The Ailes Factor: Sizing Up the Legacy of the Fox News 'Warrior' and King-Maker

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Security stands in front of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes as he leaves the News Corp building on July 19, 2016.
Security stands in front of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes as he leaves the News Corp building on July 19, 2016. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Over the past week or so, as the Trump administration became increasingly, hopelessly mired in scandal, I made a habit of switching rapidly, particularly during primetime, between CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to compare their coverage.

Given how relentless and all-consuming the Trump meltdown has been, you'd think all three would be more or less in the same breaking-news ballpark: CNN roughly in the middle, taking pains to book talking heads from both sides of the aisle to process the Trump team's crisis du jour (or heure); MSNBC talent to the left, toasting marshmallows as the Trump White House went up in flames; Fox News hosts and guests to the right, expressing skepticism and dismay about the liberal pile-on, and finding ways, against all odds, to defend Trump.

But no. When I'd switch over to Fox News, astonishingly enough, I'd often find the talking heads entirely avoiding the elephant in the room -- instead chattering about, for instance, Trump boldly honoring "our heroes in blue" at a ceremony in which he slammed the "'unfair defamation and vilification" of police (by the liberal media, of course). Or obsessing at length about the "mysterious" death of a Democratic National Committee staffer. It was only on Wednesday night, in the wake of the news of the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, that I had a reasonably good chance of switching between the three cable nets and finding them all on the same topic (if not exactly the same page). That news was too big for even Fox News to sideline or downplay.

The frequent off-topicness and particular fixations of Fox News are, of course, by design. Fox News creator Roger Ailes, who died at 77 on Thursday morning, had a vision for the network as not just a stridently, proudly conservative news network -- that cheeky "Fair and Balanced" slogan notwithstanding -- but a sort of bizarro, parallel universe.

From "Fox & Friends" to "The O'Reilly Factor," the Fox News m.o. was and is about defying the conventional mainstream-media (read: liberal-media) narrative and instead diving down rabbit holes of its own choosing. And for 20 years, Fox News's (rapidly aging) fans have been happily joining the network on a journey devised, at its core, by Roger Ailes.

It's instructive that Fox News host Sean Hannity this morning tweeted that "Today America lost one of its great patriotic warriors." Before Fox News, Ailes was one of the GOP's most powerful operatives, advising candidates including Nixon and Reagan. At Fox News he remained one of the GOP's most powerful operatives. Or, arguably, became the ultimate GOP operative.

As CNNMoney notes in its Ailes obit, "He began advising Donald Trump at a private lunch days before he launched his presidential campaign in June 2015. Over the next year, they met repeatedly, almost always at Fox News headquarters, and spoke regularly on the phone."

Ailes was the king-maker whose ring any major Republican candidate for president had to kiss. And you had to go to his tower, his castle, to do it.

It must have been painful for Ailes to see President Trump stumbling so badly -- failing every media test thrown his way. There was no one who understood media manipulation, the jujitsu of political spin, better than Roger Ailes (it was he who convinced Nixon to take the power of TV seriously). And yet here now is his latest student, born brawler Donald Trump, haplessly inflicting wound after wound on only himself.

In Ailes' bizarro, parallel universe, he was the god who got to rewrite not only the rules of media and politics but the very laws of gravity. If a particular pol was down and out, on Fox News he could be triumphing. When political enemies of Ailes were ascendant, Fox News was at the ready to lay them low.

But of course in the end that came before the end, Ailes did himself in. Forced out of his Fox News CEO job last July in the wake of sexual harassment accusations, his legacy lives on in the apparent caveman culture that ultimately aided and abetted the rise and fall of Bill O'Reilly.

Media people like me were obsessed with Ailes, but tellingly, when a well-informed, non-media executive recently asked me, over drinks, how "Bill O'Reilly got away with it all those years," I had to not only point out that Roger Ailes allowed it, but I needed to remind her who Ailes even was.

He was the wizard behind the curtain who allowed and encouraged all kinds of awful things that reverberated through the larger culture and our toxic political discourse. Really, it's impossible to overstate his influence on the American body politic. In fact, over the years, a whole cottage industry rose up around deconstructing the mendacity of Fox News (e.g., the Media Matters watchgroup) and the sketchiness of Ailes himself (e.g., Gabriel Sherman's dogged reporting at New York magazine and his unauthorized Ailes bio, "The Loudest Voice in the Room"). There's an Ailes movie in the works too.

This morning, joining Sean Hannity, there are a lot of "RIP" messages floating around social media. Like this one:

But look closely and most often the "RIP" sentiments are ironic:

Either way, regardless of how you feel about him, "peace" is exactly the wrong word to use in regard to Roger Ailes.

He was anti-peace. Media to him wasn't some polite, reasonable forum for considered discussion of the events shaping our democracy -- it was a goddamn battlefield where blood would be, should be, shed.

He was, yeah, a warrior.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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