographer Zev Chafets. “There’s nothing wrong with having good-looking people on the screen.”
Was the Fox show real or imaginary? No assessment of Ailes should neglect his show-business savvy and his advanced sense of stagecraft. In addition to his TV credits (The Mike Douglas Show), Ailes produced the Broadway musical Mother Earth and the Off-Broadway play The Hot L Baltimore in the early 1970s. In 1976, he produced and directed an hourlong TV special on Federico Fellini, of all people! He brought his creative and kitschy eye to cable news, staging drama in the guise of news and adding SportsCenter-like graphics to snazz up a medium that had come to resemble radio with pictures. Damn the Ailes effect all you want, but you must also damn the rest of the TV news, which has always imitated him.
When not frightening themselves over the poison Ailes was allegedly pouring into the news stream, liberals have harped on his “dangerous” decades-long ambition to elect a president. That Ailes aspired to play kingmaker was clear—but I find his efforts no more shocking than Washington Post Publisher Philip Graham’s success in attaching Lyndon Johnson to the Kennedy ticket in 1960 or his role in sketching the framework for LBJ’s Great Society.
No matter how hard he tried, Ailes always proved to be a better TV programmer than a Machiavelli. Again and again, he stocked Fox with Republican aspirants like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Ben Carson—paying them to pretend to be broadcasters while building their political profiles, only to see an unFoxy candidate steal the nomination. In 2012, the Republican winner was the anti-Fox Mitt Romney. In 2016, it was Donald Trump, who became Fox’s man only after his nomination became inevitable.
Despite the liberal caterwauling, Ailes never succeeded in remaking the Republican Party in his image. A much better case can be made that Fox made itself in the party’s existing image. The GOP nominated its first Fox-like candidate in 1964—more than three decades before Fox first flickered—placing Barry Goldwater on the top of the ticket. The party did the same again in 1968, picking Nixon, and once more with Reagan in 1980. Ailes’ primary political talent over the past two decades was to place Fox at the front of the gathering parade and call himself its leader.
If Ailes’ failure to nominate a Fox candidate does not convince you of the network’s paper tiger status, then I offer you the 2008 election when the network—at the height of its powers—could not prevent political greenhorn Barack Obama from being elected president. That humbling was reprised in 2012, when Fox failed to block Obama again. As Ailes takes his permanent nap, maybe liberals can finally get a good night’s sleep.