In the hours immediately after the sudden passing of Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes on Thursday, journalists scrambled to cover his unexpected death and many who knew him offered testimony to his tenacity and vision.
Yet among some of the many figures whose careers Ailes made and molded, there was only stony silence.
Former Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who became a star under Ailes’ tutelage, had nothing to say. Nor did Gretchen Carlson, once the co-host of Fox’s morning program, “Fox and Friends.” Bill O’Reilly withheld comment until later in the day, writing in USA Today that “It was a privilege to know him.”
Nor did Donald Trump, whose candidacy was championed by Ailes and whose political ambitions were kept warm by Fox long before he ever declared he was running. Hours after Ailes’s death was announced by his wife, Beth, the White House still had not weighed in about one of the president’s most powerful allies.
The non-responses suggest how mixed Ailes’s legacy is.
Despite building Fox into a profit-making machine and a tribune of conservative ideology, Ailes left a noxious trail of personal accusations stretching over more than 50 years. After former Fox host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit last summer alleging that her career at Fox was stunted by her refusal to have sex with Ailes, the allegations — only hinted at previously — came tumbling forth.
More than 25 women, including Kelly, told variations of Carlson’s story, dating back to Ailes’s time as a young producer on “The Mike Douglas Show” in the 1960s. The stories fit a pattern: Ailes allegedly acted as a workplace mentor to young female employees, then pressured them for sex in exchange for advancement.
Ailes denied everything, but within three weeks of Carlson’s suit, Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch had tossed Ailes aside. Ailes’s reputation was transformed — from merely “controversial” to allegedly predatory. (O’Reilly faced the same firing squad, for the same reason, last month.)
In addition, Ailes left behind a federal investigation into whether Fox, under his watch, covered up payments to former employees who alleged harassment, a potential violation of securities laws (his death won’t derail the investigation into the corporation’s behavior, said one person close to it). African American employees and former employees at Fox have also filed a lawsuit alleging a pattern of discriminatory hiring and advancement.
Hence, the silence from those long associated with him. And hence the internal reaction within Fox. One Fox journalist on Thursday described the newsroom discussions about Ailes as “awkward.” Ailes hired almost everyone of consequence at Fox News, he explained, but whatever gratitude that engendered was long ago balanced by revulsion and consternation about him.
Ailes, who died at 77, apparently had been infirm for some time. One person who remained close to him described him only two days ago as unable to walk “but a few feet at a time” and only with the assistance of a cane. He reportedly fell and injured himself in his Palm Beach home a week ago; the county medical examiner said Thursday that Ailes died of internal bleeding caused by the fall and that hemophilia contributed to his death. There was no evidence of foul play, the examiner said in a statement.
Much of Ailes’s brief life after Fox was hard to know. The man who spawned a news empire was disciplined in his efforts not to make news himself in the past 10 months. He gave no interviews; sightings of him in public were rare. His only statements were issued through his attorney, and those were rote denials of whatever accusations were being leveled against him.
There were scattered reports — never directly substantiated — that Ailes was advising Trump’s presidential campaign, and that he was preparing to launch a network that would rival Fox, with Trump as its star in the event he lost to Hillary Clinton. The latter was almost certainly never true; as part of Ailes’s $40 million severance package, he was bound by a noncompete clause. Murdoch also named Ailes as an informal consultant, though its unclear if he was ever actually consulted.
Fox News itself reported Ailes’s death sporadically and in muted tones throughout the day. Its hosts and reporters offered brief on-air tributes. Media reporter Howard Kurtz called him “a colorful and controversial character” who “changed the face of television.” Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an old friend and liberal Fox foil, said, “Roger and I had different perspective. The one thing we agreed on was our love of country.”
Murdoch, in a statement, said called Ailes “a brilliant broadcaster [who] played a huge role in shaping America’s media over the last thirty years. He will be remembered by the many people on both sides of the camera that he discovered, nurtured and promoted.”
The most stirring tele-eulogy came from Fox anchor Shepard Smith, who began his midafternoon newscast with a 10-minute monologue about his late boss.
Smith recounted the “underdog spirit” that Ailes engendered when he started Fox in competition with the established CNN and the fledgling MSNBC, which Ailes dubbed “the enemies.” When Smith’s news reporting strayed from Fox News’s conservative orthodoxy — “went rogue,” as Smith put it — Ailes reassured him: “‘You can’t have Fox News without the news,’ ” he said repeatedly while encouraging the network’s reporters during such major stories as the Columbine shootings and Hurricane Katrina. “‘Keep up the good work,’” Ailes would say after each of these conversations, Smith said, adding, “‘I love you.’ ”
When Ailes hosted a reception one year at his home in Upstate New York, the chairman and his wife warmly welcomed Smith and his partner, Gio Graziano. “It was a signal” of acceptance, Smith said, his eyes rimming with red.
“He was my champion and my mentor. He was a father figure,” he concluded. “He changed my life and everyone in my family for generations to come.”