Roger Ailes, a polarizing pioneer in political media


For years I boasted about graduating from the same university as Roger Ailes, the creator of Fox News. My boast became somewhat muted after Ailes was forced out last year in light of a sexual harassment scandal.

Yet my fellow Ohio University graduate, who died Thursday morning at age 77, left such a deep and indelible impression on the worlds of politics and media over the past half-century that we ignore his ideas and influences only at our peril.

As a product of a working-class Ohio factory town not unlike Warren, where Ailes grew up, it’s not hard for me to see where he first noticed the grim vision of looming gloom that percolates at the core of “resentment TV,” my description of the Fox News format Ailes created.

For example, do you think Donald Trump‘s election to the White House was a fluke? The parallels between his campaign themes and those of Richard Nixon’s (“forgotten Americans” and “silent majority,” for example) illustrate how much the influence of Ailes, who worked for Nixon and later advised Trump, helped reshape American politics years before it helped Trump rise from long shot to winner.

Ailes’ influence began shortly after his graduation from college when he went to work as a backstage assistant at “The Mike Douglas Show,” a hit syndicated Westinghouse daytime TV talk show based in Cleveland. He became the show’s executive producer at age 25.

Two years later, while Ailes was waiting backstage with future presidential candidate Nixon, his small talk, as recounted in “The Selling of the President,” reporter Joe McGinniss’1969 best-seller about Nixon’s campaign, now sounds prophetic:

“The camera doesn’t like you,” Ailes said, needling Nixon for his TV-unfriendly appearance that helped him lose the 1960 race to the more telegenic John F. Kennedy.

“It’s a shame,” Nixon grumbled, “that a man has to use gimmicks like television to get elected.”

“Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes replied. “And if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”

The exchange led to Ailes joining Nixon’s presidential campaign as a paid consultant, launching what would become a career of alternating between the worlds of politics and media. He would eventually work in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and also in flashy Fox TV shows, such as “Geraldo at Large.”

News doesn’t have to be dull, insisted Ailes, who famously captured his view of sensationalism in his “Orchestra Pit Theory.” “If you have two guys on a stage,” he would say, “and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”

Ailes conceived Fox News, which launched in 1996, to compete with CNN and the three broadcast networks by targeting a large underserved audience of conservative Americans who didn’t like the way the world was rapidly moving away from the one they knew in the 1950s.

Source