How Roger Ailes Turned Post-9/11 Islamophobia Into Murdoch Profits
Nobody took Fox News seriously. Then came the War on Terror. They beat out CNN and never looked back.
They were out there, Roger Ailes always knew that. If he could find them and entice them, he would change television in America.
He began to sense their presence and their needs in the early 1990s.
The three major network television corporations, ABC, CBS, and NBC, were losing audiences to the new cable and satellite systems offering bundles of new channels. In 1993 NBC, moving into that space, appointed Ailes president of CNBC, its new business channel.
It was a shrewd move, if somewhat risky. Ailes had a reputation as the country’s smartest political black ops practitioner. He had been a highly valued aide to Richard Nixon and an architect of the Republican strategy in the South of appealing to “Negrophobe whites” without staining Nixon as a racist.
NBC was not a natural host for someone as cynical and unscrupulous as Ailes. It was run by men who saw the impartial delivery of news as a sacred mission. And network television abided by a code of standards and practices handed down by the Federal Communications Commission, reflecting a kind of Norman Rockwell view of American values and tastes that television should continue to safeguard (to this day still requiring that everyday four-letter words should be bleeped).
Ailes had a different take on the news. He felt that tabloid journalism was shaking up newspapers and magazines and delivering a far more realistic (and sensational) picture of America in the last decade of the 20th century.
There was something feral in Ailes’ instincts: he could pick up the scent of a change in public mood so quickly that nobody else could capture it before he did. More important, he could manipulate that mood into a movement, and the movement could become a political force and a market. That was apparent when, after hard-driving CNBC to success, Ailes launched a new channel, America’s Talking.
The programming ranged over things that network news divisions had not much bothered with: celebrity gossip, true crime, marriage and sex problems, health, diets, pets, and religion.
The NBC leadership were not happy. There were worries that Ailes was pushing for a tone of vulgar populism. Then an internal investigation was launched into a charge that Ailes had called NBC executive David Zaslav “a little fucking Jew prick.” Without that being resolved, Ailes quit. He had found a man who shared his ideas about the future of television—Rupert Murdoch.
Thus began the most consequential pairing of minds in cable television, building a business that is now worth around $20 billion. They shared a gut instinct that there was a mindset embedded in the network bosses that had lost contact with significant segments of their audience. Murdoch had built a tabloid newspaper empire on the same instinct, and Ailes felt that America’s Talking had been tapping into the same potential but NBC wasn’t listening. (America’s Talking eventually morphed into MSNBC.) Other NBC staff felt the same way. About 50 of them followed Ailes to his new project.
For Ailes, one person stood out in the media as the pilot fish leading to where he wanted to go: Rush Limbaugh, the loudest mouth on talk radio.
Limbaugh had seized the moment when, in 1987, under pressure from Ronald Reagan, the FCC ended the so-called “fairness doctrine” that insisted that political commentary should always be balanced—one view should be countered by its opposite. Limbaugh’s unbridled assault on progressives and liberals—a barroom alpha male ranting about the “feminazis”— opened Ailes’ eyes to what was now permissible.
Fox News was launched in October 1996. At first, it was regarded as an under-resourced and scrappy outlier with a nakedly tabloid tone. Certainly, the networks and CNN treated it with lofty disregard. But Ailes didn’t care, he had found the man to become his prototypical prime-time host, Bill O’Reilly.
In finding O’Reilly, Ailes demonstrated his consummate ability to groom talent. O’Reilly had a mercurial television career, never finding his niche. Now it was as though Ailes tapped and released the inner O’Reilly, a permanently aggrieved blowhard who could turn the news into an agenda of pet targets—just like Limbaugh. You could imagine Ailes and O’Reilly as a couple of locker room jocks happily choosing their nightly victims (a cultural bond that was to end both of their careers with charges of sexual harassment).
Ailes knew that the fortunes of a cable news channel could turn on finding a big story that defined its voice—and secured its audience. CNN, after little more than a decade on the air, found it in 1991 with the first Gulf War. For Fox News an opening came in 1998 with the revelation that President Clinton had had a carnal fling with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
Of course, every news channel knew the power of this story, but Fox went all-in with a tabloid relish that recognized that it wasn’t just a political debacle for Clinton but, in its essentials, a salacious narrative with a sleazy cast that could also be genuinely felt as a moral outrage.
But Ailes’s dream story turned out to be a nightmare for Monica Lewinsky, as she recalled in a 2017 op-ed: “My character, my looks and my life were picked apart mercilessly. Truth and fiction mixed at random in the service of higher ratings. I became a whore, a bimbo, a slut and worse.” And, perceptively, she said that experience became “the first draft of a new information culture that gave birth to cyber-bullying and trolls.”
That scandal spiked ratings but it was ephemeral. Ailes needed something far more ground-shifting to exploit in order to find a critical mass of those who felt left out of the national conversation—just like the pro-Vietnam War “silent majority” that Nixon had once claimed for himself, even though it was neither silent nor a majority.
That moment came on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
At 8:48 a.m. the first hijacked jet hit One World Trade Center, the north tower. More than 100 communications antennae atop that tower, including those used by the television networks, were taken out. For a while, until technicians rigged back-up systems, news producers were unable to get live feeds on the air. And then, as they did, the whole world was witness to the biggest and most horrific breaking-news story in history.
The attacks again showed the strength of CNN, with its deep bench of reporters used to the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle. And, in the first months after 9/11, as the story moved from the initial attack to becoming a war story, with the pursuit of Bin Laden into the mountains of Afghanistan, CNN held first place for cable news with an average viewership of 699,000, with Fox coming in second at 508,000.
But Ailes, with fewer resources, saw an alternative focus for the Fox coverage: what a war does to the public mood. This was not, like the first Gulf War, a distant foreign war with limited emotional engagement, but one provoked by a barbaric atrocity in the homeland, and one that fed a new level of fear about America’s vulnerability to an enemy that was as dangerous as it was elusive. Ailes understood fear. Playing it up had been part of his political toolbox—particularly xenophobic fear of “The Other.”
In the wake of the attacks, President George W. Bush had urged the country to embrace “fellow Americans who are Muslims with respect” and said the attackers were not representative of the religion. He was anticipating and resisting the “enemies within” kind of racist hysteria that in 1942, on the heels of Pearl Harbor, led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast.
There was no repeat of that this time, but Ailes was concerned that Bush should talk tougher. He had a direct line to the White House, through the spinmeister Karl Rove. He urged that the “war on terror” be pursued with “the harshest measures possible.”
Fox News prime time began to reinforce this message. Ailes had decades of experience listening to focus groups and picking out issues that could stir up public feelings. Every day he fed his prime-time anchors with talking points. O’Reilly established himself as the leader of a nightly chorus that played up the war fever. In this atmosphere, the conflation of the religion with terrorism was often implied. (O’Reilly never explicitly did that until 2010, when as a guest on the ABC show The View, he said: “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”)
It began to pay off with astonishing speed. CNN’s strength in front line reporting was not enough to hold its lead. Something new was happening in television journalism. Talking was beating reporting. And this became the secret sauce of the Fox business model. Paying a few prime-time bloviators millions of dollars was a lot more cost-effective in building ratings than funding news bureaux across the globe.
A year after 9/11 the top positions in cable news were reversed. Fox was first, with 629,000 viewership, and CNN had fallen to 508,000. In prime time it was very nearly a sweep for Fox: O’Reilly beat out CNN’s long-time top show, Larry King, who came in second, followed on Fox by Sean Hannity, Shepard Smith, and Brit Hume.
In 2002, for the first time, more people began to get their news from 24-hour-cable networks than from the broadcast networks—this was the first year in which the total cable audience overtook broadcast in prime time.
CNN never recovered its lead. Ten years on, in 2012, Fox’s viewership was 1,942,000—more than CNN and MSNBC combined.
In that decade, the new “silent majority” had coalesced into Ailes’ rump audience. Fox News viewers were predominantly white, blue collar, non-metropolitan and Republicans. They were also older—“55 to dead” as Ailes once joked.
Two more events drew more of them to Fox: The invasion of Iraq turned them into hawkish patriots and the election of Obama convinced them that white America needed to circle the wagons. Ailes ordered that Obama’s middle name, Hussein, should be frequently used, fanning the belief that the president was a closet Muslim. He made white identity politics the permanent underlying theme of his mouthpieces.
In 2011, a Brookings Institute analysis of Fox viewers found that 70 percent believed that discrimination against whites was as great as against blacks and minorities.
That survey also noted that two-thirds of the Fox audience thought that the values of Islam were at odds with American values. At the same time, a poll by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute found a strong correlation between watching Fox News and “holding erroneous views about Islam” including that American Muslims wanted to impose Sharia.
Polls of the Fox viewership invariably caught a high level of belief in the credibility of the prime-time anchors. More important to the commercial success of Fox was that advertisers found that the network always scored higher than any other cable news competitor in the number of viewers watching it at any given time, from prime time to the wee small hours. Other viewers tended to impatiently channel-surf; Fox viewers were far more loyal.
Other network executives had to acknowledge that Ailes had an uncanny instinct for capturing an audience that they could never themselves satisfy—the people who felt alienated by what conservatives began calling the “mainstream media.” The real trick was that, even though, by the numbers, Fox’s runaway success put it squarely in the commercial mainstream, Ailes made sure that its anchors always sounded like angry outsiders in touch with an alternative America.
How should Ailes be judged?
His television industry peers abhorred his methods but allowed his skills, particularly the way he had seen and grabbed the opening provided by 9/11 to frame the conservative debate. Inevitably, they dubbed him an evil genius. But that seems a lazy way to describe him. Joseph Goebbels was an evil genius, and Ailes wasn’t in his league (although he followed at least one of the Nazi propagandist’s dicta: “Berlin needs sensations as fish need water, any political propaganda that fails to recognize that will miss its target.”)
Was it really genius to deeply corrupt and disfigure the core values of broadcast journalism? Or was it, simply, an absolute lack of scruple?
Ailes had character traits that did not really add up to the level of Lucifer, but nor were they that unusual in powerful men. He was an egomaniac, a misogynist, a racist, an antisemite, a predator, a bully, verbally abusive, and paranoid.
The paranoia showed up soon after 9/11. He began to think he was on al-Qaeda’s target list, reinforced the security around his rural New York estate, rode to the office with a security detail and kept a gun. In that sense, the paranoia he encouraged in the Fox News audience was personally felt.
It turned out that what was permissible for Fox on the air accurately mirrored the toxic culture of the executive floor at Fox headquarters. A rare and damning glimpse of that came in 2017, with the resignation of a senior vice-president of News Corp., the Murdoch-owned corporate companion of Fox News. Ironically, Joseph Azam was the group chief compliance officer, overseer of standards and practices for all Murdoch media businesses. Azam was born in Kabul and came to the U.S. as a child in a refugee family that fled during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Azam quit, he said, because he was sickened by what passed as daily commentary from some of his corporate colleagues: “Muslims derided as threats or less than human, as invaders, dirty or criminal, as well as American Blacks as menacing and Jewish figures running insidious conspiracies.” This was, he said, directly carried over into the rhetoric of Fox News anchors, albeit in more subtle forms.
Ailes, the loudest orchestrator of that culture, had left a year earlier, after a cascade of charges of sexual harassment, with a payout of $40 million.
Of the many fortunes made on the back of 9/11 (including by defense contractors and the ballooning national security industry) the phenomenon of Fox News is probably the most unexpected and the only one that could be so specifically attributed to one man’s rare understanding of what was directly happening to America as a result of that atrocity.
Nevertheless, Ailes himself, as generously rewarded as he was, was not the ultimate beneficiary. He did it all in the service of Rupert Murdoch. As a result, the Murdoch family acquired an amazing money machine that, as despicable as it is, has now proved more lucrative and sustainable than any other part of their media empire—in fact, it alone supports Murdoch’s continued status as a global media mogul.
On May 10, 2017, Ailes slipped and fell in one of the 10 bathrooms in his Palm Beach home. He had a serious head injury and was put into a medically induced coma from which he never recovered. He died a week later. By the measure of average Palm Beach celebrity real estate, his pad was fairly modest. Rush Limbaugh, who broadcast from his nearby Palm Beach estate, had two acres of prime oceanfront, a main house with seven beds and 12 bathrooms, four guest houses and a guard house.
Donald Trump, czar of the even more palatial Mar-a-Lago, had won the presidency with considerable help from the machine that Ailes built. He never called with condolences as the family gathered for the funeral. No Murdochs were present. Limbaugh and his wife, who had been watching over Ailes during his final days, were. Sean Hannity flew down on his own corporate jet, along with Laura Ingraham, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Bill Hemmer. They, at least, knew how much they owed to the man who imprinted on American television news (and them) more of himself than anyone had ever done. Alas.