Roger Ailes, who shaped the images that helped elect three Republican presidents and then became a dominant, often-intimidating force in U.S. conservative politics at the helm of Fox News until he was forced out in a sexual harassment scandal, died Thursday morning. He was 77.
The cause was complications of a subdural hematoma that Ailes sustained when he fell and struck his head May 10 at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, the local authorities said.
“Fair and balanced” was Ailes’ defining phrase for Fox News, along with another slogan: “We report. You decide.” Although routinely mocked by liberal critics, who regarded the network as decidedly unfair and imbalanced, those words amounted to an article of faith for Ailes, who created Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s money and guided it for two decades.
“If we look conservative,” he said, “it’s because the other guys are so far to the left.” In his mordant humor, CNN stood for Clinton News Network and CBS for Communist Broadcasting System. What Fox News did, he said, was apply a necessary corrective.
From its debut Oct. 7, 1996, the network under his tutelage did its share of straightforward reporting but also unmistakably filtered major news stories through a conservative lens. Evening programming, which embodied the Fox News brand, was dominated by right-wing commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who hurled opinions and vented resentments with a pugnacity that reflected their boss’s own combativeness.
As the network’s chairman and chief executive, Ailes was widely feared, particularly by conservative politicians who sought his favor. He cultivated a swaggering persona, accentuated by bursts of obscenity-laced anger. Once, he became so enraged that he punched a hole in the wall of a control room.
“I don’t ignore anything,” he acknowledged in a 2003 profile in The New Yorker. “Somebody gets in my face, I get in their face.”
Years earlier, Lee Atwater, whose remorseless approach to politics matched that of Ailes when they worked together on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, described his colleague as having “two speeds: attack and destroy.”
A Conservative Haven
Both speeds were evident at the Ailes-run Fox News. For loyal viewers, it was the network of choice to hear repeatedly about the moral failings of Bill and Hillary Clinton, questions about Barack Obama’s birthplace, doubts about the patriotism of American Muslims, grumblings about the war ostensibly being waged on Christmas, and warnings about “death panels” that would supposedly flourish under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Fox News embraced the American flag as if it were its own, then became an uninhibited booster of the Iraq War and an unabashed critic of those who opposed it.
The network also made itself a haven for Republicans who had fallen from political grace and hoped to restart their careers, among them Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. Hannity’s show was effectively a public-relations vehicle for one presidential candidate who made it to the top: Donald Trump.
Even more than he embraced political combat, Ailes keenly understood television and its reliance on attention-grabbing flourishes. He learned the medium’s emotional impact in the 1960s as the young producer of “The Mike Douglas Show,” a syndicated daytime variety program. To hold people’s interest, “you have to be punchy and graphic in your conversation,” he wrote in a 1988 book, “You Are the Message.”
He put that instinct to effective use, and to personal profit, after he left the Douglas show in 1968 to devote himself to political stagecraft. Across more than two decades, he devised media strategies for several dozen political campaigns, including the winning presidential candidacies of Richard M. Nixon in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bush in 1988. In 2016, he informally advised the triumphant Trump campaign.
At Ailes’ Fox, the news was delivered with eye-catching graphics and whooshing sound effects. Female broadcasters tended to be attractive blondes encouraged to show more than a little leg. “Look, there’s a certain element of the melding with show business or entertainment,” he told Broadcasting & Cable magazine in 2003. “Entertainment and news should always be separate, but you should walk right up to the line and get your toe on it.”
His methods served the network well. In January 2002, barely five years after its birth, Fox passed the well-established CNN as the most-watched cable news network. It stayed No. 1, reinforcing Ailes’ political influence. Power made him anxious about his personal safety. Convinced that enemies like al-Qaida had him in their cross hairs, he installed elaborate security measures at work and at home.
At the end of his tenure, the network had an average daily viewership of 2 million, more than CNN and the left-leaning MSNBC combined. Its audience skewed white, male and old, the median age approaching 70. But they were passionate viewers. Their fidelity produced billion-dollar profits and made Fox News an indispensable component of the Murdoch empire, 21st Century Fox.
In a statement Thursday morning, Murdoch said Ailes “will be remembered by the many people on both sides of the camera that he discovered, nurtured and promoted.”
“Roger and I shared a big idea, which he executed in a way no one else could have,” he added. “In addition, Roger was a great patriot who never ceased fighting for his beliefs.”
Although an Ailes admirer, Murdoch reluctantly concluded in the summer of 2016 that his news chief had to go after a former network anchor, Gretchen Carlson, brought a lawsuit charging Ailes with sexual harassment. Her action set in motion a cascade of allegations from women who reported unwanted groping and demands for sex by him. Some of them described an overall culture of misogyny at Fox News. The scandal enveloped the network’s top star, Bill O’Reilly, whose employment was abruptly ended last month.
O’Reilly denied the charges of sexual impropriety, as did Ailes. But Ailes was finished at Fox and walked away with a payout reportedly worth $40 million.
Those were not the first accusations of their kind. They went back at least to the early 1990s, when Ailes returned to television full time, producing a show for conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh and a separate late-night talk show on NBC.
As recounted in “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 biography of Ailes, a female producer looking to work for him at NBC said he had offered her an extra $100 a week “if you agree to have sex with me whenever I want.”
In 1993, Ailes took charge of the CNBC business news network and a second NBC cable channel, America’s Talking (which gave way in 1996 to MSNBC). As he would later do at Fox, he turned the struggling CNBC into a financial success and won the loyalty of employees, who had at first viewed him warily.
But after a falling out with NBC chieftains over programming control, he quit in 1995. Almost immediately he called on Murdoch, who longed for a news network of his own and shared Ailes’ belief that existing news organizations were far too liberal. They created Fox News in fairly short order. Eventually, dozens of seasoned NBC employees joined them. With characteristic bite, Ailes described their defection as “a jailbreak.”
Roger Eugene Ailes was born May 15, 1940, in Warren, Ohio, a blue-collar town near Youngstown. His father, Robert, was a foreman at the Packard Electric Co., and his mother, Donna, a housewife who brought in extra money by embroidering handkerchiefs for sale. Theirs was a rocky marriage. His father was known for abusiveness.
Found to have hemophilia as a child, Roger Ailes more than once nearly bled to death, as when he fell and bit his tongue at age 2. (Ailes had also been bleeding heavily when paramedics found him on a bathroom floor at his home May 10, the police said. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s office said his hemophilia had contributed to his death.)
Assorted maladies plagued Ailes through life. He dealt with blood-pooling around the joints and, in time, developed arthritis and severe weight problems.
Despite the ailments, or perhaps because of them, he did not shy from physical contact, whether digging ditches as a teenager or getting into occasional fistfights. Even after politics and television had made him a rich man, he reveled in portraying himself as a working-class tough guy. That sensibility, and a disdain for most journalists, infused his network’s news coverage.
“I’ve had a broad life experience that doesn’t translate into going to the Columbia Journalism School,” he said. “That makes me a lot better journalist than some guys who had to listen to some pathetic professor who has been on the public dole all his life and really doesn’t like this country much.”
Grooming Future Presidents
Ailes’ interest in broadcasting was ignited at Ohio University, in Athens, where he worked on the college radio station before graduating in 1962.
There, he met Marjorie White, the first of his three wives. Their 17-year marriage ended in 1977. His second wife was Norma Ferrer, a television producer, but that union ended, too, in 1995, after 14 years. His third wife, Elizabeth Tilson, was a program director at CNBC. They were married in 1998 at New York’s City Hall in a ceremony presided over by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a former Ailes political client.
In 2000, with the birth of a son, Zachary, Ailes became a first-time father at nearly 60. His survivors include his wife and son as well as an older brother, Dr. Robert J. Ailes.
After college, Ailes started out as a production assistant on “The Mike Douglas Show,” which was then based in Cleveland. He rose swiftly, becoming executive producer at 28. A turning point for him came in early 1968, when Nixon went on the show as his presidential campaign took form. Wary of television — convinced that he had lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy on the basis of appearances — Nixon dismissed it in a conversation with Ailes as a “gimmick.”
“Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes said boldly, “and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”
Nixon took those words to heart and took the young man onto his campaign as a media adviser. Ailes strove to make Nixon more likable — no simple task — giving him a makeover that included “town hall"-style sessions with carefully screened audiences that asked easy questions and allowed the candidate to seem assured.
In the 1970s, Ailes set up shop in New York, where he solidified his growing reputation as a master of bare-knuckled politics.
Even then, he had visions of a right-of-center network and played an important role in developing Television News Inc., or TVN, a news service financed by the ardently conservative Joseph Coors, of the beer-making family. Its slogan was one that would ring loudly years later: “fair and balanced.” TVN distributed news clips with a conservative slant to television networks and local stations. But it did not truly get off the ground and collapsed in 1975 after two years.
In that era Ailes also flirted with the theater world, producing a few off-Broadway shows. An initial effort, an ecologically themed musical called “Mother Earth,” flopped. But he enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success with “The Hot l Baltimore,” a Lanford Wilson play about down-and-outers.
As a campaign strategist, Ailes helped elect powerful Republican senators like Mitch McConnell, Phil Gramm and Alfonse D’Amato. But his most notable work was at the presidential level.
When Reagan floundered for a while in his 1984 re-election campaign, Ailes coached him in ways to appear sharper in a televised debate and to display his innate affability. Four years later, the aggressive Ailes approach kicked into high gear in the presidential campaign of the elder George Bush. He coaxed Bush into sounding tough, to dispel a so-called wimp factor that hung over the candidate like a dark cloud.
That was the campaign of the notorious Willie Horton commercial. It focused on a black man who had raped a woman and assaulted her husband while free on a prison-furlough program in Massachusetts that was supported by the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis. The ad was widely attacked as blatantly racist, but it appeared to work as a vote magnet for Bush.
Ailes claimed he had nothing to do with the commercial. Nonetheless, he told Time magazine in 1988 that “the only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.” He later said he was joking.
Reflecting on his career as a political operative, he insisted that he had not been motivated by a right-wing agenda.
“People think I stayed in politics because I wanted conservatives to run the world,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1995. “Actually, it was the money.”
Yet he clung to conservative politics even in the quiet setting of Garrison, New York, where he and his wife bought property in 2001, across the Hudson River from the U.S. Military Academy. In 2008 the couple purchased a sleepy community newspaper, The Putnam County News and Recorder, and, with Ailes as publisher, turned it into a blunt instrument of conservative thought. They sold the paper toward the end of 2016. They bought their Palm Beach home last fall for a reported $36 million.
Ailes relished his reputation as a battler. Take the time he punched that hole in the wall. “It was just a drywall, and luckily I didn’t hit any beams,” he told Zev Chafets, author of the biography “Roger Ailes: Off Camera.”
“But somebody,” he said, “put a frame around the hole and wrote, ‘Don’t mess with Roger Ailes.'”