The American executive, political consultant, and producer Roger Ailes (1940–2017) reshaped each of those fields during a career culminating in two decades as chief executive officer of the Fox News cable television channel. Ailes created a new, strongly conservative voice in American broadcasting, and he forged a set of sharp, novel production techniques to promote that voice.
As a political consultant as well as a television producer, Roger Ailes played central roles in the presidential campaigns of Republicans ranging from Richard M. Nixon in 1968 to Donald Trump in 2016. Combative and competitive, he had, as Republican consultant Lee Atwater said (as quoted by Clyde Haberman in the New York Times), “two speeds: attack and destroy.” Ailes was as much a master television technician as a cutthroat political strategist, however, and at Fox News he created a style marked by dense, drum-heavy soundtracks and high-intensity graphics that was integral to his political message-making. He built Fox from a modest initial base of 17 million viewers when the channel launched in 1996 to a reach of 87 million households in 2015; under his leadership, Fox became the most-watched cable news channel in the United States. Unfortunately, Ailes's final years were clouded by accusations of sexual harassment from a number of the blonde-haired female employees he favored as on-air talent.
Roger Eugene Ailes was born in Warren, Ohio, a factory-dominated city near Youngstown, on May 15, 1940. He grew up on Belmont Avenue Northeast and attended Harding High School. “In my travels over the years, I've always taken Ohio with me,” he once told the Youngstown Vindicator. “Everywhere I've traveled, I've taken the traditions … the values I've learned” in Warren. While those values centered on “God, country, family,” Ailes's family background was troubled. His father, Robert, an auto plant supervisor, used a belt to discipline Ailes and his older brother, Robert Jr., in spite of the fact that Ailes was a hemophiliac who had nearly died as a toddler after biting his tongue. Later in life, Ailes recalled an episode in which his father told him to jump from an upper bunk bed, promising to catch him but instead stepping aside so that he fell hard on the floor. The lesson, his father said, was that Ailes should never trust anybody.
Ailes's introduction to broadcasting came at Ohio University, where he worked for campus radio station WOUB and became station manager. During his college years, his parents divorced after his mother charged her husband with threatening to kill her. Ailes majored in television and radio and, after graduating in 1962, was hired as a production assistant on Cleveland television station KYW, working on what was then a local talk program, The Mike Douglas Show. When the show gained national distribution and production moved to Philadelphia, Ailes went with it, and in 1967, when Nixon was launching his second presidential campaign, the candidate appeared on Douglas's show and he and Ailes met backstage. In a much-quoted exchange originating in Joe McGinnis's book The Selling of the President 1968, Nixon complained that “it's a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected.“According to Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman in The Loudest Voice in the Room, Ailes replied, “Television is not a gimmick, and if you think it is, you'll lose again.” This answer impressed Nixon enough that he hired the young producer to direct his television operation.
Ailes played an important role in shaping the public's image of Nixon, whose awkwardness with the television medium was well known. After Nixon won the election in November of 1969, Ailes moved to New York City and worked as a political consultant and advertising producer. At this time he did not have a strong political orientation, and he even produced a stage musical, Mother Earth, which had an ecological theme. He also produced the original run of Lanford Wilson's critically acclaimed play The Hot l Baltimore. An early sign of his swing toward the political right came when he took the position of news director at Television News, Inc. (TVN), a short-lived television news service funded by conservative beer executive Joseph Coors.
During the 1980s Ailes became increasingly involved in Republican campaigns. To debunk charges during the 1984 presidential campaign that President Ronald Reagan was too old for a second term, Ailes crafted a memorable debate line: Reagan pledged that he would not exploit for political purposes the “youth and inexperience” of his opponent, Walter Mondale. Ailes worked on 13 Republican U.S. Senate and House campaigns between 1980 and 1986, including the House campaign of future Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. He also advised President George H.W. Bush during Bush's successful 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis. This campaign was marked by a television commercial featuring Willie Horton, an African-American prisoner who escaped while part of a Dukakis-supported furlough program and later committed rape. Although Ailes denied any involvement with this ad, which was criticized as racist, his subsequent comments suggested that he may have been.
In 1988 Ailes co-authored the book, You Are the Message, in which he outlined some of his techniques. During the 1990s, he began taking on major executive positions in the television industry. He produced a television show hosted by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh beginning in 1991; launched an NBC cable channel called America's Talking, which was later replaced by MSNBC; and headed the business news operations of NBC's CNBC division.
During this period, troublesome allegations concerning Ailes's behavior toward several of his colleagues began to surface. According to Jill Lepore in the New Yorker, an NBC investigation concluded that he had a “history of abusive, offensive, and intimidating statements/threats and personal attacks made to and upon a number of other people.” Ailes denied the accusations but agreed to modify his conduct.
Despite this controversy, Ailes's tenure at CNBC seemed secure: it had resulted in financial gains for the network and he commanded loyalty from a cadre of NBC staffers. Many of those staffers followed him in 1995, after he met Australian broadcasting tycoon Rupert Murdoch and joined Murdoch's new Fox News Network as CEO. The two men had a shared conviction that many established news organizations espoused a liberal political bias; According to Haberman, Ailes referred to cable news company CNN as the Clinton News Network, and to broadcaster CBS as the Communist Broadcasting System. The new Fox News, launched on October 7, 1996, used the slogans “Fair and Balanced”—a phrase employed by Ailes as far back as his TVN days—and “We Report. You Decide.” In Haberman's view, the channel “did its share of straightforward reporting but also unmistakably filtered major news stories through a conservative lens.” Ailes disputed allegations of bias, pointing out that Fox had investigated and broadcast a story about the youthful drunk driving arrest of Republican candidate George W. Bush shortly before the 2000 presidential election.
Under Ailes, Fox News saw steady growth. The channel's viewership quadrupled after its aggressive coverage of President Bill Clinton's extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment trial in 1999. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the channel's programming often drummed up support for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, Fox eclipsed CNN as the nation's most-watched cable news source, remaining in the top spot until the mid-2010s. The station's strongly conservative evening talk show hosts, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, displayed combative attitudes that reflected Ailes's own, and they played major roles in political discourse among supporters and detractors alike. Within the Republican party, Fox's influence, as well as that of Ailes, was paramount; Republican candidates gravitated strongly toward Fox and appeared on other news networks only sporadically.
Ailes was married three times. He met his first wife, Marjorie White, as a student at Ohio University; their marriage ended in divorce in 1977. His 14-year marriage to television producer Norma Ferrer ended in 1995, after which he married CNBC director Elizabeth Tilson, with New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani as officiant. That 1998 marriage produced a son, Zachary, two years later, making Ailes a first-time father at age 60. Because of his hemophilia, Ailes often felt that he might die soon, so he created a memory box for his son, to be opened after his death. As Marc Fisher reported in the Washington Post, the box contained among other items a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War inscribed with the words “Always stand for what is right. If absolutely forced to fight, then fight with courage and win. Don't try to win … win! Love, Dad.”
Fox paid Carlson $20 million to settle her lawsuit, and Ailes resigned his position in mid-July of 2016, leaving with a severance payout of a reported $40 million. Several of his major charitable donations, including funds for the renovation of a student newsroom at Ohio University, were now returned. Undeterred, Ailes soon resurfaced as an adviser to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. He died at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, on May 18, 2017, of internal bleeding in his head following a fall in the bathroom on May 10.
Brock, David, The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine, Anchor, 2012.
Chafets, Ze'ev, Off Camera, Sentinel, 2013.
Sherman, Gabriel, The Loudest Voice in the Room, Random House, 2014.
New York Times, May 19, 2017, Clyde Haberman, “Ailes Turned Rage into a News Empire,” p. A1.
New Yorker, January 20, 2014, Jill Lepore, “Bad News,” p. 70.
USA Today, May 19, 2017, David Mastio, “Roger Ailes' Gift for the Story,” p. A7.
Vindicator (Youngstown, OH), May 19, 2017, “Political Operative to Fox Founder to Exile.”
Washington Post, July 22, 2016, Manuel Roig-Franzia et al., “The Fall of Roger Ailes, Architect of Fox News”; May 18, 2017, Marc Fisher, “Roger Ailes, Architect of Conservative TV Juggernaut Fox, Is Dead at 77.”□