Roger Ailes' monstrous legacy: Fox News chief changed TV, culture for the worse

Ailes pioneered a rhetoric of derision, division that helped move us to troubled political space we occupy.

Monsters don't die easy.

That's the thought I had all week as I reported the story of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes negotiating the terms of his departure from the channel he founded.

The end came Thursday afternoon, with 21st Century Fox, parent of Fox News, announcing that Ailes was out after 20 years and that owner Rupert Murdoch would step into the void as chairman and acting CEO of Fox News and the Fox Business Channel.

I use the word "monster" for both its good and bad connotations.

In the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit by former Fox show host Gretchen Carlson, it looks as if Ailes is mostly going to be defined by the latter connotation, at least in the short term. But there is so much more — for better and worse — to say about the public shaming of Ailes and the end of his reign at Fox. The 76-year-old former political operative not only changed the face of cable news, he also changed the way many Americans think and talk about news and politics. Donald Trump's candidacy would probably not have been possible without him.

What Ailes did as a media businessman makes him a monster in the same positive way that sports announcers label Orioles first baseman Chris Davis a monster when he hits a towering, tape-measure home run. The idea is that he's bigger and stronger than the other players on the field — almost superhuman.

I was there for Ailes' first news conference for Fox News in 1996, and I shared in the scorn that greeted his claims of what the dinky startup channel would become. In a business sense, he exceeded even his most grandiose projections.

Fox is expected in 2016 to earn $1 billion in advertising revenue and $1.5 billion in fees from cable operators who pay for the right to carry the channel, which has dominated cable news ratings for more than a decade. When it launched, Fox had to pay cable operators to carry the channel. As a business model, the house that Ailes built has crushed the competition, even as revolutionary change has roiled the media landscape and driven other channels like the short-lived Al Jazeera America out of business.

There are only three other executives in the history of television who are in the same league: Ted Turner, who founded CNN, and William Paley and David Sarnoff, who founded CBS and NBC, respectively. The two founders of the broadcasting industry and the cable pioneer Turner were playing with their own money, so we should probably give them extra points for that.

But none of the networks or channels were such a singular extension of their founders' personalities as was Fox — despite the outsized egos of Paley, Sarnoff and Turner. That, too, was both a good and bad thing.

On the plus side, the pugnacious Ailes instilled a scrappiness in Fox that became an absolute we're-No. 1 swagger as its ratings rose. He also established an almost tribal us-against-them mentality that intimidated the competition. This wasn't just television they were making; it was holy warfare on what Ailes saw as a liberal bias in mainstream media.

I came to understand how Ailes built such loyalty during an interview with Juan Williams in 2010. Williams, who had just been fired by NPR for a statement he made about being uncomfortable on a plane when he sees someone in Muslim garb, explained what it meant at a time of great stress in his life to have Ailes publicly embrace him with statements of support and a multiyear contract.

But the dark side of the Ailes personality involves paranoia, seeing opponents of his conservative ideology as enemies instead of opponents and using inflammatory and vitriolic rhetoric to try to destroy rather than debate them.

History has come to see Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin as a deeply divisive and dangerous force who destroyed careers and severely distorted the conversation of democracy in 1950s America with his reckless claims of massive Communist infiltration of government.

But Ailes has had a much darker and deeper effect on American civic life with a 24/7 channel that specializes in a highly partisan, confrontational rhetoric, particularly in its prime-time shows. Bill O'Reilly became the ratings king of prime time, labeling those on the left "pinheads," while those who agreed with his bombastic, right-wing point of view were "patriots."

It's a rhetoric of derision and division. And it has played a major role in getting us to the troubled space we occupy with a gridlocked Congress filled with members who spend more time attacking their opponents across the aisle than trying to pass legislation.

Ailes, who worked as a media adviser to GOP candidates ranging from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, politicized TV journalism, make no mistake about it. He led the way in bringing politicos like Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove onto his channel's payroll even as they were hip-deep in consulting and super PAC conflicts of interest. He further used his channel to help build a constituency for potential GOP candidates, as he did with Dr. Ben Carson as Carson transitioned from Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon to Republican presidential contender.

And his channel's tremendous ratings strategy was imitated. MSNBC tried to steal his playbook and run it from the left with the likes of Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Lawrence O'Donnell.

For a time, even CNN was sticking a toe in those polluted ideological waters, with politicians like disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer co-hosting a prime-time show.

There was a need for the inclusion of more conservative voices in TV news analysis when Ailes launched his channel, but in mislabeling what Fox was providing as "fair and balanced" news instead of right-wing opinion and analysis, he only fed a growing distrust and cynicism about media.

Cable news will be a better place without Ailes' heavily political hand on the tiller at Fox News, especially if 21st Century Fox brings in someone like David Rhodes, currently the president of CBS News, to head Fox News. Rhodes, who went from a production assistant to executive vice president in charge of news during his 12 years at Fox, has shown a commitment to sound journalistic values since coming to CBS in 2011.

The world of TV news should be a better place for women as well after the public downfall of Ailes.

In her lawsuit, Carlson describes Ailes as a serial harasser, offering such specifics as the Fox CEO telling her during a meeting last fall, "I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, and then you'd be good and better and I'd be good and better."

The 50-year-old former show host contends she was fired as retaliation for rejecting Ailes' sexual overtures.

Other women have come forward with similar claims since Carlson's lawsuit was filed. New York magazine reports that show host Megyn Kelly has told lawyers investigating Carlson's allegations for 21st Century Fox that Ailes harassed her as well when she was a correspondent in the channel's Washington bureau.

While other Fox correspondents and show hosts have issued statements in support of Ailes, Kelly has not.

Ailes has denied all charges of harassment.

Any powerful men who didn't yet get the message from the cultural death of Bill Cosby that sexual harassment is not OK should definitely be getting it now as the allegations of Ailes' behavior and details of his humiliating exit are widely reported.

Ailes hung on a couple of days longer than most expected, amid reports that he was trying to control such details as the language of the news release that would announce his departure. After all the shame, that's kind of pathetic.

But like I said, monsters don't die easy.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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