Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Who was Roger Ailes and why was he so controversial? Five things you need to know

The Fox News news founder and former CEO has died at age 77

Emily Shugerman
New York
Thursday 18 May 2017 18:02 BST
Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes has died at age 77
Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes has died at age 77 (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Roger Ailes, the founder and former CEO of Fox News, died on 18 May at the age of 77.

The news tycoon had suffered from a blood-clotting disorder called haemophilia since childhood. Family friends report he died of complications stemming from a blood clot.

His poor health, however, did not stop Mr Ailes from becoming one of the most successful – and infamous – businessmen in the industry.

For these reasons, and many more, Mr Ailes’ legacy will likely long outlast 20-year term at Fox News.

1. He started as a Republican political operative

Ailes got his start in politics working for none other than Richard Nixon. He is credited with “repackaging” Nixon for television; pioneering the idea of a “staged” town hall in which planted audience members asked the candidate soft-ball questions.

He is also credited with helping to hide Ronald Reagan’s mounting Alzheimer's, giving him simple, one-line talking points to repeat. He was later known as the “go-to man” on George HW Bush’s presidential campaign.

"He was the premier guy in the business," former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins told Rolling Stone of Mr Ailes. "He was our Michelangelo."

2. He is said to be behind some of the most controversial ads on television

Rumours have circulated for years that Mr Ailes had a hand in creating the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, which focused on the case of a Black, convicted felon in order to portray Mr Bush’s opponent as soft on crime.

The creator of the ad, which has been widely criticised as racist, worked for Roger Ailes shortly before creating the ads. According to the Federal Election Commission, Mr Ailes “may have implicitly communicated” to the ad’s creator about the need for more attack ads.

Mr Ailes has denied involvement in the making of Willie Horton ad. But that same year, he ran a similar spot focusing on the release of prisoners for weekend breaks. In the ad, the camera focuses on a lone Black prisoner, who bears a striking resemblance to Horton.

“The only question,” Mr Ailes later told Time Magazine, “is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand – or without it.”

Mr Ailes was later hired by the tobacco industry to develop ads to take down Clinton administration health care reform.

3. He built Fox News as a political machine

Mr Ailes started Fox News in 1996. Former Fox commentators describe the network as his “vision” and “a reflection of him”. He reportedly handpicked all of his hosts and anchors, and dictated what they would say on air.

“There’s a chain of command, and it’s followed,” one former news anchor told Rolling Stone. “Roger talks to his people, and his people pass the message on down.”

According to former employees, Mr Ailes’ directives almost always had a political aim. In 2000, that aim was to elect George W Bush – and it succeeded. As study of voting patterns by the University of California found Fox News convinced roughly 200,000 votes to vote Republican in areas where they had access to the network.

In 2008, Fox News’ – and Ailes’ – motive was to take down the Obama administration. Fox was one of the first networks to claim Mr Obama was “raised as a Muslim” and educated in an Islamic religious school. At one point, Fox viewers Viewers were found to be 31 points more likely than the average viewer to doubt President Obama’s American citizenship.

“I see this as the Alamo,” Mr Ailes reportedly said of Mr Obama’s presidency.

4. ...and made it extremely successful

Viewership at Fox News has skyrocketed since Mr Ailes launched it more than 20 years ago. In 2016, Fox News was the most popular of any cable news network – despite having one-third the staff of CNN. In 2011, 19 per cent of Americans said they turned to Fox as their main source of national and international news, compared to CNN’s 15 percent.

The network is also extremely profitable: In 2010, it made more money than CNN, MSNBC and the evening newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS combined.

"Fox News is one of the most important media properties in the industry,” analyst Brian Wieser wrote in 2016. “More than a source of influence for some (and agitation for others), it is a highly profitable entity that accounts for a large share of its parent company's value.”

5. He was accused of sexually harassing more than two dozen women

Last summer, former Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson opened the floodgates for claims against Mr Ailes when she accused him of sexually harassing her throughout her career at Fox News. Among other things, Ms Carlson accused Mr Ailes of telling her that they would both be better off if they had engaged in a sexual relationship.

At least two dozen women came forward with similar accusations in the following months. One woman said the CEO had encourage her to “lay with the big boys”. Another accused him of “psychologically tortur[ing]” her throughout her tenure.

21st Century Fox quickly hired an outside law firm to investigate the claims. The company asked Mr Ailes to step down from the network he had created in July of last year.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in