Roger Ailes tapped into frustration to build an empire - and change American discourse

Fox News powerhouse Roger Ailes dies
Fox News powerhouse Roger Ailes dies

Evaluating the impact of Fox News founder Roger Ailes solely in terms of television, or news coverage, is underestimating him -- and being underestimated was a condition that motivated Ailes all his life, one he thrived on proving he could consistently blow to pieces.

It really is not too much to say that beyond the billions he made News Corp in profits from the Fox News Channel, or his role as kingmaker (and breaker) of Republican politicians, Ailes, who died on Thursday at the age of 77, was -- before the multiple allegations of sexual harassment that led to his ouster last year -- a figure of enormous and lasting impact on the culture of America, and, even more so, on the state of national discourse.

For Americans with doctrinaire conservative views, who previously often felt angry and alienated because they believed the culture and established media organizations regularly disparaged their "values," Roger Ailes created in FNC not only a safe haven that provided daily validation and encouragement, but also a well-armed assault force to lead them into ideological combat.

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Ailes did not single-handedly vaporize the notion of respectful disagreement over national policy, but he surely devised a machine that reveled in lighting the fuse. The increasingly tribal nature of discussion in America, where common ground is almost impossible to discern, in everything from health care to the weather, where voices with counter-arguments are almost never allowed to interrupt the chorus of affirmation for the shared views of each tribe, owes significant debt to the emergence of Fox News.

FNC under Ailes connected so effectively with conservative viewers that many often began to watch the channel to the exclusion of other forms of diversion. Polls showed conservative American trusted Fox at spectacularly high rates.

In large measure, this enormous success came down to Ailes' true genius for the medium. Even political opponents, and detractors appalled by his often ugly behavior, acknowledged that Ailes had an unmatched talent for connecting with people watching a television set.

Related: How Fox News covered Roger Ailes' death on air

Ailes learned at an early age, and in an unlikely place -- the control room of the daily "Mike Douglas" talk show -- that viewers prized active images and forceful people; that many viewers actually liked their television hot, not cool.

This was only partly a rejection of Marshall McLuhan's theory that TV is a cool medium. McLuhan argued that there are hot media; he just thought in terms of film and radio, because they demanded little interaction, saying the hot medium 'spoon-feeds' content to the receiver.

Ailes, who didn't go in for academic posturing, simply recognized there was an underserved audience hungry to be fed content he saw as missing from established media. They were already signing up in large numbers for just such meals from the hot medium of talk radio in markets all over the country. Why wouldn't they respond similarly if content like that could be served up by television?

He saw TV in visceral terms: grab people -- by the eyes, by the ears, by the principles, by the prejudices. Offer viewers big-shouldered hosts with macho views and female anchors with blonde hair and short skirts. Pound away at a daily narrative, one he created in his office each morning. Color it all with eye-popping graphics and catchy, tabloid style headlines and season to taste. "What Does Obamas' Fist Bump Say About Their Relationship" and "Over Half of Poor Families Have a Video Game System."

Related: Roger Ailes helped pave the way for Trump's victory

The boldness of Ailes' vision was underscored by the signature Fox News credos: "Fair and Balanced" and "We Report, You Decide." In both cases the exact opposite was usually true. None of the other major news outlets "decided" so officially what the daily news narrative would be. And the channel almost never presented a "balanced" view of the news, because of its conservative agenda. Ailes countered by saying that they were simply balancing what he argued were the one-sided views being offered by other media.

Ailes' outsized success allowed him to maintain that Potemkin Village version of a news channel, even though he really had little use for news as conventionally defined. In numerous interviews, Ailes expressed disdain for journalists, whom he tended to see as out-of-touch elites. Indeed, even though he ran a news operation, he did not practice journalism; he practiced pugilism.

Ailes was famous for his hyper-competitive nature, which came out in moves that ranged from humorous to vindictive. Ailes could be very funny, a trait that endeared him to many of his staffers. The jokes were often disparaging in nature, though. And if he felt crossed by either a critic in the press or an employee who chose to move on, Ailes could be ferocious in his response.

I witnessed a bit of that up close when Paula Zahn, who had been anchoring a prime-time show for Fox, decided in 2001 to take a better offer at CNN. When I wrote up the story for the New York Times, Fox's legal counsel said she was suing Zahn, while Ailes called her agent a liar and addressed her abilities in a carefully composed quote.

''I could have put a dead raccoon on the air this year and got a better rating."

Later a shock jock appeared on "Fox & Friends," the network's morning show, to declare, "You take on us, we'll kill you, Paula! We'll kill you!"

Covering Fox was always an adventure in standing up to intimidation. Reporters who wrote pieces Ailes did not like could find their private lives subjected to exposure by the Fox PR operation. It was how Ailes rolled. As he said in a New Yorker profile:

"I don't ignore anything. Somebody gets in my face, I get in their face."

Because of the allegations of sexual harassment, Ailes legacy as a dynnamic television executive may be muted. It surely will not be obliterated.

American television, and American society, have changed unalterably in the wake of the revolution Ailes kicked off when he launched Fox News. The notions of "news," of facts, of what constitutes truth, have been opened up to new questioning, new "interpretation."

No one is putting what Roger Ailes let loose back into the bottle.

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