Roger Ailes, the Fox News co-founder who resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal, died on Thursday, his wife, Elizabeth Ailes, confirmed in a statement. The network’s former chairman and CEO was 77. Elizabeth Ailes said she was “profoundly sad and heartbroken” to report that he had died surrounded by his family. “Roger was my best friend, the most wonderful loving husband and father to our son Zachary. He was a loyal friend to so many,” she said in the statement. “Roger was a patriot, grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise-and to give back. 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. And so even as we mourn his death, we celebrate his life.”
I have no desire to shovel dirt on the casket of Roger Ailes- Lord knows there are battalions of pundits ready, willing, and beyond capable of such work. No, my concern is with what Ailes will be remembered for…and the praise being heaped upon him by those at Fox News Channel (FNC) and the right side of the political spectrum.
That a man described charitably by some as a pig, who resigned in shame over accusations of sexually harassing women under him at FNC, could be remembered kindly stretches credibility. Yes, Ailes’ wife and son are likely saddened by his passing, and that’s understandable. Even someone as odious as Ailes had people in his life who loved him. What’s not so easily processed is how so many could adorn his memory with accolades and tales of his accomplishments. Then again, divisive propaganda is what Roger Ailes’ should be most remembered for.
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) May 19, 2017
Ailes was almost single-handedly responsible for the increasing role and impact of Right-wing propaganda in everyday American life. He took news from its primary role as informing the public and transformed it into entertainment, a place where facts no longer mattered, where ratings and disinformation ruled. Ailes legacy isn’t one deserving of being remembered fondly. He’s responsible for hastening the coarsening and degrading of our public political discourse. Much of the rancor and division characteristic of today’s public discourse is due to Roger Ailes’ efforts.
It was Ailes who filled the newly discovered 24-hour television news cycle with more pontificating than reporting, who dismissed the notion of objectivity and replaced it with conservative spin.
Fox was born in 1996 when apolitical, nightly news anchors such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather ruled the ratings. Partisan commentary was allotted to special, end-of-the-broadcast segments or Sunday shows, and fledgling network CNN had actual reporters on the ground as opposed to rows of talking heads in a studio. Facebook wasn’t even a twinkle in the World Wide Web’s eye, Twitter a thing “real men” would never do.
It was Ailes, advisor to Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump, who pioneered the idea of a high-profile, partisan television news platform built around personalities and unapologetically filtered through a conservative lens. Fox would do for TV what Rush Limbaugh had done for radio.
Under Ailes’ tight control, Fox News mixed right-leaning commentary with reported news — often making no distinction between the two — and did so under the straight-faced banner of “fair and balanced.”
Since the birth of Fox News Channel in 1996, the news has become far less about journalism and information than highly partisan political propaganda. Ailes’ promotion of FNC as “fair and balanced” was perhaps the most cynical (and wildly successful) marketing campaign in modern media history. Watching the news was no longer about being informed; it was about ideology and a predilection for believing the worst of Liberals. That was easy to do; FNC programming is centered around creating and confirming the conviction of millions of (older, Whiter) Americans that Liberals are Evil Incarnate. They also hate America and Jesus.
Roger Ailes turned the news into an “us vs. them” free-for-all. FNC became the place where Americans went for the modern-day equivalent of George Orwell’s “Two-Minute Hate.”
Ailes made his fortune off creating a cable “news” channel dedicated to pushing Right-wing propaganda, which millions of Americans quickly accepted as Gospel. FNC fostered the belief that Conservative values were inherently superior and more “American.” The views of Liberals were denigrated as “soft,” “unpatriotic,” and “un-American.” FNC became America’s #1 purveyor of “us vs. them” propaganda- patriotism vs. “America bashing.” Fomenting such stark divisions allowed FNC to become America’s #1 cable news channel.
But there’s more than just one definition for the term “old school” in relation to Ailes, and that also depends on which side of the aisle you sit.
[Bill] O’Reilly offers his definition in his new book, “Old School”: “Did you get up this morning knowing there are mountains to climb — and deciding how you are going to climb them? Do you show up on time? Do you still bend over to pick up a penny? If so, you’re Old School.
“Or did you wake up whining about safe spaces and trigger warnings? Do you feel marginalized by your college’s mascot? Do you look for something to get outraged about, every single day, so you can fire off a tweet defending your exquisitely precious sensibilities? Then you’re a Snowflake.”
(Perhaps Trump never read the part about Twitter.)
For others, the term Old School is coded language for romanticizing the racism and sexism of pre-equal and civil rights America, and a white man wouldn’t likely be pushed out of the company he founded for pressuring the help to have sex with him.
Most recently, Ailes became infamous for the toxic work environment at FNC. The man lauded by his wife as “my best friend, the most wonderful loving husband and father to our son Zachary…a loyal friend to so many” was a notorious sexual predator. The list of women who’ve sued Ailes (and FNC anchor Bill O’Reilly) reads like a Who’s Who of prominent female journalists. Ailes’ preyed on vulnerable women, women whose career he could and did exercise control over. It strains credibility to believe his wife was somehow unaware of his predations.
No doubt there were those who loved Roger Ailes; perhaps in one part of his life he was deserving of such affection and devotion. Even the worst among us have some good within, but he should be remembered as a man for whom greed, partisanship, and manipulation provided a path to fame and fortune.
He was a journalistic pioneer who cared little about the craft and practice of journalism. He was a thug who cared far less about the truth than political power. He was a predator and reprobate who viewed his position of power as a path to sexual conquest. Attractive young female journalists were trophies, just rewards for his dedication and hard work.
The man whom history may well hold responsible for heralding the death of democracy and the creation of our new idiocracy isn’t someone who should be remembered fondly…though many are already doing just that. Propaganda can be useful for covering a multitude of evils, even (perhaps especially) after death.
I’ve always believed speaking ill of the dead to be bad form…but in Roger Ailes’ case, I have no issues with making an exception. When all is said and done, it may well come to pass that he’ll deservedly be remembered as one of the worst excuses for humanity this country has known. At the very least, he’s raised the bar when it comes to evil, avarice, and self-interest.
If there was any justice in this world, Ailes would be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in a remote corner of a landfill. It would be a fitting denouement for a moral reprobate who’s done so much long-lasting damage.