Opinion

How Roger Ailes revolutionized cable news

The "infotainment" approach Fox News pioneered is now the dominant framework across cable news

Roger Ailes, the man who remade cable news — and American politics in the process — died Thursday at the age of 77.

Ailes founded Fox News in 1996. For the next two decades, he ran the company as CEO. The scandals of the Bill Clinton presidency helped Fox News roar toward cable domination, and the network later rode (and fueled) the Tea Party wave to enormous profits and influence during the Obama years. Today, Fox News still trounces competitors like MSNBC and CNN in the ratings, and finished out 2016 as — once again — the most-watched cable news network. It boasts around $1 billion a year in profits, making it the most lucrative single piece of its parent company, 21st Century Fox.

The "infotainment" approach Fox News pioneered is now the dominant framework across cable news. MSNBC eagerly branded itself the liberal alternative to Fox, while CNN hewed to the political center. But all of them now rely on recurring narratives, perpetual "breaking news" stimuli, and the outrage of the day to galvanize audiences and keep them coming back. The way Ailes bled politics and journalism into televised tribal bloodsport was also a harbinger of the Trump presidency, which essentially turned the White House into a reality TV set. And of course, Ailes' particular brand of ego-driven resentment politics, of score-settling and domination, is also Donald Trump's.

But while Fox News is synonymous with pugilistic culture-war conservatism, politics didn't shape Ailes himself until relatively late in life. He came up in entertainment, working for a daytime variety show in the '60s, then leapfrogged to media consulting for Richard Nixon. Ailes then moved on to the George H. W. Bush campaign, but his presence in Republican circles seems mostly due to path dependency: It was where he could climb the ladder of money and power. Into the '70s, Ailes was still working for Democrats, dabbling in an eco-musical for Broadway and making Robert Kennedy, Jr. a documentary.

Ailes was clearly a business genius. But his success with Fox News seems more cunning and cynical than ideologically driven. Had America's demographics and politics been different, would Ailes have fashioned himself into some other form pleasing to some other group? Or would he have remained the same, laboring in eternal obscurity? The answer seems obvious. Ailes would have shifted into whatever shape led to the most money and power.

The one limit on Ailes' adaptability, however, and the one constant in his life, was his personality: obsessively driven, exacting, cruel, bullying, authoritarian, and also enthralled by the potential of storytelling. Tales of fights and feuds and slurs followed Ailes wherever he went. The man himself seemed to encourage them, not minding if they made him look bad so long as they also made him look darkly intimidating. A favorite story of his was how his father once encouraged him to jump off his bunk bed, then intentionally failed to catch him, treating the whole incident as a lesson: "Don't ever trust anybody." Ailes ran Fox News in a similarly draconian fashion, inspiring intense loyalty among some of his stars, but also encouraging the simmering and dysfunctional institutional culture that finally led to his ouster last year amidst a flurry of sexual harassment charges.

If Ailes' legacy is coming undone, it's by the hand of the same tectonic forces in U.S. politics and culture that he tapped into. America's demographics are shifting. The country is less white than it used to be. We're also undergoing a changing of the generational guard. How many millennials do you know who regularly watch Fox News for non-ironic reasons?

And yet ... Fox News is still a ratings behemoth. Donald Trump — a man clearly after Ailes' own heart — sits in the White House, and the GOP controls both houses of Congress. Fox News, for all its recent crises, remains number one. If Ailes-ism contains the seeds of its own self-destruction, that reckoning is taking an awfully long time to arrive.

Collapsing the boundaries between the conservative movement and entertainment proved to be a profoundly potent innovation. The profits will keep rolling into 21st Century Fox for a while to come. And for all their moral outrage, Ailes' opponents in both politics and media still have not grappled with the implications of his success. Yet if they never quite comprehended the man they were dealing with, they weren't the only ones: "I’m walking around, and I feel just all this anger," Ailes once told Joe McGinniss, who wrote a book about Ailes' time as Nixon's media adviser. "I can’t figure out where it’s coming from."

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