Amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment, Roger Ailes is reportedly in talks to depart his position as chairman and CEO of Fox News.
To those of us who observed Ailes from the outside, this comes as a shock, despite multiple reports that Rupert Murdoch and his sons wanted the network chief out. He was a skilled infighter who over the years had survived numerous internal fights against powerful foes in the News Corp/21st Century Fox universe.
Fox host Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment allegation brought about the end of his career. (It should be noted that accusations of sexual harassment have floated around Ailes for decades.)
The impact of this moment cannot be overstated. In 2010, at a meeting with progressive donors, I watched a very senior Democratic media consultant tell the audience, “Roger Ailes is a Republican operative with a news network. Give me $100 million and I can build the same thing.”
This was not true.
The operative underestimated the raw talent and ability Ailes brought to the task.
He didn't just create the behemoth of Fox News, running the network outside of Murdoch’s control. Ailes shaped the way we consumed cable news, sometimes at a granular level. The ubiquitous news crawl at the bottom of your television screen? That was a September 11, 2001, Fox News innovation.
Ponder this for a moment: What is the longest-running show on MSNBC?
It was Ailes who put the show and it’s host Chris Matthews on air when he ran America’s Talking, the precursor network to MSNBC.
In the early 1990s, Ailes built CNBC into the dominant business cable television network.
In the 1960s, Ailes rose from production assistant on the Mike Douglas Show to become its executive producer, as it bloomed from a local variety show to one of the most watched shows in America.
The Mike Douglas Show green room was where he met Richard Nixon and launched his political career.
It is this combination of talents that has led to the incredible power of Fox News and the damage Roger Ailes has wreaked on our country for nearly 50 years. His late friend Joe McGinniss, author of "Selling the President," a book about the 1968 campaign, said of Ailes in 2014: “From Richard Nixon to Rupert Murdoch, I think everyone he’s ever worked for has harmed this country in some way. I also think Fox News is an excrescence. And Roger knows that.”
Ailes’ most common tactic has been to use race as a weapon to divide the American people. In 1968 McGinniss himself quoted Ailes musing before a televised Nixon event, “You know what I’d like? As long as we’ve got this extra spot open. A good, mean, Wallaceite cab driver. Wouldn’t that be great? Some guy to sit there and say, ‘Alwright mac, what about these n**gers.’”
During George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, he remarked to a reporter, “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”
And while denying he had anything to do with the infamous ad, Ailes’ testimony before the FECrevealed how he thinks about race and politics:
Q: Did the Bush committee have any policy about not using Mr. Horton's photograph?
A: I have no knowledge of that. I personally rejected the use of Mr. Horton in the advertisement.
Q: How is that?
A: A young researcher brought me a picture of him sometime and I tore it up and threw it in the wastebasket and said we’re not going to do that.
Q And why is that?
A: I knew the issue would backlash because of the liberal media.
Q: And what was that about?
A: When Republicans see Willie Horton they see a criminal, and when Democrats see Willie Horton they see a black.
Later, running Rudy Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign, he used similar tactics in an attempt to pit the black and Jewish communities of New York against each other.
During the Obama administration, Fox News never missed a chance to use minorities to scare its predominantly elderly, white audience. Bill O’Reilly mused openly on air that Rev. Jeremiah Write was Willie Horton “times a thousand.” As I’ve previously written, “That was the beginning of an almost endless list of divisive racial controversies stoked by Fox – Shirley Sherrod, the New Black Panther Party, and Glenn Beck’s statement that Obama was a racist. Each of these was designed specifically to scare white voters away from the President.”
Roger Ailes also represented the paranoid streak that infests the Right, from the Trump campaign to Glenn Beck. As I reported in the book I coauthored with David Brock, "The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned A Network Into A Propoganda Machine":
From the paranoid rants about the creeping threats of communism to odd comparisons between mainstream political leaders and Nazis, Glenn Beck gave voice to some of Ailes’s deepest fears about the Obama presidency. In October 2009, Obama adviser David Axelrod was interviewed during the First Draft of History conference, hosted by The Atlantic magazine. Addressing the polarization that was infecting political discourse, Axelrod mentioned a conversation he had once with a “significant figure on the right”—later revealed to be Roger Ailes—who tried to explain to him why conservatives were suspicious of the president.
Ailes told Axelrod he believed Obama wanted to form a national police force, based on a twenty-one-second clip from a speech where the president proposed a civilian force that would complement the military in providing humanitarian aid around the world. Axelrod quoted Ailes telling him, “You can understand why that has people very nervous. This has shades of Nazism.”
For the last three decades Roger Ailes has been a central force in our media. His departure from Fox News won’t change the network overnight, but the absence of Ailes will have an immeasurable impact, not just on Fox News but the entire media landscape.
Roger Ailes will go down in history as one of the most talented television producers ever, but his entire career has been an excrescence.