Soon after news of the death of disgraced Fox News chief Roger Ailes broke Thursday morning, Slate Political Gabfest hosts David Plotz and Emily Bazelon joined Trumpcast’s Jacob Weisberg to discuss Ailes, the legacy of his cable empire, and the grotesque cases of sexual harassment that eventually led to his ouster. This is an edited transcript of their conversation. The full episode is here.
David Plotz: Roger Ailes, the media impresario behind Fox News, died on Wednesday. Ailes is, or was, a malevolent and baleful force in American life, although a magnificent programmer of television. A brilliant, brilliant creator of something titanic and powerful, but truly a wicked force in America. Let’s use this time to talk about him and his legacy and then the state of conservative media, because his death comes at a really interesting time in conservative media, where Fox itself seems to be losing a little bit of its swat, but conservative media is not. Jacob, what was your immediate thought on Ailes’ death?
Jacob Weisberg: No one will miss him, particularly at Fox News. Even at Fox News I gather they were not eulogizing him this morning. I saw they’re remodeling the Fox offices, and as part of that they’ve completely obliterated what was his executive suite. The destruction and the cost of what Ailes did, in terms of sexual harassment and enshrining this culture of abuse of women there, is disastrous for Fox, so I don’t think anybody even at Fox has particularly positive thoughts about him.
Plotz: I’m going to push there. Look, he’s a monster. None of those people would have a job without Ailes. Fox itself didn’t ... He imagined it. He midwifed it into being. He bottle-fed it. Every bit of its genius, practically, derives from something he did. It’s true that he was an absolute monster and a sex criminal and a terrible person, but I don’t know how they can possibly dissociate themselves so fully from him.
Weisberg: I think they’re going to try, for a lot of reasons, but I think you’re right that what Fox News is, it’s his creation. It’s his Frankenstein monster. They can’t say, “Oh, we have nothing to do with Roger Ailes.” They wouldn’t exist at any level without Roger Ailes.
I think he’s a huge figure in terms of politics and culture in our age. He transformed the kind of news we had. He pretty much single-handedly created the right-wing media that defines the right and defines so many things about politics, the way he managed to merge news and entertainment. People will write more biographies of Roger Ailes as a transformational figure. I think those transformations, along with his personal behavior, are almost all to the bad, but I don’t think you can deny how significant and huge his accomplishment was.
Plotz: Right, but you were just denying how significant and huge his accomplishment was.
Emily Bazelon: Jacob was saying that Fox wants to disassociate itself from him, not that he didn’t accomplish anything.
Weisberg: And I’m saying nobody misses him personally. I think he leaves tremendous ill will and rancor. He was such a bad guy personally that I think everybody wants to run as far away from him as possible, but I think the reality was he’s a big deal for our society.
Plotz: Maybe, Emily, Fox’s ratings are down in the post-Ailes era. Fox has lost some of its mojo. Maybe it needs more of that sexist, monstrous, villainous villainy.
Bazelon: “Bring on the sexual harassers, because as long as they juice up the ratings, who cares?” That was the rationale for keeping Bill O’Reilly, but of course it failed. It does seem as if the younger branch of the Murdoch family is not willing to have this completely out-of-control corporate culture.
Then there is a question about whether Fox, once it’s been leashed, will have the same sort of power. In terms of the actual programming, maybe they’re not doing as good a job of it, but in the last week, as Donald Trump was flailing on so many levels, a lot of the headlines on Fox were about “liberal meltdown” or many hours of talking about reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, not to mention this story that’s collapsing about Seth Rich, this Democratic operative who was tragically murdered whose death is now being turned into a total political football by what sounds like completely irresponsible reporting by Fox in a story that they haven’t retracted or apologized for. I feel like I’m not sure how much the spirit is really gone. Maybe they’re just not quite doing it as well.
Weisberg: They’re in a huge rut because they lost their biggest stars, Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, and they’ve lost the genius who presided over what they did, as well as his sort of heir, Bill Shine, who had to go. More than that, I think they have a fundamental problem, which is that the propaganda they’re doing now is boring. There’s always been a big propaganda element to Fox, but anti-propaganda, going after enemies, is much more entertaining than propaganda defending the guy in power. At a moment when there’s huge news taking place, to be the news channel where people don’t get the news but instead get this weirdo propaganda, it’s just not ... Roger Ailes would know that doesn’t work.
Plotz: The conservative media is at this moment of great power. Trump is nourished by it and it helped him rise. But its basic premise has been victimology. It’s been living on victimology for a decade. What does it do when it can’t be a victim?
Weisberg: That’s a problem when you win.
Bazelon: They need a new enemy. The trotting out of Hillary Clinton is boring and seems kind of pathetic at this point. It must even to some people in their audience feel like it’s played out and spent. I think Trump had a good idea about how to do this when he started attacking the press. The more he can make this about him versus the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the mainstream television media, the better. If Fox could find a story about one of those outlets that could really turn into a character in a soap opera with a narrative … They need Hillary Clinton 2, and it’s hard at this moment to see who that person is. I also don’t think the efforts to turn Chuck Schumer into that ... He’s not interesting either.
There’s a missing juice here. I think that helps explain why they went with the crazy Seth Rich idea. That has all these Vince Foster overtones to it.
Plotz: Jacob, how do you distinguish the place that Fox has in the conservative media landscape, Breitbart has, and then anyone else you want to add in there? Do they occupy different ecosystems? Because Fox’s ratings are down. Breitbart has arisen literally from nothing to enormous audience.
Weisberg: Yeah, and Drudge still plays a role too in raising these stories and injecting them. It’s a bit of the old hierarchy that you used to have in a less partisan news environment, with supermarket tabloids and the New York City tabloids and then certain websites. They are stories that aren’t respectable enough to be initiated on Fox News, like this Seth Rich story, but they can certainly start on Breitbart, where half of the things are half-true and the other half aren’t true at all, or on Drudge where there’s just even less sense of responsibility, and then they make their way to Fox. It’s a complicated. Slate started this feature covering the conservative press every day. It’s very interesting and not completely predictable in all the ways you want.
I do think they’re suffering overall from exactly what Emily said, the lack of a good Satan. That’s what drives them, and they don’t really have a credible Satan figure right now.
Plotz: Do you think that people in conservative media would rather be losing, they’d rather be out of power but have a villain to attack than be in power and have to support a Trump or a Ryan?
Weisberg: Rupert Murdoch? Yeah, I do think that. I think he’s fundamentally a businessman trying to make money, and when the station is thriving ... He can be very opportunistic. He had moments of cozying up to Hillary Clinton and Obama. With Murdoch, and I think this follows for Fox generally, ultimately the commercial motive trumps the political motive.
Plotz: Then why haven’t you seen a programming switch as the ratings are going down?
Bazelon: They can’t turn on a dime.
Weisberg: Because they can’t betray their audience.
Bazelon: Right. They have to find a new Satan that ... This is their audience. Though I still think it’s possible for them to eventually turn on Trump, just not yet.
Plotz: Ailes’ legacy, in addition to Fox, is of course this incredible culture of sexual harassment and misbehavior that seemed to have pervaded the organization. Do you think that’s the last one of these we’re ever going to see? It felt like you really couldn’t get away with having an organization like that in this century anymore, and yet I suppose they got away with it until 2015. Can that kind of completely sexist nightmare world for women persist?
Bazelon: I think if it can’t survive at Fox News, then maybe the answer is no. It’s hard to really imagine it ever completely disappearing because we have lived with that possibility of sexist culture for so long, but it was really interesting to watch Ailes and O’Reilly. You could imagine from their point of view this feeling all surprising and unfair. They were just playing out these ways of treating women that were completely taken for granted not very long ago.
Plotz: Do you think Ailes, Jacob, ended his life feeling like a victim?
Weisberg: Oh, yeah, I think so. I think he felt very betrayed. He got a big cash settlement. It’s funny, I had this experience with him in this town upstate where he had a house and tried to take over everything, including he bought the newspaper. We’ve had a little mini-version of Fox News up there. Ultimately, he was driven out. He gave up, gave up the newspaper, sold his houses, moved to Florida. I think he was quite ill at the end. It’s hard to imagine he didn’t experience his world completely collapsing around him.
Plotz: How do you think the Republican Party would be different without Ailes, if Ailes had not created what he’d created?
Weisberg: That’s a great question. I think to a large extent it would still be much more dominated by the legacy of Ronald Reagan. I think Ailes created tonally a very different party from Reagan’s party and also in terms of the shift from Reagan conservatism to populism focused on issues like immigration. I think Ailes enabled that.
Plotz: What in particular? Immigration is one good example. What are the Reagan ideas which have been abandoned that they would actually have?
Bazelon: Or is it a matter of tone and who you appeal to as opposed to ideas? Just adding to David’s question.
Weisberg: I would add free trade and liberal economic policies generally, but also internationalism. The Reagan party was idealistic in a certain way, however it pursued those goals. It talked about human rights. It talked about the advance of democracy. None of those things are of much interest to Fox News viewers or were to Roger Ailes or certainly to the party of Trump. I think the shift to a populist nationalist framework for politics, which matches what has happened on the right in a lot of other parts of the world, I think is ... You can’t attribute it all to Ailes personally, but Ailes was the vehicle for it.
Plotz: How much of the fact that Americans’ first identification now often is political, that partisanship has become this incredibly important way that people separate themselves, how much of that do you think is a product of Fox and how much of that do you think was independent of Fox?
Weisberg: I think a huge amount of it comes from Fox, but not all directly, because I think it’s partly because Fox was so successful that that then became the model to emulate. People have tried with much less success to emulate it on the left. The whole idea of partisan media starts not just with Fox but then with MSNBC trying to do some version, without getting it right, on the left. The filter bubble world we live with now, which people often think is a product of social media and Facebook, really got going on talk radio and with cable news and then was transplanted over to social media, where it thrives.