Though Roger Ailes was booted as chief of Fox News last July in the midst of a sexual-harassment scandal, his programming sensibilities survive to this day on Fox News, a purveyor of conservative garbage information whose perverse impact on the country is becoming ever more clear under the Trump administration. For an authorized biography written by Zev Chafets — designed to preempt a more critical biography later written by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman — Ailes professed that he would scrap the Affordable Care Act if he were president.
Though Ailes never became president, he did everything in his power to kill Obamacare. Endless segments and news stories talked up the law’s difficulties and downplayed its successes. The bias was strong on the opinion programs — “Fox & Friends,” the now-defunct “O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity” — and bled into the so-called straight news programs, which always managed to find space to discuss whatever report could document a failing of the previous president’s plan to extend medical coverage to millions of Americans. Among U.S. media outlets, Fox News was peerless in savaging the law.
As Fox News persisted in its peculiar Obamacare coverage, people were actually getting health insurance. The uninsured rate in 2016 hit an all-time low, according to a study that came out in February. Thus the stage was set for a clash of competing realities: the Fox News “reality” of a hopelessly failing health-care law, and the reality in the United States of uninsured people getting coverage. GOP lawmakers are quite familiar with this reality gap, as they’ve repeatedly stood before audiences in town hall meetings who shout them down over their plans to ditch Obamacare. Perhaps they’re shocked that anyone out there likes it. Perhaps they’ve watched too much Fox News.
Roger Ailes is now dead at the age of 77, as his wife Elizabeth has confirmed in a statement: “I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning. Roger was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many. He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise — and to give back.” Surely Ailes loved his country, though his legacy is far from patriotic. As his work with Obamacare exemplifies, his ratings-dominating network has imperiled the prospects for national political reconciliation.
And that was all just fine so long as Ailes’s audience stayed loyal to his programs and cleared the way for billion-dollar annual profits.
As Sherman so capably documents in his biography “Loudest Voice in the Room,” Ailes came from modest roots in Ohio; worked his butt off at Ohio University, where he juggled his schoolwork with his duties as student manager of WOUB; quickly rose to become executive producer of the syndicated “Mike Douglas Show”; parlayed a meeting with Richard Nixon into a stint as his media adviser; went on to work with other Republican illuminati, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; and then moved back into the world of media in the ’90s, assisting Rush Limbaugh with a late-night talk show and then becoming president of CNBC. In 1996, he launched Fox News with the backing of Rupert Murdoch, who would serve as Ailes’s faithful companion and enabler.
The career of Ailes buttresses the professionally prudish notion that journalists shouldn’t ever dabble in the world of politics. Because Ailes never stopped working as a Republican operative, even as he managed one of the most powerful media companies in the world. He was forever scheming with candidates, hiring them to lucrative contributor contracts and advising, advising, advising. The 2016 campaign proved as much — with frequent reports recounting the calls between Ailes and presidential candidate Donald Trump. Even after Ailes left Fox News, he continued in this capacity, helping the candidate do some debate-prep work.
Yet no anecdote says as much as the Petraeus recruitment. In spring 2011, as Bob Woodward later reported, Ailes charged Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland to deliver a message to Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was then stationed in Afghanistan. The message went like this: If the president offers you the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, grab it; if not, bag the military and run for president. I might even quit and join your campaign. In her meeting with Petraeus, McFarland tells him, “Everybody at Fox loves you.” As additional sweetener, McFarland all but invited Petraeus to edit the headlines on FoxNews.com.
Slimy, dirty, unethical, the whole shebang. But the incident was more than that. When Woodward asked Ailes about the Petraeus recruitment, Ailes declined to accept responsibility. Here’s how the story laid things out:
Ailes added, “It sounds like she thought she was on a secret mission in the Reagan administration. . . . She was way out of line. . . . It’s someone’s fantasy to make me a kingmaker. It’s not my job.” He said that McFarland was not an employee of Fox but a contributor paid less than $75,000 a year.
Those remarks came in late 2012. At the time, this blog rapped Ailes for tarring the messenger. Knowing what we know from the year 2016, however, there’s more to it: Ailes was manipulating and trashing the career of a woman under his direction. Years later, we came to learn that such conduct constituted a pattern, not to mention the central legacy of Roger Ailes.
Gretchen Carlson, Andrea Tantaros, Alisyn Camerota, Megyn Kelly are just some of the more notable names who have come forward and alleged sexual harassment by Ailes during their time at Fox News. The allegations long ago graduated from mere allegations — the accounts of how Ailes asked them to “twirl” so he could see their butts are similar; the denials from Ailes’s lawyer, Susan Estrich, have been pro forma; and Fox News’s parent company has settled with complainants, not to mention penned a note of contrition to Carlson because she was “not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.”
Women at Fox News who weren’t treated with the respect and dignity that they deserved will continue fighting the network for their just recompense. There are several pending lawsuits against the network; though not all of them go directly after Ailes, they all take aim at the monster he created.
All his bad work notwithstanding, tributes will flow:
The Ailes legacy project, however, doesn’t need tweets from Sean Hannity. It has something far more valuable, and that is the persistence of Ailes’s programming values day in and day out on Fox News. The health-care coverage. The broad state of denial — especially on “Fox & Friends” and prime-time opinion programs — about the cratering Trump White House. The showcasing of women’s legs on the sets. It’s all still there, and that’s no accident.
After letting Ailes go last summer, Murdoch and Co. replaced him with experienced Fox News lieutenants, including Bill Shine, an Ailes intimate from the early days of Fox News. Not only did the old-new guard get promotions; they got new contracts, the better to perpetuate the vile spirit of Ailes without the sexual harassment of Ailes. Faulty long-term strategy, as it turns out: The company was forced to part ways with Shine just weeks ago, because he had been too thoroughly slimed by the actions of Ailes.
Into the void leaped Suzanne Scott, another executive with long ties to Ailes. She’s now the network’s president of programming.
Why cling so tightly to the pupils of Ailes? They know the audience. They know how hard to push the talent to propagate certain story lines. They know how to slant the news for maximum profit. And they know how to keep people quiet, having learned from the master. For all of his genius with television production and talent for manipulation, Ailes did his greatest work in keeping secrets. Through a melange of straight-up intimidation; message control; nondisclosure, non-disparagement and arbitration clauses; and much more, Ailes managed to suppress the ugliness of his reign at Fox News.
All that control-freak-ness, in the end, victimized Ailes himself. Once the world found out just who he was, he had no time to make amends.