Roger Ailes was not a good guy. Normally I would steer clear of speaking ill of the dead, but in the case of the founder of Fox News, who died aged 77 on Thursday, I think this represents a “fair and balanced” point of view.
Of course, not everyone shares the same perspective. Rupert Murdoch, who hired Ailes to create Fox in 1996, said in a statement: “He will be remembered by the many people on both sides of the camera that he discovered, nurtured and promoted.” Murdoch diplomatically forget to mention the many women, on both sides of the camera, who Ailes allegedly harassed, exploited and, to use the words of one former Fox News employee, “psychologically tortured”.
Ailes stepped down as the CEO of Fox last July after more than 20 women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment; he will certainly be remembered by all of these women, but for the wrong reasons.
While Ailes may polarize opinion, there’s one thing that most people can agree on: he made a difference. He played a hugely significant role in creating the nightmare we’re all currently inhabiting. Indeed, in many important ways, the media mogul’s death represents the end of an era.
Ailes’s career neatly spans the rise and fall of broadcast journalism as the most important medium of political influence. A prescient propagandist, Ailes was quick to see the power of television as a tool of political persuasion. In 1970, he was a media adviser to Richard Nixon and prepared “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News”. His strategic shaping of popular opinion got the Republican party on the news, which helped get them in the White House. George Bush (Gulf war Bush, not Iraq war Bush), for example, credited Ailes for making him the 41st president, tweeting: “…Not sure I would have been President w/o his great talent, loyal help. RIP.”
In his 1970 memo, Ailes wrote: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: people are lazy. With television you just sit – watch – listen. The thinking is done for you.”
People are still lazy. However, today much of our thinking is done for us by algorithms which serve us up the sort of content we want to see on social media networks, with flagrant disregard for whether that content might be, you know, true. We just sit, skim, share.
The outsized influence of broadcast media as a whole, and Fox News in particular, is on the wane. Indeed, Ailes was representative of the Fox News’s core demographic: old, white, conservative men who are currently dying out. According to Nielsen, 92% of Fox News viewers are white and the median age of the average primetime viewer is 68. That’s five years older than MSNBC viewers, and nine years older than CNN viewers.
A majority of US adults (62%) get news on social media and it has overtaken TV as the main source of news for young people. What’s more, it’s influential: a recent Pew study found 20% of users had “modified their stance on a social or political issue because of material they saw on social media”.
Following the election, there was much debate about the influence of fake news, with many criticizing Facebook for doing nothing to stop its spread. Mark Zuckerberg quickly denied any responsibility, saying: “Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” You know what else is a crazy idea? A Cheeto as president. But it just happens to be reality.
It’s not just broadcast journalism that is seeing a decline in the power it once took for granted. Spare a quick thought and prayer for the white man, who is slowly going extinct. Earlier this year, John Allan, the chairman of the British supermarket giant Tesco, called white men an “endangered species”, quickly disappearing from powerful positions in business. Who’s booting them out of the boardroom? Pesky women, apparently. Particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds who have it super-easy in today’s world and are handed jobs left and right.
This, um, isn’t exactly borne out in reality – there are still more people called John heading FTSE 100 companies than there are women. However, there’s no doubt that women are dealing sustained blows to the patriarchy. Even the I’m-not-a-feminist women of Fox News, who, after over 30 decades of harassment, decided to fight back and wreak revenge on Roger Ailes.
Ailes’s death marks the end of an era. But it does not necessarily signal the beginning of a more fair and balanced world. Workplace sexual harassment is still rife – with many high-profile cases recently coming out of Silicon Valley. What’s more, we’re only just starting to realize the power of social media to shape our opinions and social media platforms have yet to step up and take proper responsibility.
When it comes to the mass manipulation of political opinion in today’s media landscape, there’s a new Roger Ailes in our midst. His name is probably Mark Zuckerberg.