How Roger Ailes changed the media — and America

On Thursday morning, Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, died. His passing is big news.

Ailes was one of the most influential members of the modern media. He created a television juggernaut that transformed the news business. Fox News introduced a style of politically driven news, leaning hard to the right, with in-your-face commentary and heated debate. It was a stunning success, introducing some of the most influential figures in journalism and offering a model that all other cable news stations paid attention to or emulated.

This media mogul also had a huge impact on American politics. There is a direct connection between the presidency of Donald Trump and the empire that Ailes built. Through Fox News, Ailes promoted a new kind of conservatism. His television shows aimed to build a broad audience that was not limited to the country club set of high Republican politics. The hosts he featured, such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, were meant to appeal to a blue-collar conservative audience that has been the heart and soul of the Trump coalition.

On Fox News, political discourse would not be restrained, and it could get very ugly. The hosts and the guests engaged in a fierce style of political debate that reset the terms of what was permissible in American politics. The station brought to television the kind of vitriol and demonization that had been characteristic of conservative talk radio in the 1970s. The shows featured commentary that demonized liberals as a danger to the nation rather than as people who held another point of view. False stories about issues like President Obama’s birthplace made it onto a major network. 

Social scientists have shown that Fox and other stations modeled after Ailes’s empire had a huge effect on conservative voters. Conservatives were highly likely to believe what they heard on these networks, much more so than liberals, and this impacted their political decisions.

News on the station would not be presented simply as fact but would be interpreted with a partisan spin. This meant that the presentation of the news was in itself part of political combat, according to the Ailes approach. The media mogul, along with his congressional partner in crime, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, believed that politics was not just won or lost on the electoral battlefield but through the images and conversations that Americans heard about what was going on in the news. 

Ailes, who worked for several Presidents, wrote a 300-page memo for President Nixon in 1970 outlining a media plan. He wrote:

“Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication…The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit — watch — listen. The thinking is done for you.”

Without shaping the news, it was impossible to create a strong governing majority. When Republicans thought about how they could gain advantage over Democrats, the news became a prime target — as much as any party bosstes, interest groups or activists.

Ailes and his network offered a forceful response to the immense social and cultural changes that remade American politics in the 1960s. From what was said on the airwaves to the kind of behavior that was allegedly permissible inside the walls of the studio, Fox News did not accept many of the principles that came out of the Age of Aquarius — including, according to a number of women who worked there, the need to create corporate environments free of sexual harassment — that arguably sunk into so many other parts of modern America.

When Donald Trump took the oath of office, Roger Ailes must have been smiling. Whatever he thought of Trump himself, this President was a product of Ailes’ world and thrived in the electorate that he helped to build.

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