End of an Era: Roger Ailes, Lion of Fox News, Dead at 77

Conservative media pioneer permanently reshaped cable news, American politics

by Kathryn Blackhurst | Updated 18 May 2017 at 10:45 AM

Former Fox News Chairman and founding CEO Roger Ailes passed away Thursday, according to a statement from his wife, Elizabeth Ailes, first posted on the Drudge Report.

“I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning,” the statement read. “Roger was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many. He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise — and to give back.”

“Even today, every cable network is, in many ways, a Roger Ailes production.”

“During a career that stretched over more than five decades, his work in entertainment, in politics, and in news affected the lives of many millions,” Elizabeth Ailes continued. “And so even as we mourn his death, we celebrate his life.”

Ailes completely transformed the cable news television landscape with an innovative vision and helped shape modern American politics by bringing Fox News record-shattering dominance.

“He was my friend and mentor — a talent we will never see again, who understood how to produce powerful storytelling in politics, entertainment and news,” said LifeZette editor-in-chief and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham, “Countless television personalities for whom he worked owe their careers to his good judgment and guidance. If only Donald Trump had a visionary and strategist, someone who understood message discipline like Ailes inside his White House today.”

Ailes death came just nine months after he resigned from the network following a slew of sexual harassment allegations.

“Mr. Ailes, of course, had a lasting effect not just on media but on American politics as a whole,” ABC News anchor Dan Abrams wrote in a New York Times op-ed published July 23, 2016. “Recent events will undoubtedly tarnish and potentially define Mr. Ailes’s legacy. But even today, every cable network is, in many ways, a Roger Ailes production.”

Born in in Ohio in 1940, Ailes graduated from Ohio University and began his career as a property assistant for NBC News’ Cleveland affiliate. While there, Ailes became a producer and was promoted as an executive producer of the affiliate’s “The Mike Douglas Show.” Through his work, Ailes propelled the show to national syndication and won an Emmy award, according to The Guardian.

Ailes spent time as a consultant and speechwriter for political figures such as former President Richard Nixon and former first lady Barbara Bush. In addition to Nixon, Ailes also served as a media consultant for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Ailes was enlisted by 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch in 1996 to launch Fox News, where he worked for nearly 20 years.

When Ailes arrived at the scene with Fox News, cable news was considered uniformly dry and straightforward. Abrams, who formerly worked as a chief legal correspondent and analyst for NBC News and as a general manager and anchor for MSNBC, noted at the time that other news networks offered "staid news programming" that lacked a sense of urgency, immediacy, and entertainment value as ratings languished.

Ailes and Fox News "cooked up a different recipe" with an "unambiguously ideological" bent of "broad conservative talking points," Abrams said. The new format caused a shift across the whole cable news scene. Ailes "tapped into something far more captivating," he said.

"Even on dreary and newsless afternoons — the kind that journalists dread — his non-newscasts somehow sparkled," Abrams wrote. "From the patriotic and bright graphics to the intentionally unpredictable camera movements to the sounds and music, to the anchors' cadence and colloquial delivery, Mr. Ailes had created the greatest news show on earth."

"Even the Fox News slogan, 'Fair and Balanced,' was somehow a mantra anyone could remember: It tweaked Fox's strait-laced competitors and winked to delighted Republican viewers," Abrams added.

The network's "We report, you decide" slogan also served a similar defining purpose that set the network apart.

Before long, Fox News "was cleaning our clocks in the ratings," Abrams said, in large part because conservatives as a generally consistent whole flocked to Fox while the other networks split the liberals and independents. Ailes also understood the value of engaging storytelling as he pushed Fox News away from mere dry, dispassionate reporting and stuck to "hot" stories with live guests brought on to discuss them.

"From the patriotic and bright graphics to the intentionally unpredictable camera movements to the sounds and music, to the anchors' cadence and colloquial delivery, Mr. Ailes had created the greatest news show on earth."

According to Abrams, Ailes also helped renew a sense of patriotism in cable news by returning to the "we" and "us" when referring to the U.S. — something that most mainstream outlets had phased out beginning in the 1960s. Ailes also allowed his anchors to cultivate and express their personalities.

Although Ailes played such a crucial part in forming Fox News and catapulting the network to extraordinary success, he would often clash with Rupert Murdoch's two sons, James and Lachlan, as the two took more prominent leadership roles in the company. And when sexual harassment allegations began to pile on, James and Lachlan reportedly found themselves at odds with their father over Ailes' future.

"The change in management has played a central role in getting Ailes out of the company," Gabriel Sherman, author of the 2014 book called, "The Loudest Voice In The Room: How The Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — And Divided A Country," told NPR's "Fresh Air" host, Terry Gross, on July 26, 2016.

Sherman noted that both James and Lachlan "are very much modern individuals" who understand acutely "how corporate America works." Sherman also theorized that the Murdoch brothers didn't want their father's company "to have this sort of outlaw-pirate-like culture" that their father encouraged while building his company "into the global media empire that it is."

Abrams insisted that Ailes "had something else that no other national news executive could claim: He was far more powerful than any of his hosts and most of his bosses, including … Lachlan, whom he helped push from the family business in 2005 but who 11 years later negotiated Mr. Ailes's exit package."

Sherman agreed, saying, "And so when the [sexual harassment] scandal broke, the Murdoch children, especially James Murdoch by my reporting, understood that this could be explosive," Sherman told Gross, noting that Rupert Murdoch was "reluctant" and "didn't want Ailes to resign," if possible.

"But his sons had many tangles with Roger Ailes, as I report in my book and others have reported. And so when they were elevated … Roger Ailes, you know, faced a new test because they weren't going to tolerate this outlaw behavior," Sherman continued, noting that Rupert Murdoch allowed Ailes broad control in running Fox News — the most profitable wing of his vast media empire.

When Ailes was ousted, all three Murdochs released statements in which they thanked him for his service and innovation.

"Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country," Rupert Murdoch said in his statement. "Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years."

Rupert Murdoch added that Ailes aided Fox News in its mission to give a "voice to those who have been ignored by the traditional networks."

For their own part, the two sons graciously thanked Ailes for his "remarkable contributions to our company."

"Our talented Fox News and Fox Business colleagues, up and down the organization and on both sides of the camera, have built something that continues to redefine the cable news experience for millions of viewers," the Murdoch sons said in their joint statement.

No one can deny that Ailes — despite his sullied legacy — had a huge impact in shaping modern politics and the scope of cable news networks.

"Mr. Ailes, of course, had a lasting effect not just on media but on American politics as a whole. He was a Republican kingmaker, often employing and featuring a procession of candidates, allowing them to build a base through his network," Abrams said.

"The search for hosts with 'something to say,' the talking heads, the talking head-butting, the over-the-top breaking news graphics, the invocations of 'America,' the saturation coverage of events — all of it was either created or fully exploited by Fox News," Abrams said, adding that he never "really competed with Roger Ailes."

"I just tried my best to emulate his type of television. To some degree, so has everyone else," Abrams concluded, noting that when MSNBC emulated Fox News' presentation and style of coverage, its ratings soared "50 percent."

Sherman even suggested the idea that President Donald Trump is, in many ways, a product of Ailes.

"Donald Trump sort of represents Roger Ailes's legacy of 50 years of using television to advance a style — a populist style of conservative politics," Sherman said. "And so it — there's almost a novelistic aspect that Roger Ailes' career would come to an end at the very moment that the product of everything he's done in politics and as a political consultant and media executive, you know, reaches its zenith with the … election of Donald Trump."

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