Fallen TV titan Ailes mixed politics and media
New York — As a TV impresario and political puppet-master, Roger Ailes is unmatched in our time.
He didn’t invent anything, as Ted Turner did with “superstations” and cable news. He didn’t assemble a media empire, as did his now-former boss Rupert Murdoch.
Instead, with an uncanny instinct for matching messages with fiercely held desires, he has strip-mined the cultures of entertainment, news and politics that he began disrupting a half-century ago, and merged them as a form of propaganda retooled for the TV age.
Now, at age 76, Ailes has been vanquished from Fox News Channel, which he masterminded almost 20 years ago and had lorded over ever since. Little more than two weeks ago, a lawsuit filed by former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson charged him with sexual harassment. He denied her allegations, and those from other past and present female co-workers who spoke up after her. But with blistering speed his reign ended Thursday.
Where that leaves Fox News Channel, Ailes’ grandest enterprise, is anybody’s guess. It has been the ratings leader for 15 years and is hugely profitable for parent company 21st Century Fox. But more than one observer has opined that “Ailes IS Fox News Channel,” that Fox News is an engine that only Ailes can gun to full speed.
Fox News was crafted in Ailes’ own image — brash, combative, cunning; disdainful of mainstream media as elitist and liberal; and, like Ailes, positioned as a full-throated champion of the Common Man.
Despite its “Fair & Balanced” creed, the network has flourished — or so say its chorus of detractors — as a conservative soap box writ large. Other right-wing outlets would follow (including the Newsmax magazine and website, and the digital Drudge Report). But among mass media, Fox News Channel stands unrivalled as the GOP house organ.
Ailes’ ties to the Republican Party are strong and enduring, and his initiation as a GOP strategist was a doozy: Still in his 20s, Ailes was key to the video makeover of Richard Nixon that, in 1968, would help land him in the White House.
By then, Ailes’ skill as a television prodigy was clear. His entry-level job out of college, as a production assistant to a local Cleveland variety show, swiftly ballooned into that of executive producer of what by then was a coast-to-coast daytime hit.
Hosted by a former big-band singer, “The Mike Douglas Show” had a distinctive flair. With Ailes in charge, its 90 breezy minutes blended music with chat, and each week’s five shows teamed Douglas with a visiting co-host whose ranks included Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Muhammad Ali and even John Lennon.
It was on the “Douglas” show that Ailes met famously untelegenic Nixon, there as a guest as he laid the groundwork for his presidential run.
“Mr. Nixon, you need a media adviser,” Ailes declared (according to biographer Gabriel Sherman in “The Loudest Voice in the Room”).
“What’s a media adviser?” asked Nixon.
“I am,” replied Ailes, fashioning the job on the spot.
Ailes’ pioneering efforts on Nixon’s behalf wed politics with the veneer of TV journalism to humanize the candidate for viewers at home. TV specials were staged as town hall meetings that had Nixon fielding softball questions from hand-picked supporters. It was politics, faux-news and entertainment all in one.
Thus did Ailes help validate the title of Joe McGinniss’ campaign tell-all, “The Selling of the President 1968.”
Ailes would find no role awaiting him in the new administration, not after the cutting remarks the book quoted him as making about the graceless candidate he had helped sell voters on.
Never mind. He was on his way.
By the time Fox News Channel launched on Oct. 7, 1996, Ailes had enjoyed a robust career that included, in the 1970s, a stint running a right-wing news service that presaged Fox News.
He had done political consulting for President Ronald Reagan and for Vice President George H.W. Bush in his victorious 1988 presidential race.
He had brought right-wing radio sensation Rush Limbaugh to TV in a weekday show that premiered in 1993 and aired four seasons.
Meanwhile, he was running the financial network CNBC, and had launched a second NBC-owned cable network, America’s Talking, programmed with practical advice designed to help “normal people” as opposed to the “freaks” who watched “dysfunctional” talk shows, as Ailes explained at the time with his typical bluntness.
By then, he was claiming he was done with politics: “I’ve gotten over all the cynicism of politics,” he insisted.
Maybe so. He had always been “more interested in the political potential of TV than he was in politics itself,” according to Tom Junod’s 2011 Esquire profile, since early on he had deduced that “television was by definition a political medium.”
In early 1996, when America’s Talking was scrapped to clear the way for NBC’s forthcoming MSNBC, Ailes quit in a huff. But, teaming up with Murdoch, he was game to join the cable-news fray on his own terms: courting viewers who felt disenfranchised by CNN and other media outlets they scorned as left-wing, and who would flock to a network with populist appeal.
Ailes’ new network would also offer eye appeal, at least for the guys in the audience. News analyst Andrew Tyndall this week cited as a Fox News hallmark “the unreconstructed stereotypes … of the genders” in the form of “crusty curmudgeonly white men paired with mini-skirted leggy blondes.”
However retrograde such a strategy was, it, like Fox News’ political agenda, was intrinsic to Ailes’ world view. And, like Fox News’ phantom “Fair & Balanced” policy, using women as eye candy has served the network well.
But time ran out for Ailes. Judging from the allegations that triggered his whirlwind removal, seeing women as eye candy didn’t serve him so well. It led to the downfall of this peerless TV titan.
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore