How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Empire, and Changed TV News Forever

In Fox News, Roger Ailes, who died Thursday, found an intensely successful way to sell conservative ideology to the masses. Will it still be as potent without his guiding hand?

Fred Prouser/Reuters

Disgraced Fox News founder and former chairman and CEO Roger Ailes—whose death in Florida exile was announced Thursday morning, a mere 10 months after he was forced to resign amid allegations of workplace sexual harassment, retaliation, and millions of dollars in corporate payments to buy the silence of female victims—was a titanic figure in American politics and media.

As a Republican strategist and then as a television mogul, Ailes had an outsize impact on the election of three U.S. presidents—the 37th, Richard Nixon, the 41st, George H.W. Bush, and the 45th, Donald Trump.

Probably most significant, he launched a conservative television powerhouse that became the country’s top-rated cable channel as well as the multibillion-dollar profit engine of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Ailes died of a subdural hematoma (bleeding on the brain), Time reported.

Ailes, who consistently denied all the allegations as sexual harassment lawsuits against him and other Fox News executives multiplied, was 77 and suffered from hemophilia and obesity among other illnesses, and walked painfully with a cane; he was said to be increasingly ill in recent months and reportedly fell and hit his head eight days ago in the $33 million Palm Beach mansion he purchased last September and shared with his third wife, Elizabeth, and their teenage son, Zachary.

“There is serious bleeding... he is not completely alert,” West Palm Beach television station WPTV quoted the 911 call to the local police department on the afternoon of May 10.

Neither former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson (whose sexual-harassment and retaliation lawsuit against Ailes last July led to his abrupt ouster) nor former Ailes protégée and Fox News star Megyn Kelly (who sealed his fate with her account of Ailes’ unwelcome hugging and kissing to company lawyers investigating the allegations) offered a comment on his demise.

Los Angeles attorney Lisa Bloom—who has represented several women against Fox News and Ailes’ fired ally, Bill O’Reilly—said in a statement: “Let all his victims now be ungagged for the true, full reckoning of his life, and let them return to the jobs they were driven out of when they stood up for their rights.”

In contrast, Ailes’ passing is being mourned by conservative Republicans such as Brent Bozell, president of the right-leaning Media Research Center. “I knew Roger for over 30 years and from the start I was in awe of his talent,” Bozell said in a statement. “The left would command a monopoly control of the so-called ‘news’ media but for the Fox News Channel, and FNC would not exist but for him. The good Roger did for America is immeasurable. May he rest in peace.”

Ailes had a 55-year career that he began as a prop boy at a local television station in Cleveland, continued with his meteoric rise as the 28-year-old executive producer of the popular daytime Mike Douglas Show, spanned his two-decade-long stretch as the Republican Party’s premiere media consultant, and his pivotal role in the creation of both CNBC and the America’s Talking network, the precursor to MSNBC.

While the Fox News Channel—with its catchy slogan, “We report, you decide”—presented itself as a “fair and balanced” antidote to liberal bias in the mainstream news media, critics scorned Ailes’ creation as a propaganda arm of the GOP that utilized flashy entertainment values and sex appeal (with an on-air roster of attractive, mini-skirted women, many of them blond) to sell conservative ideology to the masses.

“He arguably had a bigger impact on media than he did on politics,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told The Daily Beast. “Clearly, Ailes assisted the polarization of the media and therefore the polarization of American politics. He created a parallel universe, and his parallel universe has moved even further away from the universe the rest of us know.”

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University of Georgia Media Studies Professor Jeffrey Jones, director of the prestigious Peabody Awards, offered this harsh assessment: “No single individual has done more harm to American democracy in the last generation… He ushered in the post-truth society. Through a constant drumbeat of fear, anger, and hatred, he turned citizen-on-citizen. He helped craft an enormous gulf of distrust between people and news.”

Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather—who first met Ailes during Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, when Ailes utilized television production values to reinvent the dour ex-vice president as an inspiring “Man in the Arena” and the “New Nixon”—recalled: “He had a very good nostril for knowing what would sell, whether it was a politician or a television personality or a television program. I remember very well that when he started Fox News [in October 1996], the overwhelming consensus among TV executives was that Fox would never become anything major because it was starting late in the game. Of course, Ailes proved them dead wrong.”

Rather had a famous dustup on live television during the 1988 Republican Iowa caucuses with Ailes’ then-client, Vice President George H.W. Bush, as Ailes stood behind the camera and prompted Bush with attack lines against the anchor. 

As Rather tried to grill the vice president on his role in the Reagan administration’s sale of weapons to Iran and the payment of ransoms for terrorist kidnap victims, Bush taunted Rather with an incident in which the anchor had stormed out of a studio because a tennis match was delaying his newscast—resulting in six minutes of dead air on CBS. 

“It was one of the great moments in television,” Ailes later boasted during an interview with this reporter for a 1988 Washington Post profile. “If you freeze-frame it when he asked Dan Rather that question, and watch his eyes, he had long eye blinks and his head went down just like a fighter who had taken a hard punch. He took a right cross to the jaw that no anchorman in the history of television has ever taken.”

Rather, who pointed out that while Bush lost the Iowa caucuses, Rather continued as CBS’s top anchor for the next 16 years, said Ailes ultimately became perhaps the GOP’s most powerful figure in early days of President Obama’s administration by providing “flood-the-zone coverage of the far right Tea Party.”

“Ailes fostered a split in the Republican Party,” Rather continued, “and, quite frankly, he lowered the standards for political discourse. He had this cynical approach of, on the one hand, being a mouthpiece for Republican talking points and, on the other hand, coming up with—let’s face it—a very effective slogan, ‘We report, you decide,’ while he was running almost a straight-out propaganda network.”

Rather added: “I think George Orwell would have had plenty to say about this. Once, I mentioned Orwell to Roger, and he gave me a long, cold stare, and walked away.”

Ailes’ first foray into politics occurred almost by chance, when he was producing the syndicated Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia. Nixon, waiting in Ailes’s office before appearing as a guest to promote his 1968 presidential campaign, lamented to the young producer: “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected."

Ailes replied: “Television is not a gimmick, and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.” Nixon hired him shortly thereafter, and Ailes worked to make the candidate relatable by staging televised town meetings with scripted questions from the audience. 

As Ailes later told Joe McGinnis for the classic campaign book The Selling of the President: “Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away. He’s a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be president.’ I mean this is how he strikes some people. That’s why these shows are important. To make them forget all that.”

Ailes, several of his associates said in the hours after his death was announced, was a dazzlingly complex human being. Larger than life and a brilliant thinker and practitioner of the dark arts of politics and television, he could be warm, charming and hilarious at times; and at other times intimidating, vindictive, and manipulative with a seething anger and a deep streak of paranoia.

According to associates, Ailes took extraordinary and obsessive security precautions because he believed that teams of assassins were lying in wait to attack him and his family.

“Roger was extremely funny and witty, but he had a dark side,” said Ailes pal Christopher Ruddy, chief executive and majority owner of the conservative-leaning television, print, and online company, Newsmax Media. “If you got on his bad side, he’d really go out of his way and try to destroy you. The bad part was that he had a paranoia that affected his thinking, and even if somebody wasn’t against him, he thought they were. I was victimized by that once or twice, and I had to push back. Roger had a boundless energy to destroy when he wanted to.”

Ailes was also skilled in “leveraging situations and playing people off each other,” Ruddy said, recalling his discussions with the Fox News founder around three years ago when Ailes’ contract was expiring and Ruddy was hoping to recruit him to launch Newsmax TV. 

According to Ruddy, he didn’t make Ailes a firm offer, but mentioned the possibility of paying him $25 million a year if the venture succeeded and was able to attract big-money investors.

“It was more of a concept than an offer,” Ruddy told The Daily Beast. “It was later reported in [NPR media reporter] David Folkenflik’s book about Fox News that Roger went to Rupert, and said, ‘Chris Ruddy’s offering me $25 million for three years, you’re going to need to beat that.’ I never made that offer, but it was very Ailesian… They say that between genius and madness, there’s a very thin line of separation, and that was really true with Roger.”

While Ailes publicly clashed with Trump during the 2016 Republican primary campaign over the candidate’s vicious insults of Ailes’ then star anchor, Megyn Kelly, after Trump became the nominee, Fox News provided him with endless hours of positive coverage.

“I don’t think Donald Trump would have been elected without Roger,” Ruddy said, “although Trump has told me several times that he didn’t feel Roger had been supportive in the primary, and that ever since Rupert took control of the network, the coverage has gotten a lot better.

“I reminded the president that Roger left the network about the same time the Republican primaries ended, and you had all the other candidates, some of whom had broad support, and you couldn’t just turn Fox into the Trump TV network. I don’t think Donald completely computed that, but he respected Roger.”

Ruddy added that when Ailes—shortly after his banishment from Fox News—briefly advised Trump on debate preparation, “there was a lot of friction. Look, here are the two smartest guys in the room, so who’s gonna listen?”

A former Fox News executive, who asked not to be further identified, said of Ailes, “His impact was enormous, both good and bad. The thing about Roger that struck you when you spent time around him is that he had a mind that was unlike anyone else’s… He just had an understanding of the audience and the medium, and thought of ways to create, evaluate and remedy situations that other people would never in a million years come up with…

“His ideas were just amazing and mindboggling,” the former Fox News executive added. “There was nobody in that building who understood the business as well as Roger did. When you think of all the evil that transpired there, the greatest value he brought was that he could anticipate; he was always ten steps ahead of the competition. He had a world-class brain, and once he left, there was nobody in the building who could match that, including Rupert.”

The former executive said Ailes sabotaged attempts to create a succession plan at Fox News, and would doubtless have been perversely gratified that since his departure, his formerly unbeatable channel has lost its competitive edge. 

The latest Nielsen ratings have MSNBC winning prime-time against Fox News in the all-important 25-54 age demographic on which advertising is sold.

Chris Ruddy agreed that Ailes would gloat.

“Roger would tell me all the time that ‘the minute I leave this place, the whole building will fall apart.’ He said to me, ‘I’m the only guy holding this place together.’ He created a personality cult, and it’s kind of like he booby-trapped it.” 

Ailes grew up poor in Warren, Ohio, the son of a struggling factory worker—an angry, occasionally violent man who resented his lot in life and occasionally whipped Roger and his older brother, Robert Jr., with his belt.

“All I wanted to do was to make enough money so I’d never have to live the life my father lived,” Roger told this reporter for a 1988 profile in The Washington Post

Robert Ailes Sr. had to paint neighbors’ houses at night to make ends meet, and helped support the family after divorcing Roger’s mother in the late ’50s.

“Had he dumped us kids, he could have had an opportunity,” Ailes confided. “He had a driving sense of responsibility that overwhelmed everything. The poor guy never had a new suit. He had two pairs of shoes in the closet, one for Sunday and the other for the rest of the week. That’s a tough way to live."

In his biography of Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, Gabriel Sherman wrote that when Ailes was a small boy, diagnosed with hemophilia and often bed-ridden, his father taught him a cruel lesson. He instructed little Roger to jump into his arms from the top bunk of his bunk bed, but stepped back and let his son fall to the floor. “Don’t ever trust anybody,” Robert Sr. declared.

Decades later, an Ailes colleague called the incident “his Rosebud story.”