It’s impossible to miss the irony in reports this week – the week of the Republican National Convention – that Roger Ailes’ reign at Fox News is likely coming to an end.
No political figure besides, maybe, Ronald Reagan has had more to do with the rise of the right in this country, or its image. From the outset of his career, as New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman has reported, Ailes has preached that TV networks would someday take on the role of political parties. Certainly he has worked to make that his legacy.
“Television isn’t a gimmick,” he told Richard Nixon in the late 1960s, when, as a TV producer turned political operative, he helped restore the politician’s presidential prospects. In the 1970s, he ran a TV network for Joseph Coors, the conservative brewing magnate. In the 1980s, he brought that experience back into politics, according to a recent profile by historian Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, helping elect Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, 13 Republican senators and eight members of Congress, including Dan Quayle and Mitch McConnell.
In 1996, he was tapped by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch to launch Fox News, which he vowed would be “fair and balanced.” Fox was a latecomer, with less than a third of CNN’s 60 million subscribers, but by 1999, thanks to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, business was booming – and the line between opinion and news and Ailes’ Rolodex was steadily blurring.
In TV and politics, as in so much else, the guard appears to be changing.
When Fox News called the 2000 election for George W. Bush, the Ailes employee manning the desk was Bush’s first cousin. When the U.S. went to war in Iraq, Fox News was an unabashed cheering section.
And in the years since, the network has been a generator of conservative red meat like no other: Fast and Furious. Benghazi. Planned Parenthood.
All week, those and other Fox News staples have been front and center at the Republican National Convention, wrapped in glitzy, Fox News-style red-white-and-blue trappings. For the Ohio-born Ailes, now 76, this should be the most triumphant of times.
But it is not. There are the rumors that Murdoch’s heirs at Fox News’ parent company would like to replace him. There are the explosive, and growing, allegations stemming from a recent sexual harassment suit filed by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson.
And at the convention itself, there is Donald Trump, whose rise is in itself a sign of Ailes’ waning power. Clearly not the network’s preferred Republican candidate at the outset, Trump fought back on his own powerful medium – Twitter – when Ailes protege Megyn Kelly confronted him at an early Fox News primary debate with a blistering question on sexism.
Now, though Fox News may tout him, it’s clear that the network needs Trump more than vice versa. And Kelly is reported to have backed up Carlson’s claims of harassment. In TV and politics, as in so much else, the guard appears to be changing. It remains to be seen whether that’s good, bad or fair and balanced news.