The old Fox News is gone
Roger Ailes built Fox News. In the wake of his death, America's No. 1 cable news network is becoming unrecognizable.
Even before Roger Ailes died, the House That Ailes Built was falling into ruin.
It was an American twist on a tale familiar to readers of Evelyn Waugh — how the wreck of a great estate parallels the downfall of the man who tried to rebuild it. Except Ailes did not rebuild, he created. Fox News was his brainchild, a glimmer in his eye as far back as the days when he was a media consultant to Richard Nixon.
With Fox News, Ailes beat Ted Turner and CNN. He beat MSNBC and its corporate overlords, which at one time included Microsoft and General Electric. He beat the Republican Party as well, turning it into a vessel for the Fox voice. He left the magazines and think tanks of movement conservatism in the dust as his network redefined the right for 20 years.
The House That Ailes Built is not just Fox News; arguably, it is conservatism itself as it has existed for 20 years: media-savvy, shouty, patriotic above all else, angry, confident, yet afraid of the New Black Panthers over here and Muslims over there (and maybe also over here).
Republican campaigns for the White House sometimes seemed like auditions for a Fox News gig. Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin all made the cut, as did the vaunted brain behind George W. Bush, Karl Rove.
But the real stars were the personalities Ailes recruited and promoted — above all Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Megyn Kelly. They commanded audiences that the erudite and principled heirs to Bill Buckley could only have dreamed of.
Today the stars are gone or going out at Fox: O'Reilly disgraced, Kelly departed in disgust, Hannity still in place but outspokenly discontented. Ratings have begun to slip, leading Rupert Murdoch himself to step in to calm nerves at the network's new studio this week.
And let's be honest: Is anyone really surprised by Ailes' death, after Murdoch and his sons, the heirs to News Corp, pushed him out amid a flood of sexual harassment allegations? What does a 77-year-old man do next after he falls from the professional heights that Ailes climbed? Studies say retirement is hazardous to your health — getting fired at Ailes' age, from a summit of power that even a younger man might never rise to scale again, was apt to be fatal.
The Murdochs could hardly have been unaware of the predatory reputation Ailes had acquired around women. They clearly didn't care: The ratings and influence were what counted, and Ailes delivered. But now the young Murdochs, and probably wily old Rupert too, are looking to a different future. They could dispense with Ailes now that he had built the network for them. But having jettisoned Ailes over sexual allegations, what could they do when equally damning complaints about Bill O'Reilly became public? Corporate Fox and the Murdochs were content to hush up and settle complaints as long as they remained behind the scenes; once they hurt the brand, Ailes had to go. Then O'Reilly. It was too late to keep Kelly, who had been subjected to Ailes' unwanted advances. Hannity has made no secret of his displeasure at the changing of the guard.
The old Fox News is gone.
There is pathos here. This should have been Ailes' moment of triumph. In several respects, Donald Trump is almost like having O'Reilly or Ailes himself in the White House. The combative tone, the total command of the media, the visceral right-wing instincts fronted by a man who feels rather than thinks his ideology. It's all pure Fox — and there's even crass sexism and allegations of harassment, too.
The president is an avid watcher of the Fox News, of course — his statements sometimes seem to come directly from reacting to Fox & Friends. Yet Trump has made the Fox that Ailes built redundant.
Fox thrived as George W. Bush's right flank and as an antagonist to Barack Obama (and to Bill Clinton long before that). Now a Fox-style president has transcended and transformed the conventional politics that once made Fox stand out. The network is actually to this president's left, and he doesn't need Fox to reach the right-wing grassroots. He has a direct line, and all the credibility with them he needs.
It's no accident that the leading voices on the right since the 1990s got an early start not in politics but in entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was a failed radio DJ. O'Reilly made his name as anchor of the tabloid TV show Inside Edition. Trump himself was first a brand — as much as he was ever a mogul — and then a reality TV star. Ailes, with an early background in local television, knew how to deploy similar talents: to combine politics and entertainment into a potent new product.
Entertainment could say things in ways politics could not. It could break taboos and rise in the ratings. It could speak the language, in words and images alike, of excitement, fear, anger, and sex — a key ingredient for Fox — rather than communicating in the gray prose and happy platitudes customary in politics (think George H.W. Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" or his son's "Compassionate Conservatism").
Politics in turn gave b-list or z-list entertainers success and power they could never have attained in Hollywood or the music industry. Middle-aged, balding, paunchy, and rather ugly men could beat the biggest stars in Hollywood this way. And they could have their own casting couch. Showbiz's losers could be Washington's winners. (I'm indebted for this insight to Samuel Goldman, professor of politics at George Washington University.)
As appalling as all this may sound, Ailes succeeded only because he tapped into something real: the frustration that millions of Americans, particularly those on the right, feel with our politics. That's alarming to those who want politics to be consensus-driven again. But the troubling triumph of Roger Ailes holds a lesson even for his critics — the gut appeal matters, and if responsible institutions' leaders cannot make it, then radical new ones will do so. Ailes exploited a lucrative market (and psychological) niche. He had an opening to do so only because of the hollowness America's long-established authorities.