The moment that would change American news and politics forever took place in a makeup room of “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1967. Richard Nixon was commenting on how ridiculous it was that he had to appear on daytime TV shows, and young Roger Ailes spoke up.
“If you think that TV is ridiculous you’re never going to become president,’” Ailes told Nixon, according to Nixon biographer Rick Pearlstein. “Nixon said, ‘This is my guy,’ and pretty soon he was working for Nixon.”
It took courage for Ailes, then a 26-year-old producer, to say something so bluntly harsh to a presidential candidate. But his brash, bold style carried him over the next five decades, and he created a news empire that thrived in an increasingly divided America.
Love him or hate him, he was a visionary who saw the importance of visual communication when political television was at its infancy. He worked tirelessly to make Nixon appear presidential, whether through makeup or specific camera angles. Ailes manipulated the image.
By 1968, he was also manipulating the election — even, according to Pearlstein, holding fake town hall meetings filled with Nixon supporters.
Nixon won, thanks in large part of Ailes’ making over of his image. Ailes went on to assist Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with the media strategies of their successful presidential campaigns.
“He wasn’t perfect, but Roger Ailes was my friend & I loved him,” Bush tweeted Thursday. “Not sure I would have been president w/o his great talent, loyal help. RIP.”
Ailes is credited with bringing much more opinion to news coverage, starting with America’s Talking, an NBC-owned network that eventually became MSNBC. Modern-day programs such as ESPN’s “First Take” and “Pardon the Interruption” don’t have anything to do with Ailes, but they might not exist if it weren’t for Ailes realizing the formula for success.
And Ailes did all this long before he launched Fox News.
Ailes became the founding CEO of Fox News Channel in 1996 when Rupert Murdoch wanted to develop a media organization for conservative viewers — an idea that was ridiculed at the time.
Ailes saw Fox News as an antidote to biased liberal coverage. Some liberals saw it as a propaganda wing for the Republican Party. Either way, the network and the left-leaning responses to it contributed to a media landscape in which people of all political stripes can silo themselves off from views or facts they don’t accept.
Ailes hired fiery hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, sprinkled in attractive on-air talent to coincide with his belief that visual optics are essential, and disregarded what Fox News saw as the liberal spin of mainstream media. The result was the most-watched cable news station in America.
Fox News not only dominated cable news ratings, but shaped the political opinion of the Republican Party and its supporters. It provided talking points and crafted rhetoric for the GOP while turning conservative commentators into household names.
Fox News launched with only 17 million subscribers, but within two decades a whopping 24 million people tuned into the network on a single night. Ailes hosted a Republican primary debate in August 2015 that turned into the most-watched non-sporting event in the history of cable television.
It also kickstarted the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
Ailes left the network in disgrace, after a serious of sexual harassment allegations forced him to go. He knew many of his viewers appreciated the appearance of the pretty women on their screens. Unfortunately, some of those women alleged, he also made unwelcome advances, treating the comforting world he created for viewers like a fantasy world for himself.
O’Reilly faced sexual harassment allegations too, and soon followed Ailes out the door. Both men denied the accusations.
Even without Ailes and O’Reilly, Fox News remains. And so do the realms they helped build, in which all Americans, whatever their views, can retreat back to believing whatever they want, unchallenged and unquestioned.