Warren native Roger Ailes, Fox News creator, dies
NEW YORK — Roger Ailes, the Warren native and communications maestro who transformed television news and America’s political conversation by creating and ruling Fox News Channel for two decades before being ousted last year over alleged sexual harassment, died Thursday, according to his wife, Elizabeth Ailes. He was 77.
Ailes died after a fall at his Palm Beach, Fla., home 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.
A former GOP operative to candidates including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and a one-time adviser to President Donald Trump, Ailes displayed a mastery of modern messaging early in his career. Then he changed the face of 24-hour news when, in 1996, he accepted a challenge from media titan Rupert Murdoch to build a news network from scratch to compete with CNN and other TV outlets they deemed left-leaning.
That October, Ailes flipped the switch on Fox News Channel, which within a few years became the audience leader in cable news. Ailes branded the network “Fair and Balanced” and declared he had left the political world behind, but conservative viewers found a home and lifted prime-time commentators Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity to the top of the news ratings.
“He has dramatically and forever changed the political and the media landscape singlehandedly for the better,” Hannity tweeted on Thursday.
Fox News and 21st Century Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch called Ailes “a brilliant broadcaster (who) played a huge role in shaping America’s media over the last thirty years” in a statement.
“He will be remembered by the many people on both sides of the camera that he discovered, nurtured and promoted,” Murdoch said. “Roger and I shared a big idea which he executed in a way no one else could have. In addition, Roger was a great patriot who never ceased fighting for his beliefs.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recalled Ailes’ influence on the nation’s politics from the late 1960s to now.
“Roger Ailes was a genius at politics and the news media. His advice to Presidents Nixon and Reagan was historic and helped elect both,” Gingrich tweeted.
“The history of cable television will have a very big chapter on Roger Ailes. Without his success at Fox News Trump could never have won.”
Others laid the nation’s political dysfunction and inability to find common ground at his feet, creating the atmosphere for Trump to succeed.
“It’s a very complicated story,” said Gabriel Sherman, author of the Ailes biography, “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” ”He is in some ways a genius and in some ways tragic. His quest for power consumed him.”
By mid-2016 Ailes still ruled supreme as he prepared to celebrate Fox News’ 20th anniversary.
But in little more than two weeks, both his legacy and job unraveled following allegations by 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.
Reportedly, a key witness was Megyn Kelly, the network’s superstar personality, whose voice was conspicuously missing in the chorus of women and men at Fox News who spoke up on behalf of Ailes. Their defense did little to staunch the widening scandal. Despite Ailes’ staunch denials, 21st Century Fox corporate head Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, determined that Ailes had to go. The announcement was made on July 21.
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.
Rumors of sexual improprieties at Fox News and by Ailes in particular weren’t new. Sherman’s 2014 biography reported numerous unflattering anecdotes, including an allegation (denied by Ailes) that he offered one female employee extra money if she would have sex with him.
Before Carlson’s bombshell legal action, Fox’s roaring success and enormous earnings (with some estimates that it accounted for nearly a quarter of the parent company’s profits) insulated Ailes from any suspicion as well as from his past scrapes with the Murdoch sons over who he would report to.
His dismissal was a headspinning 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.
Ailes was a brawler. And even when he was on the winning side of a battle, he positioned himself as the defiant outsider going toe-to-toe with his bullying nemeses. 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.
When he founded Fox News Network, Ailes’ stated mission was to correct for the sins of a media universe that was overwhelmingly liberal. Pledging fairness from his employees shortly before the network launched, he was typically tough talking: “Will they hit it every time? Hell, no. Will they try? Hell, yes. Will we be criticized? Hell, yes. Do I care? Hell, no.”
As usual, he had defined the enemy (in this case, his media critics and other presumed foes) before they could define themselves. It was his crowning principle.
This attack-dog style served him well when, at 27, Ailes wrangled a job with Nixon, then vying for a political comeback in the 1968 presidential race.
“Mr. Nixon, you need a media adviser,” Ailes declared (according to Sherman’s biography).
“What’s a media adviser?” asked Nixon.
“I am,” replied Ailes, having fashioned the job on the spot.
Nixon, whose run for the White House had been dealt a blow eight years earlier 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 viewers would never warm to Nixon, nor would the media establishment, Ailes struck a winning formula by packaging him in comfortably staged TV town-hall meetings as a man whose intelligence the audience would respect.
The remainder of Ailes’ career would draw on various blends of showmanship, ruthless politics and an unmatched skill for recognizing TV’s raw communication power before his opponents did, and harnessing it better.
Born in Warren, Ohio, on May 15, 1940, Roger Eugene Ailes described his working-class upbringing with three words: “God, country, family.”
Afflicted with hemophilia, he spent much of his early years housebound in front of, and fascinated with, television, and after graduation from Ohio University landed an entry-level position at a TV station in Cleveland that had just started a local talk and entertainment program starring a has-been former big-band singer named Mike Douglas.
Ailes went to work as a production assistant on “The Mike Douglas Show” and rose in its ranks (at 26, he was named its executive producer) along with its rising fortunes as it went into national syndication and moved to Philadelphia.
It was there in 1967 that he and Nixon crossed paths in a meeting that changed both their lives.
After jumping ship from the “Douglas” show to help steer Nixon to the White House, Ailes spent more than a decade as a communications consultant to corporations and Republican candidates. And as a sign of his versatility, he also became a theater producer, with a hit off-Broadway musical, “The Hot L Baltimore,” in the early 1970s, and a network boss, helping start Television News Incorporated, a short-lived right-wing TV service funded by conservative brewing magnate Joseph Coors, that seemed to presage Fox News by a quarter-century.
Ailes returned to presidential politics in 1984 by helping President Reagan.