Roger Eugene Ailes died comfortably in his own home in Palm Beach, Florida, this Thursday, May 18, 2017. The cause of death was reportedly the result of a subdural hematoma, aggravated by his lifelong illness with hemophilia. He is survived by his wife of nineteen years, Elizabeth, and their only child. It was three days after his seventy-seventh birthday.
Upon hearing the news of his death I felt a sense of morbid satisfaction that the man had met his end. It was a feeling that I had felt before and had felt very guilty about soon after. He was a person, after all, with a family, a life, and, to my clear chagrin, a legacy we should not easily forget. In many ways the forces that shape our politics today were unleashed through the medium that Roger Ailes helped create.
It was these elements, however, those unchecked forces he helped bring about, that proved the necessary ingredients for a reality TV president, a distorted media landscape, and this is what ultimately brought Ailes and several others down. Much like the fox guarding the hen house, Ailes thought he and others could control these forces they had brought to bear. Instead, it served as a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences we are still grappling with to this day. Here is that tale.
Roger Ailes grew up in small town Warren, Ohio. He came from a broken home and graduated from the Ohio State with a degree in communications in 1962. After serving a while as a TV station manager in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Ailes was picked by Richard Nixon to serve as the TV executive producer for Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. It was an unusual position, as TV was still a relatively new medium in the scope of American politics. But Nixon had already learned the hard lessons from his televised debates in 1960 with John F. Kennedy too well and knew he was not a darling of the screen.
With the help of Ailes, Nixon pioneered the use of the paid televised political commercials in the form of tightly choreographed town halls called “The Nixon Answer.” Once seen as an awkward and uncomfortable man, Nixon came across as accessible, friendly, and with his hair down. In this way Nixon was able to remake his image – quite literally – on the television and establish a persona that would meet a hard death through a little “third-rate” burglary. For Ailes, his pioneering work in political television had ushered in a new era in political consulting and would portend a bright new career for him.
Election night 1972 would be a red-letter date for the history of the conservative movement, as Nixon cruised to re-election with the largest electoral majority in American history. For Ailes, his use of effective and devastating TV ads was crucial. It also meant a start for two young ruthless political operatives by the names of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. Together this informal troika of conservative activists and political consultants would speedily remold the Republican Party after the debacle of Nixon/Watergate into the electoral juggernaut of Reagan/Bush.
Gone were the days of strong African American and minority support for the party of Lincoln. The politics of grievance for the white working class, the Southern Strategy, and racialized identity politics was in. Ailes would see to it that more than just our political landscape would change; the very way the media would cover a political campaign fall prey to his grand designs.
“If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”
In just one comment, dubbed the “Orchestra Pit Theory,” Ailes correctly predicted what the future of modern media coverage in America would look like. No longer would it be a serious examination of the news and issues of the day but rather another form of entertainment. Gone was the substance of a political campaign and debate; now politics would turn into the empty character bouts we see today as well as to the dark side of thirty-second television ads.
No ad so epitomizes the gruesome blood sport that politics became through Ailes than the infamous “Willie Horton ad” of 1988. Though never directly implicated in its creation and broadcast, the Horton ad was a chilling harbinger of what was soon to come and a blueprint of the politics that Ailes, Rove, and Atwater had helped orchestrate. Today the Horton ad would be considered mere child’s play to the numerous sordid political commercials we’ve become accustomed to. Ailes himself would create his own toned-down Horton-style ad called “Revolving Doors,” but its implications remained the same. Because of it, George H. W. Bush would win an unprecedented third Republican term in 1988 by an unexpected landslide.
New horizons beckoned Ailes in 1996 when billionaire Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch offered Ailes the inaugural chairmanship of the Fox News Network. Although the product of Murdoch, the network was wholly the creation of Ailes’s design. As the political and media consultant for Presidents Reagan and Bush, Ailes could only manage the media so far. With Fox News, however, he now had a platform, fully under his control, to move the media narrative in his direction.
Even as such network stars such as Bill O’Reilly, Glen Beck, Steve Varney, Charles Krauthammer, and Megyn Kelly would all earn a reputation of their own at the network, they would largely owe their careers – and lucrative contracts – to the man who would daily write the narrative the network would push. Unlike other TV news executives, Ailes had an agenda to sell and was not about to let the stubborn facts – or even reality – get in his way.
During his eighteen years as chairman of the network Ailes singlehandedly changed the twenty-four-hour TV news format and created some of the highest-rated cable programs in TV history. By 2008 it would have been laughable to think that there was such a thing as a “liberal” American media, as Fox News had had such a hand in defining it. No doubt that Ailes would have still peddled the theory, though, as it aptly served his purposes.
Despite the growing nativism and populism within the Republican party, Ailes still owned the vital real estate in conservative media with Fox News. It was a balance that was increasingly harder to maintain as other alternative media sources such as Breitbart News, the Drudge Report, and Info Wars gained a vocal audience and readership of their own. In the end, however, it would be his personal dalliances that would do him in.
Allegations and rumors of rampant sexual harassment and an unfriendly working environment were not foreign to the network, beginning as early as 2004. It was clear, though, that the network no longer had a strangle-hold of the conservative audience as it used to, as the rise of Trump clearly showed. Gretchen Carlson saw the signs and became the first in what became a growing chorus of women to dare challenge the infallible chairman. Once network star Megyn Kelly joined that group, it was a matter of time before Ailes would fall.
Ailes would end his long relationship with the network on July 21, 2016, receiving a $40 million severance package in the bargain. The fact that this amount was allegedly three times as large as the money given to settle his harassment cases out of court was largely ignored.
Ailes would spend the rest of the 2016 campaign informally advising the Trump campaign to its unprecedented victory in November, and rumors swirled as to a formal role in the White House during the transition. Meanwhile the network he had worked so hard to control and dominate began its tailspin we see today, losing reporters Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly to their competitors and firing conservative darling O’Reilly to scandals of his own. One wonders if the recent Russia narrative and lack of direction/focus by Washington Republicans weighed heavily on his mind to the last.
In the end Roger Ailes will be lionized as the media guru he was. For better or worse, no matter your political stripe, his influence on how we consume and view both media and politics is largely fashioned on ideas and theories he tested and later refined over the years. Numerous political leaders, from Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and even Rudy Giuliani and Trump, owe their political careers to his skillful manipulation of the media to his will.
To me, though, despite his well-earned accolades, his life stands as the epitome of a political stain that has led to the destructive style of media and politics we see today. The corrosive distrust in our civic institutions, while leading to the most conservative government America has ever known, has also made for the least functional government we have seen as well. That there is controversy over what a mere fact really is serves as a sad but natural progression of Ailes’s vision for slanted journalism packaged to entertain as well as to misinform. It perhaps goes to show that he clearly understood the implications of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s aphoristic phrase “The medium is the message.”
The long-lasting consequences of Ailes’s legacy are still a long way from being fully understood. What we can take away now is how callously superficial conservatism eventually became under his watch. More a shell than a three-dimensional movement, it was susceptible to the cult of Trump and acted as a serviceable host to mainstream his electability. He also is as stark a reminder there is of the power that exists behind that black mirror of our TVs and smartphones. An extract from George Orwell’s classic 1984 perhaps perfectly illustrates the dangers of Ailes’s legacy:
Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Let us hope that from now on we remember the importance of vigilance as a key aspect of our civic duty. And that the likes of Ailes have a much harder time peddling their message to the American people. It will not be easy – there will be others – but we will be ready. A democracy only survives because of the diversity of opinion and the strength of the press and media. Hopefully we’re doing our part here.