He built Fox News into an empire

Mr Roger Ailes in a 2002 picture. He believes in being punchy and graphic in conversation to hold people's interest and he put that instinct to good use at Fox News.
Mr Roger Ailes in a 2002 picture. He believes in being punchy and graphic in conversation to hold people's interest and he put that instinct to good use at Fox News.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Roger Ailes, recently ousted from the network over a scandal, filtered reports through a conservative lens

NEW YORK • In recent months, Mr Roger E. Ailes' influence seemed to be everywhere in the news.

Fox News, the cable network he founded, has served as the preferred outlet for the President of the United States. At the same time, the sexual harassment scandal that led to Mr Ailes' ouster in July continued to besiege the network, most notably with the dismissal of Bill O'Reilly, and ignited conversations about workplace culture across the country.

And yet the man himself had largely faded from the public eye. Late last year, he moved to a US$36-million (S$50-million) waterfront mansion in Palm Beach - just 8km from President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate - and all but disappeared from the political, media and social circles where he once reigned.

Mr Ailes, who built Fox News into the most profitable and most politically influential cable news network, died on Thursday at 77. The cause was complications of a subdural hematoma that he sustained when he fell and struck his head on May 10 at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, the local authorities said.

But the sexual harassment allegations made against him - which he vehemently denied - resulted in his spending his final months absent from the political and public arenas.

"Fair and balanced" was his defining phrase for Fox News. Although routinely mocked by liberal critics, who regarded the network as decidedly unfair and imbalanced, those words amounted to an article of faith for Mr Ailes, who created Fox News with Mr 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 humour, 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 on 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 such as O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, who hurled opinions and vented resentments with a pugnacity that reflected their boss' own combativeness.

As the network's chairman and chief executive, Mr Ailes was widely feared, particularly by conservative politicians who sought his favour. 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."

He learnt the medium's emotional impact in the 1960s as the young producer of The Mike Douglas Show, a syndicated daytime variety programme. 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 political campaigns, including the winning presidential candidacies of Mr Richard Nixon in 1968, Mr Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Mr George H.W. Bush in 1988. Last year, he informally advised the triumphant Trump campaign.

At Mr 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.

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 at No. 1, reinforcing Mr Ailes' political influence.

Power made him anxious about his personal safety. Convinced that enemies such as Al-Qaeda 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 two 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.

Although an Ailes admirer, Mr Murdoch reluctantly concluded last year that his news chief had to go after a former network anchor, Gretchen Carlson, brought a lawsuit charging Mr 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, O'Reilly, whose employment was abruptly ended last month.

O'Reilly denied the charges of sexual impropriety, as did Mr Ailes. But Mr Ailes was finished at Fox and walked away with a payout reportedly worth US$40 million.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'He built Fox News into an empire '. Print Edition | Subscribe