Jon Klein is co-founder and chief executive of TAPP Media and former president of CNN/U.S.
The one with the lower ratings had to pay. That was the deal at our annual lunch at Michael’s, the restaurant of choice for Manhattan’s media elite, when I was president of CNN’s U.S. division and Roger Ailes ran Fox News. It was an expensive way for me to get to know the enemy.
We were at Roger’s table, No. 4 — the best one in the house, a corner with a commanding view of the entire room. Long before the sexual harassment allegations against him came to light, he was trotting out his standard case about the lack of respect he received in New York, despite his immense professional accomplishments. “They think I’m this rube from Ohio,” he said. “They all look down their noses at me.” Roger was having trouble making his point, though, because of the parade of well-wishers who kept interrupting to shake his hand, kibitz and flatter. Eventually, I couldn’t resist stating the obvious: “Kind of undermines your point, doesn’t it? Half this restaurant is kissing your ring.” “Yeah,” he replied without irony. “But they hate doing it.”
That worldview of unending grievance was the cornerstone upon which Ailes, who died Thursday, erected the Fox News Channel. When the network launched in 1996, few realized that Ailes had hatched the prototype news organization of the 21st century: information with attitude; facts yoked to a point of view, the more provocative the better; a tribal vibe, outsiders unwelcome and openly scorned. The Internet did not, as is so often alleged, usher in the siloed media environment in which we find ourselves today and likely forever. Ailes did that — by proving that there is money, influence and power to be found in serving well-defined interest groups instead of trying to please the widest possible audience.
What’s more, by unreservedly infusing news with a right-of-center agenda, Ailes popularized the notion that all journalists are biased. “At least we’re honest about who is offering opinion, unlike CNN,” Ailes would often say. A lifelong political operative, he could not imagine journalistic scruples trumping partisan goals. As a master of messaging, Ailes knew that repetition is the key to buy-in — and sure enough, two decades after he crafted the bumper-sticker slogan “Fair and Balanced,” trust in mainstream news outlets is at an all-time low, with the Pew Research Center reporting that three-quarters of Americans now believe that news organizations tend to favor one side.
It made business sense for Ailes to paint the competition as the problem and Fox News as the only solution. He fashioned his network into a haven for millions who, like Roger himself, had for decades felt adrift in hostile territory — post- Kennedy America. It became a comfortable home base for the target audience, who would watch twice as long as CNN viewers watched my network on any given day. The channel’s ideological prism also insulated Fox News from the bane of traditional outlets — the slow news day. Producers could always unearth obscure stories that would be judged trivial by traditional journalistic standards and fit them into a larger narrative about the assault on values their audience held dear. The War on Christmas, anyone?
Of course, keeping an audience of millions on a footing of constant alert for many years has the effect of stoking anxiety on a national scale. Solutions are rarely forthcoming; problems are never solved; few officials or institutions can be trusted. Ironically, in the later years of his reign, Ailes was acutely aware that Fox News itself was beginning to come under suspicion as being too mainstream, outflanked by conservative upstarts such as Breitbart News, Newsmax and Glenn Beck’s the Blaze. In 2013, the subscription video platform I run was contemplating launching a streaming channel for Sarah Palin, at the time under contract as a Fox News contributor. I called Roger to determine whether there was a conflict. “It’s okay as long as you play nice,” he said. “But if you try to come after me from the right, I’ll have to kill you.”
In 20 years, Fox News went from not even qualifying for Nielsen ratings measurement to being the most watched cable network in America (including entertainment channels). Advertisers, cable distributors and presidential aspirants were kissing the ring. Yet from that corner table, Roger was still on the lookout for assaults and insults.
Roger Ailes founded a news network but never claimed to be a journalist. As the most successful political communicator of his time, he had a different objective: turn talking points into news items for millions of persuadable eyeballs. He leaves behind a nation that feels very strongly about what we think we know, and is woefully, willfully ignorant of anything that doesn’t fit the picture.