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.
I don’t mind that Fox News is a conservative channel any more than I mind that MSNBC tilts left, as long as they both clearly separate straight news from opinion. Unfortunately, that separation occasionally is blurred.
Some Fox News anchors gave more credibility than was deserved to Trump’s unfounded claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Same with Sarah Palin’s false talking point that Obama’s health care plan would include “death panels.”
Fox has largely avoided much reporting on Trump’s Russia scandal, choosing instead to spend airtime on an alleged link between email leaks to WikiLeaks and the 2016 slaying of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, a suspicion that authorities say is unfounded.
Fox has largely avoided much reporting on Trump’s Russia scandal, choosing instead to spend airtime on an alleged link between email leaks to Wilkileaks and the 2016 slaying of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, a suspicion that authorities say is unfounded.
Again, I don’t mind a conservative channel. I do mind misleading the public.
Yet, pressing Fox News to stick to facts misses a significant side of the network’s interaction with politics in the age of Trump. “Viewers don’t want to be informed,” opines Chet Collier, one of the founders of Fox News, as quoted in Gabriel Sherman’s new biography of Ailes. “Viewers want to feel informed.”
Indeed, Fox is the most-watched cable news network, yet some surveys suggest that people who rely on Fox as their primary information source know less about current events than people who watch no news at all. Fox disputes those findings in much the same way that Trump denounces “inconvenient” stories as “fake news.”
In Fox’s viewership and Trump’s core supporters, belief in what Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts” is just one more social bonding agent that defines the political right’s information tribe.
Thanks largely to Ailes, TV news has become more than news. It’s a lifestyle choice.