By Marc Fisher
Roger Ailes, who mastered the art of selling political candidates like Hollywood celebrities and was the architect of conservative-oriented TV news, died Thursday at 77.
Fox News published a statement from Ailes’ wife, Elizabeth, and confirmed the death in an on-air report. “I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning,” Elizabeth Ailes wrote in the statement, which was also published by the Drudge Report. “Roger was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many.”
No cause of death was reported.
As chairman and chief executive of the Fox News Channel, Ailes presided over a cable outlet that combined news from a conservative perspective with the rabble-rousing of right-wing talk radio to produce a singularly influential media machine. He was a skilled showman, a savvy political operator and a proudly plebian counterpoint to the East Coast elite that he believed dominated the news business.
To Democrats and liberals, he was a manipulator of the news, a puppetmaster who used his network to turn minor stories into blazing scandals, ostensibly in service of his personal politics.
To Republicans and conservatives, he was an essential counterweight, a tough but fair partisan, a middle American from a blue-collar background who gleefully and effectively poked holes in the left-leaning biases of the news media establishment.
The titles of biographies about him — four were published within seven years at a peak in Fox’s popularity during the Obama administration — demonstrated the wrath and resentment he could engender: He was a “Dark Genius,” “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” ruler of a “propaganda machine.”
Ailes eschewed political labels and preferred to portray himself as a craftsman of the airwaves, more concerned about how to frame a shot or drive a story than about the fate of individual candidates or policies. He told a biographer that his dream for America was that it be allowed to return to its best self, which he put in the Midwest in about 1955.
As founding chief executive of Fox News in 1996, Mr. Ailes defined the channel in opposition to the traditional journalism of CNN and the liberal bent of MSNBC, and he brought Fox from a distant third to clear dominance, riding to the top along the wave of public dismay that arose over President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern.
Ailes’ reign at Fox ended abruptly in 2016, in the middle of the presidential campaign, after an on-air host at Fox News, Gretchen Carlson, alleged that Mr. Ailes had sabotaged her career when she refused to have sex with him. Following Carlson’s accusations, 25 other women, including Fox’s most prominent female anchor, Megyn Kelly, came forward to say that Ailes had sexually harassed them over his five decades in the TV business.
Fox’s parent company quickly pushed Mr. Ailes to resign his positions, though he said the allegations — which ranged from kissing women against their will to telling women that they had to provide him with sexual favors if they wanted their careers to flourish — were false. Ailes’ bosses, Lachlan and James Murdoch, the sons of Fox’s longtime owner, Rupert Murdoch, announced the resignation in a statement that emphasized the company’s “commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.”
Fox paid Carlson $20 million to settle her harassment claim against Ailes. Within weeks, Ohio University removed Ailes’ name from the newsroom it had named after one of its most famous alumni; the university also returned to Ailes a $500,000 gift he had made to his alma mater. Less than a month after he left Fox, Ailes reemerged as leader of the prep camp where businessman and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump prepared for his TV debates against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
Like Richard M. Nixon, the first presidential candidate Mr. Ailes ever worked with, he seemed driven as much by social and class resentments as by ideology or a lust for power.
He was an employee of Rupert Murdoch, the worldwide media tycoon, but wielded power on his own, too, regularly being courted by Republican presidential candidates.
“At Fox, Ailes has ushered in the era of post-truth politics,” concluded David Brock, a conservative-turned-liberal activist who wrote a book on Mr. Ailes, “The Fox Effect.” “The facts no longer matter, only what is politically expedient, sensationalistic, and designed to confirm the preexisting opinions of a large audience.”
Fox gave intensive coverage to stories that later collapsed under closer inspection: the idea that Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, was born outside the United States; or that Obama’s health reform initiative would impose death panels to determine which Americans might be refused medical care; or that human behavior played no role in global climate change. Many Democrats dismissed Mr. Ailes’s network as a partisan agitator.
“Fox News often operates as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican party,” Anita Dunn, communications director in the Obama White House, told CNN in 2009.
Critics and admirers alike agreed that Fox was a mirror of Ailes’s ideas about content and presentation. “Roger Ailes is not on the air, Roger Ailes does not ever show up on camera, and yet everybody who does is a reflection of him,” radio talk host Rush Limbaugh, whose TV show Ailes produced in the early 1990s, once said.
Ailes often responded to his critics by saying that they intentionally elided Fox’s straight-ahead news reporting with the frankly conservative views of its commentators. He noted that the network regularly broke stories critical of leading conservatives, including George W. Bush’s arrest as a young man for drunk driving, a story that Fox reported the week before the 2000 election, when Bush won his first term as president.
Ailes, derided on the left as a Republican kingmaker, was actually more of “an entertainer,” New Yorker writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote. “He’s also a bogeyman,” an easy target for those who want to believe that the conservative movement was manipulated from above rather than a naturally occurring political phenomenon.
Several academic studies of Fox’s content concluded that the network, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism put it in 2006, “was measurably more one-sided than the other networks, and Fox journalists were more opinionated on the air.” But a study in 2007 by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a media watchdog nonprofit that calls itself nonpartisan, but which some liberal groups consider conservative in orientation, found that Fox News’s statements about Republican and Democratic presidential candidates were almost exactly evenly divided between positive and negative.
Nevertheless, Ailes and his approach to broadcasting provoked a longstanding and deep rift within the Murdoch clan over the politics and direction of Fox.
In 2010, Murdoch’s then-son-in-law, Matthew Freud, a London public relations executive who did not work for the family media empire, denounced Ailes’s leadership of Fox News, saying that “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to.” But Murdoch stood by his man, giving him larger responsibilities and free rein to shape the hugely successful network.