Roger Ailes’ legacy: Transforming media and politics

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Few media titans can claim a lasting legacy. They make their impact felt during stellar careers, and are honored and rewarded for it.

Then, one way or another, they pass from the scene as other studio and network bosses, publishers and impresarios take their turns at wielding power and influence.

This rule does not apply to Roger Ailes. Through a career spanning a half-century, Ailes mastered the art of media messaging and applied it, interchangeably, to politics and broadcasting. With his commanding role in merging these two worlds, he flourished in both, and has left them both transformed.

For better or worse, Ailes, who died Thursday at 77, leaves a permanent mark.

Ailes died after a fall at his Palm Beach, Florida, home on May 10 caused bleeding on the brain, the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office said.

Ailes fell in his bathroom, hit his head and was bleeding profusely. He was taken to a hospital by attending paramedics, the Palm Beach Police Department said.

He is survived by his third wife, Elizabeth, who had worked for him at CNBC as vice president of programming, and their son, Zachary.

Ailes’ crowning achievement was Fox News Channel, with which he transformed both television news and America’s political conversation. It was his invention, and he managed it with an iron grip for two decades before being ousted last year for alleged sexual harassment.

Propelled by Ailes’ “fair and balanced” branding, Fox News targeted viewers who believed the other cable-news networks, and the media overall, displayed a liberal tilt from which Fox News and Fox Business Channel (which he launched in 2006 against his former business network, CNBC) would deliver its audience with unvarnished truth.

With such deft jujitsu, he leveraged viewers’ distrust for the media while positioning his networks as the anti-media news-media alternative - and he their upright overlord.

Fox News was an unprecedented media outlet, the culmination of Ailes’ lifetime of experience and victories in both TV and politics reaching all the way back to a time when the Fox News audience could have been likened to the so-called Silent Majority that carried Richard Nixon to the White House.

Exactly 50 years ago, Ailes wrangled a job with Nixon, the former vice president who was hungry for a comeback in the 1968 presidential race.

Nixon, whose 1960 presidential bid had been dealt a painful blow in a televised debate against his camera-ready rival John F. Kennedy, was a challenge Ailes eagerly accepted at a moment when, as he realized better than most, TV could make or break a candidate. Concluding that the camera would never warm to Nixon any more than would the media establishment, Ailes struck a winning formula by packaging him in comfortably staged TV town-hall meetings where a hand-picked collection of “everyday people” appeared to clearly like him. \

Henceforth, Ailes’ career would draw on showmanship, ruthless politics and an unmatched skill for recognizing TV’s raw communication power before his opponents did, then harnessing it better.

After Nixon, he would thrive as a GOP operative to candidates Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

But by the late 1980s, he claimed to have sworn off politics and in 1993 joined NBC to run its troubled cable business network, CNBC. He was credited with boosting CNBC’s ratings and putting it in the black. Meanwhile, he created another network, the lifestyle-and-advice-oriented America’s Talking.

“I’ve gotten over all the cynicism of politics,” Ailes told The Associated Press in 1995, although, during that same period, he moonlighted as executive producer of the syndicated TV show that starred right-wing radio sensation Rush Limbaugh.

He would change the face of cable news when, in 1996, he accepted a challenge from media mogul Rupert Murdoch to build a news network from scratch to compete with CNN and other TV outlets they deemed left-leaning.

By mid-2016, Ailes continued to reign supreme as he prepared to celebrate Fox News’ 20th anniversary that autumn. But in little more than two weeks, he was undone by allegations from a former anchor that he had forced her out of Fox News after she spurned his sexual advances. The lawsuit filed on July 6 by Gretchen Carlson quickly triggered accounts from more than 20 women with similar stories of alleged harassment by Ailes either against themselves or someone they knew.

Despite Ailes’ firm denials, it was determined that Ailes had to go. The announcement was made on July 21. And the allegations went beyond just Ailes: In April, reports that the network had settled lawsuits with five women who alleged sexual harassment against network star Bill O’Reilly led to his firing. Three other executives also lost their jobs.

It was a head-spinning downfall and a breathtaking defeat for Ailes, a man who all his life seemed to be spoiling for a fight and was used to winning them. Brash, heavyset and bombastic, he was renowned for never giving in, for being ever-confrontational with a chip on his shoulder and a blistering outburst at the ready.

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