Want to understand how the United States ended up with a clueless reality TV star and emotional invalid in the White House? You could do worse than studying the life and works of Roger Ailes, who died Thursday at age 77.
In founding Fox News in 1996 and leading it until he resigned last July in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal that continues to roil the cable news network, Ailes did more to poison American political culture than any other single individual. Ailes managed this dubious achievement by flattering the ignorance and encouraging the ill-informed anger of a certain class of older, white Republican voters, and by dragging the Republican Party ever further to the right and ever deeper into know-nothing populism in the process — and all as a means of enriching himself and his corporate enabler, Rupert Murdoch.
Ailes built his network on the model of right-wing media pioneered in the mid-20th century by broadcaster Clarence Manion, book publisher Henry Regnery, and magazine publisher William Rusher. All three sought to lead a grassroots insurrection against the postwar liberal establishment, which completely dominated the nation's newspapers, news magazines, and TV network news bureaus. They would do so, first, by ferociously attacking any and all signs of pro-liberal "bias" in the "mainstream media," seeking to undermine its high-minded claims to objectivity and accuracy in reporting. This effort at unmasking would then be supplemented by the promulgation of an alternative account of reality that comported with the presumptions of conservative ideology, consistently confirming its tenets and convincing growing numbers of voters to embrace it.
By the late 1980s and early '90s, the model had been adopted by a slew of talk-radio personalities who learned that they could make a fortune by hammering liberals day in and day out, convincing their listeners that anything and everything they disliked about political and cultural trends in the country could be rightly blamed on them.
Ailes' genius was to expand this model to cable television. Ted Turner founded CNN on the old mainstream media model that strove for objectivity and accuracy. Ailes saw that there was room to found a competing network that would directly challenge such claims in the name of greater fairness and balance.
In theory, it sounded like a noble goal: Fox News would be a cable news channel that would report on stories neglected by other news outlets — stories that appeared more worthy of coverage to conservatives than they did to reporters and producers elsewhere who tended to be liberal. In some of its programming, Fox News did (and still does) exactly that. But the real impact of the network was felt in — and the lion's share of its ratings and advertising revenue derived from — prime-time programming, which from the beginning was dominated by right-wing populist rabble rousers.
For three hours a night, plus several additional hours throughout the day, Ailes' Fox News served as a right-wing propaganda outfit. When a Republican was in the White House, it became de facto state media, pushing the administration's agenda and talking points, demonizing critics, and all the while offering a constant stream of facts and interpretation designed to uniformly confirm and reinforce the conservative ideology behind it all. Under Democratic presidents, the approach reversed. Now the network sounded like the leader of a revolutionary faction acting to stir up an insurrection against treasonous usurpers who had illegitimately seized control of the country's institutions from the hands of the invariably virtuous American people.
And through it all, Ailes ensured that the explicitly slanted commentary and coverage would be described as uniquely "Fair and Balanced," its on-air partisans overseeing an embattled "No Spin Zone." It wasn't just high cynicism. It was an active effort to distort and ultimately break down the distinction between professional journalism's (invariably imperfect) attempt to achieve objectivity and the deliberate, unceasing pursuit of political advantage.
Ailes' efforts were more successful than anyone could have possibly imagined back in the '90s. He made gobs of money and managed to transform the Republican Party, and hence American politics more generally, along the way. Today, millions of Republican voters view the world entirely through the lens of the furiously anti-liberal ideology that emanates from Fox News every night. And Republican politicians go about their business in Washington keenly aware that their popularity at home (not to mention their prospects for landing a lucrative gig at the network down the road) depends on them conforming to that ideology in every respect.
Ailes may have been suspicious at first when Donald Trump took Fox-inspired right-wing populism just a couple of steps further and turned it not just on Hillary Clinton and the Democrats but also on the Republican Party establishment that Ailes himself had helped to build and fortify. But of course it didn't last — and not only because Ailes was forced to resign in the midst of the presidential campaign. Fox had already begun to come around on Trump under Ailes' leadership, at least after it become clear that Trump would win the GOP nomination.
Once Trump won the presidency, it was inevitable that Fox News would fully embrace him. The network has always been primarily about money and power. And serving as state media to Republican presidents is a very profitable and powerful place to be. Whether it does damage to the civic life of the nation, furthering corruption and enabling a man utterly unqualified to serve as commander in chief, is entirely beside the point.
In this respect, Fox News remained Roger Ailes' poisonous gift to his country after his resignation, and it will remain so long after his death.