Roger Ailes mastered the art of selling political candidates like Hollywood celebrities and was the architect of American conservative-oriented television. He was the long-standing chairman and chief executive of the Fox News Channel, building it over two decades into a politically influential juggernaut until his abrupt removal last year amid allegations of sexual harassment.
At Fox News, Ailes presided over a cable outlet that combined TV news from a conservative perspective with the rabble-rousing rhetoric of right-wing talk radio to produce an influential media machine. He was a skilled showman, a savvy political operator and a proudly plebeian 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 puppet master 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 poked holes in the left-leaning biases of the mainstream media.
Ailes 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, 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 Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
His reign at Fox ended abruptly last year in the middle of the presidential campaign, after Fox presenter Gretchen Carlson, alleged that he had sabotaged her career when she refused to have sex with him. Following her accusations, 25 other women, including Fox’s most prominent female anchor, Megyn Kelly, came forward to say that Ailes had sexually harassed them over five decades.
Fox’s parent company quickly pushed Ailes to resign, and paid Carlson $20m (£15m) to settle her harassment claim. Ailes soon re-emerged as leader of the camp where Donald Trump prepared for his television debates against Hillary Clinton.
He was born in Warren, Ohio in 1940, the middle child of a physically abusive father, Robert, a supervisor in a car factory. His mother was apparently demanding but cold.
His father, according to a story biographers called Ailes’ “Rosebud” moment, once told the boy to jump from the top of his bunk bed into his arms. But as the boy leapt, the father stepped away and Roger landed hard. “Don’t ever trust anybody,” Ailes told his son.
Ailes traced his passion for show business to his time as an actor in high school theatre and to his devotion to his college radio station. In 1962, after leaving Ohio University, Ailes got a job on a TV talk show, The Mike Douglas Show, which gradually became one of the country’s most popular programmes, with Ailes as its executive producer.
In 1967 Richard Nixon, preparing to run for president, met Ailes while he was waiting to appear on the show. “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” Nixon said.” Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes replied. Impressed, Nixon told an aide to hire him, and Ailes made sponsored programmes featuring Nixon responding to voters’ questions.
Ailes became a core member of the team that packaged Nixon, applying the tools of Madison Avenue and Hollywood to a presidential campaign for the first time. He advised Nixon to use more memorable phrases, maintain “a fairly constant level of healthy tan” and stop saying “Let me make one thing very clear” so often.
Ailes turned his energy toward advising campaigns. In 1984, he coached President Reagan after Democratic challenger Walter Mondale had done well in their first debate; Ailes advised Reagan to respond to Mondale’s inevitable questioning of the his advanced age with a famous line: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Ailes became known “the dark prince of negative advertising”, producing attack ads. George Bush Sr’s campaign manager Lee Atwater said he had two speeds: attack and destroy.
In the 1990s, Ailes moved from political consulting to TV news, creating a cable talk channel for NBC. But the network chastised Ailes for his overbearing and insulting approach to workers; an investigation said that he had “a history of abusive, offensive, and intimidating statements/threats and personal attacks”.
In 1996 Rupert Murdoch – who concluded when he first met Ailes that “Either this man is crazy or he has the biggest set of balls I’ve ever seen” – asked him to launch a conservative alternative to CNN. Fox News started with access to only 17 million cable subscribers; by 2015, it was in 87 million households.
The channel’s first big break came with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, bringing a fourfold increase in ratings. By 2002 it had passed CNN in the ratings, and its popularity and influence in setting the agenda for conservative politicians and voters grew with each election cycle.
Ailes, who died following a fall at home, was married three times, his first two ending in divorce, and he is survived by his third wife, Elizabeth Tilson, a newspaper publisher in the family’s home town of Putnam, NY, as well as their son, Zachary.
In a memory box Ailes created for Zachary to open after he died, he left his a pocket edition of the US constitution, biographies of Ronald Reagan, articles about Ailes’ career, $2,000 in cash (“the allowance I owe you”) and a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, inscribed with the words, “Always stand for what is right. If absolutely forced to fight, then fight with courage and win. Don’t try to win – win!”
Roger Eugene Ailes, born 15 May 1940; died 18 May 2017
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