Rightwing political operative and Fox News founder Roger Ailes died today at the age of 77, according to a statement from Fox News which included no details on where or how. Ailes rose to prominence as the guy who made Richard Nixon almost palatable for television, then as a conservative media hatchet man/consultant, and finally as the founder and CEO of Fox News, which existed to transmit his personal political agenda to the world. In 2016, Ailes was forced to resign after first Gretchen Carlson and then 25 other women came forward with sexual harassment charges. Ailes denied the allegations but Fox settled the Carlson case for $20 million and all the Silkwood showers she needed — while giving Ailes a severance package totaling $40 million.
If you want a detailed look at the actual media genius (evil genius, but yeah, scary smart about how TV and politics work together), we recommend you get your hands on Gabe Sherman’s excellent The Loudest Voice In the Room, which like Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is mandatory reading for understanding how our political and media landscape got into the nasty twisted shape it’s in. Ailes got his start giving Richard Nixon a media makeover after Nixon’s defeats in the 1960 presidential race and the 1962 California gubernatorial election, after which Dick gave America false hope by whining, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Ailes didn’t change a single thing about Nixon’s politics, but engineered his TV appearances to help make him more camera-friendly, with more flattering makeup and carefully selected audiences for Nixon “town hall” interviews — they played the parts of just regular folks and lobbed canned questions to Nixon so he could give practiced, relatable answers. And that’s how Roger Ailes got into the business of using TV to manipulate reality (not that all TV isn’t an exercise in manipulating reality, but we’ll save the seminar on postmodernism for another time).
Ailes certainly didn’t invent rightwing grievance politics, but he turned it into a very successful business model at Fox, playing on the fears and grudges of (mostly) white middle-American conservatives who thought Reagan was God. The Fox News slogan, “Fair and Balanced,” was a stroke of genius, since obviously all other media organizations were biased, and it was only fair for Fox to provide a rightwing worldview to balance out other networks’ perceived liberal bias. Ailes tightly controlled what counted as news, making sure that reporters and hosts stayed on message by sending out daily memos to let them know what the emphasis of the day would be. The shtick stuck, and Fox quickly became the top cable news outlet because its viewers knew exactly what they’d get, and that it would reinforce their beliefs without too many messy facts getting in the way.
The Washington Post’s obit captures the essence of why Fox News works for its audience:
“At Fox, Ailes has ushered in the era of post-truth politics,” concluded David Brock, a conservative-turned-liberal activist who wrote a book on Mr. Ailes, The Fox Effect. “The facts no longer matter, only what is politically expedient, sensationalistic, and designed to confirm the preexisting opinions of a large audience.”
Fox gave intensive coverage to stories that later collapsed under closer inspection: the idea that Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, was born outside the United States; or that Obama’s health reform initiative would impose death panels to determine which Americans might be refused medical care; or that human behavior played no role in global climate change.
We can expect tonight’s Fox News lineup to be wall-to-wall Ailes, with little to no mention of any of the day’s Trump news, and certainly very little attention paid to the recent unpleasantness with the women who betrayed Ailes, and must therefore not be named.
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Ailes’s pathological obsession with treating women as playthings finally crashed up against an era that was no longer 1960, and a raft of sexual harassment lawsuits got him fired — very comfortably, but fired all the same. This year, the work environment Ailes encouraged led to the firing of Bill O’Reilly, and then co-president Bill Shine, and the network still seems like a dubious place for women to want to work. And now the Murdoch family will have to find a way to keep making billions, somehow. They’ll probably be OK. Condolences to Ailes’s family, yes, but we’re also in complete agreement with Temple University professor and media commentator Marc Lamont Hill:
We’ll borrow our own in memoriam from Bette Davis’s acidic comment on the passing of Joan Crawford, except unlike in the miniseries “Feud,” we can say this without tears of regret:
You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Roger Ailes is dead. Good.
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