It seems fitting somehow that the death on Wednesday of Fox News co-founder and former chairman Roger Ailes caused almost as much discord, discontent, and division as the pioneering conservative-leaning news network did when he was alive.
Ailes passed away at the age of 77, according to a statement released by his wife Elizabeth. “Roger was a loving husband and a loyal friend to many,” the release said. “He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity.”
On the network he helped create in 1996 with billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Ailes’ death was mourned by anchors and hosts such as Sean Hannity, who said “America has lost one of its great patriotic warriors.” Some of those who talked about him on air wept openly.
The only reference made to any of the darker aspects of the former Fox chairman’s legacy were some comments about how “we all have our sins—we all have our cross to bear.”
Outside of the Fox universe, however, Ailes’ death was celebrated by those who saw him as a sexual abuser who tormented multiple women during the course of his career—charges that ultimately led to his dismissal last year—and by those who saw Fox News as a malevolent force in U.S. society.
“It’s okay to be happy when bad people die,” said one media observer, after the news of Ailes’ passing was broken by Drudge Report, a site that has close ties to Fox and other leading right-wing news outlets such as Breitbart News.
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“Roger Ailes behaved egregiously toward women in his organization and changed our culture for the worse, making people dumber and angrier,” said Business Insider writer Josh Barro. Huffington Post political editor Sam Stein said Ailes “was a TV genius,” but added that he also had “an apparently monstrous personal life and nasty, dangerous editorial instincts.”
New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer said that Ailes was “one of top 3 people involved in most poisoning American society in last 30 years.”
Whether you believe that it is a positive or a negative force in the U.S. media, there’s no question that Ailes and Murdoch produced one of the most powerful media entities the world has ever seen when they put together what would become Fox News.
Ailes got his start as a TV producer with the Mike Douglas Show, and became a political operative after meeting Richard Nixon, who was impressed with his command of what was then still a new medium. According to some reports, Nixon said TV was a “gimmick,” and Ailes replied: “Television is not a gimmick. And if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”
Ailes became a senior adviser to Nixon’s campaign, and subsequently an adviser to other conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan. In right-wing political circles, he became known as “the dark prince of negative advertising.” In the 1980s, he returned to television.
In 1996, Murdoch and Ailes clearly saw the shape of the future: that the splintering of the traditional media would lead to demand for more passionate and opinionated content, and that conservative forces in U.S. politics needed a champion. Fox took advantage of both.
The pinnacle of the network’s achievements, in many ways, was the election of Donald Trump as president. Many believe that with that event, the dissatisfaction and turmoil that Fox helped fuel in the conservative side of U.S. politics eventually found its outlet.
Whether it was fueling rumors that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. or fomenting what many saw as a growing racial and class divide in the country, Fox rode that wave of discontent. “Fox News often operates as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party,” Obama’s communications director Anita Dunn said in 2009.
All of that made the network immensely profitable. Fox has been the top cable-news provider for 15 straight years, with more than 1.7 million daily viewers, and is estimated to generate more than $1.5 billion in revenue every year for parent 21st Century Fox (FOX).
According to writer Gabriel Sherman, who wrote a book about Ailes called The Loudest Voice in the Room, the massive profitability of Fox created an environment in which the Fox chairman and other senior executives could do no wrong, even when word began to spread about allegations of sexual harassment by Ailes and former Fox host Bill O’Reilly.
The harassment issue exploded into public view last year, when former anchor Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes, alleging that he sexually harassed her on multiple occasions. Other women also came forward to make similar allegations, all of which Ailes denied.
After much debate within the Murdoch family over how to handle the situation, Ailes was eventually removed as chairman of Fox News, although he received a reported $40 million settlement. The ripple effects of Ailes’ alleged behavior continue to be felt at Fox, however. The Justice Department is said to be investigating if financial payments to Ailes’ accusers were reported properly in the company’s financial results. The investigation is also said to be looking into the behavior of some of the people Ailes hired at Fox to gather information on his enemies.
According to multiple reports, the Fox chairman paid private investigators to follow Gabriel Sherman and others, including former Gawker Media editor John Cook, and even hired a woman to pretend to go on a date with CNN media writer Brian Stelter, who at the time wrote a blog about the TV industry.