Roger Ailes, the banished goblin king of Fox News who died Thursday morning, spent five decades coarsening American political discourse. First as a Republican propagandist and then for 20 years as the mastermind of Fox News, he spent most of his 77 years feeding America bullshit and calling it red meat. His legacy is a diminished network, a paralyzed polity, and a country that is worse off than he found it.
Ailes first drew public attention in 1968, when he worked producing television spots for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. While waiting to appear on The Mike Douglas Show, Richard Nixon had met Ailes, the show’s executive producer, backstage. “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” Nixon said, according to Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President 1968. “Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes reportedly replied. Nixon hired him almost immediately, and Ailes embarked on what would become his life’s work: making angry, paranoid creeps look like virtuous men.
Fox News host Bill Hemmer told a version of McGinniss’ “television is not a gimmick” story Thursday morning on America’s Newsroom as a parable of Ailes’ foresight and vision. But the real point of the story comes a little bit later in McGinniss’ book, when Ailes is organizing a series of televised “town halls” between Nixon and a group of carefully selected voters. Ailes argued vehemently in favor of banning print reporters from the premises. “It’s a television show. Our television show,” Ailes said in McGinniss’ telling. “And the press has no business on the set.”
The press has no business on the set. That’s a fitting summation of Ailes’ legacy at Fox News. Ailes founded Fox News at Rupert Murdoch’s behest in 1996 and set about courting everyone who watched All in the Family because they agreed with Archie Bunker. There were a lot of those people, it turned out, and they responded favorably to Fox News hosts’ brand of insinuation, bombast, and, often, coded racism. Ailes normalized this stupidity by branding Fox as the “fair and balanced” network. He made Fox News what it is by pandering to the worst proletarian resentments, giving them focus, and validating the ugly opinions of Fox’s hosts and viewers in the process. Ailes’ great insight was that you could weaponize this aggrieved rhetoric and worldview to bludgeon the traditional press—anyone who might spoil the show by asking hard questions or challenging baseless assertions or citing factual evidence. “Fair and balanced” was the “FAKE NEWS!!!” of its day. It still is. And it allowed an ogre like Bill O’Reilly to claim the moral high ground for 20 years.
Ailes knew that the stage-managed town halls he designed for Nixon were above all television shows, and this cynical philosophy informed his stewardship of Fox News. Ailes was creating television programs, not journalism, and his most successful hires at Fox were hammy talk-show hosts who brilliantly acted the parts of crusading reporters and moral leaders. Ailes made stars of small men like O’Reilly, who at last left the network in disgrace this spring; Glenn Beck, who was a disgrace and then left the network; and Sean Hannity, a disgrace who is still there.
In private, Ailes incubated a culture where powerful men could leer at and proposition their female colleagues without immediate repercussion. Ailes was forced out of Fox last July after Gretchen Carlson’s allegations of sexual harassment were echoed by six other women, and his exit revealed the network as a warren of toxic masculinity and inhumaneness. Now Fox News has one star left from its early days—the philistinic Hannity—and has given O’Reilly’s old time slot to Tucker Carlson, whose program is to The O’Reilly Factor what store-brand cola is to Coke. Ailes’ old deputy, Bill Shine, was booted earlier this month. On Tuesday night, as the rest of America grappled with a report that Trump had inappropriately asked then–FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation, Hannity led his show with a discredited conspiracy theory about a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer. Fair and balanced!
Hannity appeared on America’s Newsroom on Thursday morning to eulogize the man who plucked his uninformed id out of oblivion and put him on national television. “He was one of the brightest, smartest, funniest people you’d ever meet in life, and every moment you spent with him you were learning, and you were laughing, and it was fun,” said Hannity, perhaps confusing Ailes with Robin Williams’ character from Dead Poets Society. Hannity also tweeted a written statement on Ailes’ death, and it is really something. “[To] his enemies, know this,” Hannity wrote. “I say ADVANTAGE ROGER, in his mind he just has a head start in preparing to kick your ass in the next life.” That’s Roger Ailes’ Fox News for you: the network for people who probably would find the afterlife too liberal.
I started watching Fox News on Thursday morning expecting to see wall-to-wall coverage of Ailes’ death. Instead, America’s Newsroom focused primarily on the news that former FBI Director Robert Mueller would lead an independent investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. The decision was fitting, given that our inattentive demagogue president is the crumbling capstone to Ailes’ cynical legacy. “When you think about [all that happened] the past year, being No. 1 in politics and across the board,” observed Hemmer. “I mean, that was Roger, and that’s what he gave us.” We will spend the rest of our lives recovering from it.