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Opinion Roger Ailes, throwback visionary

Roger Ailes (Dennis Van Tine/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

As is often the case with innovators, Roger Ailes was a throwback. He innovated by modeling Fox News on the tabloids of old. Cable served a segmented television audience the way publishers of the past once did with newspapers. New York, for instance, once had upwards of 10 newspapers, some of them specifically targeted to ethnic or ideology groups. “You have the Jews, we have the Protestants, and the Journal-American has the Catholics,” Roy Howard of the World-Telegram and Sun told Dorothy Schiff, according to Gail Sheehy’s profile of Schiff. “Let’s keep it that way.” Schiff was publisher of the then-liberal New York Post.

Howard made the remark in the 1960s, when New York’s newspapers were down to seven and thrashing around for survival. At the time, the newspapers of New York and other big cities were targeted to specific audiences. The afternoon New York Post was once liberal and Jewish. The afternoon Journal American was Catholic and bitterly anti-communist. If you read one paper, you did not read the other. Only the New York Times had crossover appeal. My family read the Times and the Post — the former in the morning, the latter at night.

Ailes simply resurrected that formula for the cable TV age. His Fox was Republican, conservative, religious — the Christmas holiday surely survives on account of it — and affected a working-class persona. As with the tabloids of old — or Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post today — it made no effort to cover the news — only the news it liked to cover. It did not matter to Ailes that his No. 1 performer, Bill O’Reilly, allegedly lied about exploits as a war correspondent and was so tone-deaf to anti-Semitism that he managed to turn out a biography of Gen. George S. Patton without mentioning his abuse of Jewish Holocaust survivors. What mattered was that O’Reilly got the numbers. His rating were the best.

O’Reilly’s license to lie is similar to the latitude once given to columnists such as Walter Winchell, who gleefully destroyed careers with innuendos about communist sympathy — the black entertainer Josephine Baker was one of his victims. O’Reilly, too, was accused of sexual harassment; the case ended with a reportedly significant settlement.

Ailes was hardly alone in mimicking the tabloid approach to news. MSNBC, for one, followed his lead, though it swung left. It its case, though, its ideological slant is just a marketing ploy; it would swing right if it successfully could. MSNBC is merely a business. Its most fervent ideology is called stockholder value. It believes in nothing.

Fox, on the other hand, is a true extension of what Ailes and his master, Murdoch, believe. That’s one reason for its success. It is the honest product its proprietors, just like the newspapers of old.

Ailes is not the only one to look to the past for his formula for the present. So has Donald Trump. Trump not only talks tabloidese, but also used that lingo and approach as a weapon. Hillary Clinton has become “Crooked Hillary,” which is a tabloid headline, screamingly unfair and screamingly hard to ignore. Trump markets himself the same way. He says the same thing over and over. He eschews detail or complications — the stuff of life, after all — and sticks to the banner headline, “the wood,” in the lingo of tabloid journalism.

Ailes seems to be on the way out — slipping on the banana peel of sexual harassment allegations and looking, appropriately enough, the fool. He was, however, a visionary. He looked to the past to see the future.