Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Z on TV: Roger Ailes' legacy as media visionary overshadowed by predatory culture at Fox News

Roger Ailes, who in founding Fox News changed the relationship of TV and politics more than any other media figure in broadcasting history, is dead at age 77, his family announced today in a statement to the conservative news site Drudge Report. No cause of death was given.

"I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning," his wife, Elizabeth, said in a statement released to the conservative news site Drudge Report. "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."

Ailes, who was forced out as Fox News chairman in July in the wake of a sexual harassment suit by former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson, was a towering figure in conservative politics and American media with the network he dubbed “fair and balanced,” despite its obvious right-wing orientation.

Ailes was a media visionary, no doubt about it. But his accomplishments in that regard are likely to be overshadowed, at least in short-term memory, by the predatory culture of sexual harassment he instituted at Fox — a culture that now appears to be destroying the network he built with lawsuits, management shakeups and resignations.

To the end, Ailes has denied all allegations of sexual harassment.

In July, when Ailes was forced out by Fox News, I wrote what was essentially a professional obituary for him, laying out his media legacy.

Here is some of what I wrote:

There are only three other executives in the history of television who are in the same league [as Ailes]: 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.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
52°