Roger Ailes’ legacy: Transforming media and politics

WEST PALM BEACH (AP) — Few media titans can claim a lasting legacy. They make their impact felt during stellar careers, and are honored and rewarded for it. Then, one way or another, they pass from the scene as other studio and network bosses, publishers and impresarios take their turns at wielding power and influence.

This rule does not apply to Roger Ailes. Through a career spanning a half-century, Ailes mastered the art of media messaging and applied it, interchangeably, to politics and broadcasting. With his commanding role in merging these two worlds, he flourished in both, and has left them both transformed.

For better or worse, Ailes, who died Thursday at 77, leaves a permanent mark.

Ailes died after a fall at his Palm Beach, Florida, home on May 10 caused bleeding on the brain, the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office said. Ailes fell in his bathroom, hit his head and was bleeding profusely. He was taken to a hospital by attending paramedics, the Palm Beach Police Department said.

He is survived by his third wife, Elizabeth, who had worked for him at CNBC as vice president of programming, and their son, Zachary.

Ailes’ crowning achievement was Fox News Channel, with which he transformed both television news and America’s political conversation. It was his invention, and he managed it with an iron grip for two decades before being ousted last year for alleged sexual harassment.

Propelled by Ailes’ “fair and balanced” branding, Fox News targeted viewers who believed the other cable-news networks, and the media overall, displayed a liberal tilt from which Fox News and Fox Business Network (which he launched in 2006 against his former business network, CNBC) would deliver its audience with unvarnished truth. With such deft jujitsu, he leveraged viewers’ distrust for the media while positioning his networks as the anti-media news-media alternative – and he their upright overlord.

Fox News was an unprecedented media outlet, the culmination of Ailes’ lifetime of experience and victories in both TV and politics reaching all the way back to a time when the Fox News audience could have been likened to the so-called Silent Majority that carried Richard Nixon to the White House.

Exactly 50 years ago, Ailes wrangled a job with Nixon, the former vice president who was hungry for a comeback in the 1968 presidential race.

Nixon, whose 1960 presidential bid had been dealt a painful blow in a televised debate against his camera-ready rival John F. Kennedy, was a challenge Ailes eagerly accepted at a moment when, as he realized better than most, TV could make or break a candidate. Concluding that the camera would never warm to Nixon any more than would the media establishment, Ailes struck a winning formula by packaging him in comfortably staged TV town-hall meetings where a hand-picked collection of “everyday people” appeared to clearly like him.

Henceforth, Ailes’ career would draw on showmanship, ruthless politics and an unmatched skill for recognizing TV’s raw communication power before his opponents did, then harnessing it better.

After Nixon, he would thrive as a GOP operative to candidates Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

But by the late 1980s, he claimed to have sworn off politics and in 1993 joined NBC to run its troubled cable business network, CNBC. He was credited with boosting CNBC’s ratings and putting it in the black. Meanwhile, he created another network, the lifestyle-and-advice-oriented America’s Talking.

“I’ve gotten over all the cynicism of politics,” Ailes told The Associated Press in 1995, although, during that same period, he moonlighted as executive producer of the syndicated TV show that starred right-wing radio sensation Rush Limbaugh.

He would change the face of cable news when, in 1996, he accepted a challenge from media mogul Rupert Murdoch to build a news network from scratch to compete with CNN and other TV outlets they deemed left-leaning.

By mid-2016, Ailes continued to reign supreme as he prepared to celebrate Fox News’ 20th anniversary that autumn. But in little more than two weeks, he was undone by allegations from a former anchor that he had forced her out of Fox News after she spurned his sexual advances. The lawsuit filed on July 6 by Gretchen Carlson quickly triggered accounts from more than 20 women with similar stories of alleged harassment by Ailes either against themselves or someone they knew.

Despite Ailes’ firm denials, it was determined that Ailes had to go. The announcement was made on July 21. And the allegations went beyond just Ailes: In April, reports that the network had settled lawsuits with five women who alleged sexual harassment against network star Bill O’Reilly led to his firing. Three other executives also lost their jobs.

It was a head-spinning downfall and a breathtaking defeat for Ailes, a man who all his life seemed to be spoiling for a fight and was used to winning them. Brash, heavyset and bombastic, he was renowned for never giving in, for being ever-confrontational with a chip on his shoulder and a blistering outburst at the ready.

Born in Warren, Ohio, on May 15, 1940, Roger Eugene Ailes described his working-class upbringing with three words: “God, country, family.” Afflicted with hemophilia, he spent much of his early years housebound in front of, and fascinated with, television, and after graduation from Ohio University landed an entry-level position at a TV station in Cleveland that had just started a local talk and entertainment program starring a has-been former big-band singer named Mike Douglas.

Ailes went to work as a production assistant on “The Mike Douglas Show” and rose in its ranks (at 26, he was named its executive producer) along with its rising fortunes as it went into national syndication and moved to Philadelphia.

It was there in 1967 that he and Nixon crossed paths in the meeting that changed both their lives.

After jumping ship from the “Douglas” show to help steer Nixon to the White House, Ailes spent more than a decade as a communications consultant to corporations and Republican candidates. He also became a theater producer, scoring a hit off-Broadway musical, “The Hot L Baltimore,” in the early 1970s, and a network boss, helping start Television News Incorporated, a short-lived right-wing TV service funded by conservative brewing magnate Joseph Coors, that seemed to presage Fox News by a quarter-century.

Ailes’ three-year stint at NBC ended with his bitter resignation in January 1996 when America’s Talking was scuttled. Within weeks, Ailes had leaped to what was then known as News Corp., and by fall he launched Fox News Channel against a pair of seemingly indomitable rivals: three-month-old MSNBC, the network for which his former employers sacrificed his America’s Talking channel, and cable-news pioneer CNN.

By 2002, Fox News had sealed the deal as ratings leader, dominating cable-news competition and tying his rivals in knots in both daytime as well as prime time. He deployed a murderers’ row of hosts including O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and signed a virtual salon of former-and-future GOP big names who found a welcoming platform for party talking points.

All the while, Ailes steadfastly denied any political bias or agenda on the part of his network, whether in its message or its personnel. Politics, schmolitics: “I hired Sarah Palin because she was hot and got ratings,” he told The AP in 2011.

Though ratings continued to soar, in later years Ailes’ power was challenged. He seemed incapable of stopping Donald Trump’s rise as the GOP’s top contender for the 2016 election. In an early televised debate, Fox network moderators, notably its superstar Megyn Kelly, besieged Trump with sharp interrogation about his experience, his policies and past comments about women. It didn’t matter. The real estate tycoon’s candidacy was undamaged as he lobbed insults at Kelly and her network for what he labeled unfair treatment.

By summer 2016, Ailes and Trump had seemingly reached detente, with Fox News climbing on the Trump bandwagon and vice versa, and Ailes advising the then-candidate. It was ironic, then, that Ailes was ousted only hours before Trump accepted the GOP nomination for which Fox News had helped pave the way.

In the aftermath of Ailes’ sacking, both insiders and observers were hard-pressed to envision Fox News without the man who gave it life. And in the uncertain new era of the Trump presidency, the network has seemed a bit less sure-footed while facing an unaccustomed burst of competition from MSNBC.

Even so, all of that exists within a larger cultural realm, the blended world of politics and media that Ailes played a key role in crafting. More than any individual achievement, even Fox News, that endures as his legacy.