It’s a strange phenomenon that people can hold terrible politics while being otherwise decent human beings, and that others can have praiseworthy political beliefs that stand at odds with their personal odiousness. Roger Ailes, the former longtime Fox News head who died yesterday, belongs in neither of these two categories, being instead a combination of both politically and personally reprehensible.
He did more to shape modern politics than almost any other figure in recent history, first perfecting the art of substance-less image-making, and later pioneering a once-unique form of ugly, fear-mongering propaganda that brought us eight years of Bush and, at last, Trump.
Had Ailes not ascended to the powerful heights he did, he would have been a pitiable figure. Born lower class in the blue-collar stronghold of Warren, Ohio, his father was a foreman at the maintenance department of Packard Electric with a mean streak. He beat his kids mercilessly with his belt and even reportedly an electrical cord, and once let Ailes fall to the ground from his top bunk after telling him to jump, a lesson meant to instil in the young Ailes the impulse to never trust anyone. Ailes himself was widely known as a vicious bully, and with his upbringing, it’s perhaps not hard to see why.
Ailes was also a hemophiliac, a physical disorder in which one’s blood doesn’t clot normally, leaving him in a lifetime of pain and, at times, near death. He was insecure about the weight he gained as a result, complaining that photo editors were “sadistic bastards” who “always make me look heavy.”
Ailes may have led a life of relative obscurity had he never had a chance encounter in 1967 with Richard Nixon backstage at the Mike Douglas Show, a talk show he was producing at the time. After affirming to the understandably skeptical Nixon that “television is not a gimmick” and that he would lose a second time if he didn’t grasp that fact, he was soon hired by the Nixon campaign as its executive producer for television. Ailes would later claim that he “never had a political thought” until Nixon scooped him up.
At only twenty-eight, Ailes would help pioneer the modern image-obsessed style of political campaign, where substance takes a backseat to pedantic, cosmetic minutia. As Ailes told Joe McGinniss, author of The Selling of the President, a book about the media campaign to sell the Nixon to the public, people thought Nixon was “dull,” a “bore,” and “a pain in the ass” who was “funny-looking” and seemed like his parents had bought him a briefcase for Christmas when he was a kid.
Ailes engineered a clever way to make people forget about this: produce a series of staged panel shows for television where a pre-screened and selected set of questioners and an audience recruited by local Republican organizations (“an applause machine,” in Ailes’ telling) asked Nixon questions, allowing the candidate to appear spontaneous, charismatic, and light on his feet without ever being in any real danger of embarrassment.
At the end of the show, the adoring audience was instructed to mob Nixon like he was a Beatle. The productions would be closed to the press.
Ailes meticulously pored over every tiny, apparently meaningless detail of the productions. He raged over camera positioning, their ability (or lack thereof) to deliver close-ups, the merits of Nixon standing instead of sitting, and Nixon’s uninspiring hand gestures. At one point, he replaced a set of turquoise curtains (“Nixon wouldn’t look right unless he was carrying a pocketbook”) with three wooden panels (“clean, solid, masculine lines”).
He also obsessed over race. He made sure one panel had one African American, no more, no less, and that the audience had enough black people that the press couldn’t say it was all white. “On this one, we definitely need a Negro,” he said of another panel. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have one in every group of six people, no matter what our ethnic experts say . . . [but] one of every three votes cast in Philadelphia will be Negro.”
Later he mused that they should put in a “Wallacite cab driver” on a panel. “Wouldn’t that be great?” he said. “Some guy to sit there and say, ‘Awright, mac, what about these niggers?’”
Upon winning the presidency, Nixon’s White House produced a memo titled, “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” outlining a plan to provide local news broadcasts with “pro-administration, videotape, hard news actualities.” Notes in Ailes’ handwriting extolled it as “an excellent idea.”
The Willie Horton Strategy
Ailes remained plugged into the world of politics following Nixon’s win. He worked at the Joseph Coors-funded Television News Incorporated, a right-wing news service that, in keeping with the Nixon memo, provided local TV with cheap, conservative-slanted news clips. He also became a political consultant, with his Roger Ailes and Associates providing hapless candidates with fundraising, television commercials, and more. During this time, Ailes also provided media-training to business executives, embattled as they were by increasing government regulations and “the activities of highly vocal citizen groups and broadcasters.”
Ailes had his hand in Ronald Reagan’s two winning campaigns, heading the team that produced the famous “It’s Morning in America” ad campaign and coaching Reagan through what was almost certainly early onset Alzheimer’s. But it was George H. W. Bush’s campaign in 1987-88 that would prove most consequential for Ailes’ later efforts.
For a while, Ailes and his team (which included legendary racist Lee Atwater) tried a Nixon-like strategy of attempting to sell Bush — who was perceived by the public as a “wimp” — as presidential and statesmanlike, running ads showing Bush taking the oath of office. To their horror, Bush remained not only double-digits behind Michael Dukakis, but far more disliked by voters.
So Ailes and Atwater tried an experiment: they assembled two groups of fifteen Reagan-supporting Democrats and watched from behind a mirror as they were fed a variety of damaging, negative stories about Dukakis, like that he had vetoed a law requiring teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. As the Washington Post reported, while all thirty of the participants had supported Dukakis to begin with, only fifteen did by the end of the sessions.
This kickstarted an unceasing campaign attacking Dukakis’s character and record (Ailes: “That little Massachusetts liberal with the computer heart isn’t going to know what’s hit him”). This included the notorious Willie Horton ad, which even then was criticized as racist. But for Ailes, as he told Time, “the only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”
When Dukakis’ running mate accused the campaign of racism in an interview with Dan Rather, Ailes called Rather “the most biased reporter in the history of broadcasting,” and suggested he was being paid by the campaign.
Like Ailes’ efforts to elect Nixon, the Bush campaign remains a low watermark in US politics. It set the standard for negative campaigning and dog-whistling for decades to come.
While Ailes was busy in the intervening years — running CNBC, producing Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, signing a secret deal with two tobacco giants to help torpedo the Clintons’ attempt at health care reform — it was his helming of the newly created Fox News in 1996 that was in many ways the culmination of these two early political campaigns.
Fox News is nothing if not one huge, never-ending Willie Horton ad. The network has spent the last two decades specializing in bludgeoning its mostly white, older audience with a litany of fantastical, often racially tinged, threats to their way of life. This impossible-to-compile list includes the “New Black Panther Party,” the “Ground Zero Mosque,” Obama, Black Lives Matter, anchor babies. Perhaps the network’s greatest success in this respect was selling a terrified American public on arguably the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history, the Iraq War.
At the same time, Fox has carried on Ailes’s commitment to carefully stage-managed artifice for the benefit of a particularly vicious, reactionary strain of conservative politics, albeit on a much larger scale, though what is basically outright propaganda.
Much as Ailes helped Nixon win by constructing a fake, studio reality where he was mobbed by fans and asked supposedly probing questions by a press that didn’t exist, Fox regularly creates for its viewers a distorted reality cobbled from exaggerations, clipped, out-of-context quotes, and outright lies. And just as Ailes fretted over the demographics of the panels that would question Nixon, he made sure to include ineffectual, somewhat suspect liberals on his network so that he can claim his network is fair and balanced.
A Winning Strategy
Of course, Ailes’ efforts at Fox News are nothing new in the history of right-wing media. The nascent conservative movement of the 1930s and beyond was kept alive by ephemeral, often cheaply produced magazines that could be just as, if not more, unhinged than Fox. And talk radio was a burgeoning medium for conservative commentators long before Rush Limbaugh came along.
What made Fox stand out, however, was not just its scale, but its success. Not only has it been the most-watched cable news channel for the past fifteen years, it recently hit a record for its largest audience of all time: 1.7 million viewers a day. It’s a reach that conservatives of decades gone by — and, really, any media entity — would kill for.
By all accounts, Ailes is the singular force that drove the network. While it may seem that Ailes is simply playing to his demographic’s basest impulses to get eyeballs on the screen (“I’m not in politics. I’m in ratings,” as he told Barbara Walters), the often hysterical tone of the network appears to come from a genuine place. As Rupert Murdoch reportedly said, “Roger is crazy. He really believes that stuff.”
Indeed, as New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, who wrote a biography of Ailes three years ago, reported, toward the end of his life Ailes succumbed more and more to the same kind of paranoia he has been steadily encouraging in his audience.
After Glenn Beck claimed Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white people,” Ailes told executives he agreed. He believes climate change is a “world conspiracy” created by foreign countries to wrest control of the United States’ natural resources. He warned his advisers he would be jailed by Obama, and considered emigrating to Ireland to avoid such a fate.
Despite all this, we should be careful not to overstate Ailes’ success. Despite Fox’s domination of cable news, most of Fox’s viewership is, like Ailes, getting older and dying out, with a median age of 67.
And while Fox remains influential, it is hardly an unstoppable juggernaut. “I want to elect the next president,” Ailes reportedly told Fox executives in 2010. Yet despite an unceasing, years-long campaign of lies and scaremongering, Ailes failed to prevent Obama — a black man with the middle name “Hussein,” seemingly the ideal fodder for Ailes’ racially loaded brand of scaremongering — from ascending to the presidency not once, but twice.
He likewise didn’t stop Obama from leaving the presidency with historically high approval ratings. Nor did he prevent the rise to prominence and popularity of Bernie Sanders, a man who openly calls himself a socialist, despite a long campaign to falsely paint Obama as one in an attempt to damage him.
While Ailes and Fox no doubt helped get Trump into the White House, it’s not clear this would have been possible without the historically inept campaign run by Hillary Clinton. And recently, Fox suffered yet another defeat, when public outrage and popular pressure spelled curtains for Bill O’Reilly, whose advertisers swiftly abandoned him in the wake of sexual harassment allegations — an unthinkable defeat for Fox News at the height of its power.
Speaking of sexual harassment allegations, Ailes ended his life with his reputation in tatters after the countless allegations of disgusting sexual harassment forced him out of the job heading Fox, albeit with a lavish golden parachute. While it’s unlikely that it truly was the public’s hatred that killed Ailes, as Bill O’Reilly has claimed (Ailes died from complications from a fall that caused bleeding in his brain), Ailes has nonetheless ended his life in disgrace and out of the job he once expressed his desire to stay in until he died. There’s no misinformation campaign, no media narrative slickly produced enough to change that.