Roger Ailes, exit on the right

Roger Ailes in talks to leave Fox News
Roger Ailes in talks to leave Fox News

With only the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch himself, Roger Ailes, founder and chairman of the Fox News Channel, has almost certainly been the most influential media figure on the political right in the history of the United States.

His ousting, which now seems almost certainly imminent in the wake of multiple accusations of sexual harassment by female employees, is nothing short of a seismic event in both the media world and the conservative movement in America.

The sweeping success of the Fox News Channel over the past 20 years, measured in both ratings and profits and also in impact on the political landscape of the country, is, without question, Ailes's personal achievement. The channel was his singular vision, and he ruled it as much as led it.

The network's dominance over conservative messaging has been so complete -- and so successful—that Fox has played a central role in the creation of what has amounted often to a second, separate version of daily news and information, one subscribed to by a legion of devoted viewers, some of whom have watched the channel to the virtual exclusion of almost everything else on television.

Ailes was the maestro of that success, based on both the unrelenting imposition of his point of view on its product and his extraordinary skill at television presentation. He had unusual instincts for visual and graphic presentation, making the look of Fox News as aggressively engaging as its edgy tone.

Related: Countdown on for Roger Ailes' departure from Fox News

Everything about Fox News, from its operating philosophy -- which posited that the rest of the media in America slanted left and thus required a balancing tilt from the right -- all the way down to how every story was covered, how every anchor dressed, and how every set was lit, came directly from Roger Ailes. So too came its combative, often hostile aggression toward those designated the opposition, whether media competitors or critics.

Ailes responded to any sort of commentary he regarded as hostile with a take-no-prisoners approach that relied on intimidation, and sometimes outright threats. Critics of the channel could count on aggressive blowback. Many chose to back away rather than engage.

Reporters who have covered television over the past two decades, as I have, were familiar with the tactics: editors might be called; nasty emails might arrive, seemingly coordinated; blogs might spread rumors about a reporter's peccadilloes. One colleague of mine at the New York Times wrote a factual piece about CNN starting to fare a bit better in the ratings. He reported to friends that he had been told by the Fox PR division, which Ailes oversaw vigilantly, that if he continued to write in that vein there would be repercussions. And there were: A blog that often took aim at Fox critics soon carried a damaging "rumor" about his personal life.

On another occasion, another colleague (and friend), Jacques Steinberg, wrote a different -- also factual -- piece about CNN gaining ratings momentum in an election year and was rewarded by having his photograph presented on Fox News doctored in a such a way -- hairline brought down, nose enlarged grotesquely -- that it vividly resembled Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda posters. No one at Fox ever acknowledged doctoring the photo, or revealed who (if anyone) ordered it. But it was never disavowed either -- and Jacques certainly never received any apologies.

Related: Former Fox staffers have Ailes stories -- here's why they're afraid to speak

Employees who decided to leave Fox News without Ailes' blessing could be roughed up even worse. I was involved a bit in the onslaught that attended Paula Zahn's act of betrayal: after hosting a prime-time show in Fox's early years, she took a better offer from CNN. In a phone conversation with me, Ailes threatened to sue her agent, called him a liar, slammed Zahn for disloyalty and then told me he didn't think her improved ratings had anything to do with her: ''I could have put a dead raccoon on the air this year and got a better rating than last year," he said, memorably.

Fox ran with the raccoon story, playing with a toy raccoon on the set of "Fox and Friends" and sending a gift basket to Zahn with a stuffed raccoon. Later a Fox contributor said he wanted to punch Zahn in the face -- and indeed an actor appeared in another segment posing as Zahn and was pummeled. A Fox PR executive offered this delightful analysis of her work on CNN: "Paula Zahn's supposed attempt at reinventing herself as a journalist is like putting a fresh coat of paint on an outhouse."

The always colorful attack quotes from Fox PR usually came with the admonition that no names could be attached to them.

Related: What will Fox be after Ailes?

The aggression was part of the code Fox News lived by: they played the part of the crashers at the media ball, and meant to give no quarter to uphold their status as the feisty outsiders. Ailes was the leader that put them in that position -- and the one who spent a good deal of his talent and creative energy defending it.

In more recent years, there has been one concern about the network's continuing ratings dominance. Its sturdily loyal viewers have been getting old. The median age of the channel hit a high of 68.8 in January. That is dangerous territory for a business that is based on selling commercials based on viewers between the ages of 25 and 54.

But interest in the election -- and especially in Donald Trump, the subject of overwhelming coverage on the channel (and all news channels) has brought a surge of younger viewers to Fox News in recent months, which might stem the aging trend if it can be sustained.

Still, the graying of Fox's audience may have made Ailes more vulnerable to the newer, younger business vision of the executives now supervising Fox News -- James and Lachlan Murdoch, sons of Rupert. The earlier version of Ailes, so essential to the success of the billion-dollar enterprise that is Fox News, might have been able to shrug off their move to oust him -- or throw it back in their faces.

The time for that looks to be finally past. If it is, it is likely Fox News, and the conservative movement, will both feel the absence of the creative mind -- and heavy hand -- of Roger Ailes.


CNNMoney Sponsors