NEW YORK (AP) – Roger Ailes, the communications maestro who transformed TV news by creating Fox News Channel only to be ousted from his media empire at the height of his reign for alleged sexual harassment, died Thursday, according to his wife, Elizabeth Ailes. He was 77.
A former GOP operative to candidates including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and a one-time adviser to President Donald Trump, Ailes also created a TV network that changed the face of 24-hour news. In early 1996, he accepted a challenge from media titan Rupert Murdoch to build a news network from scratch to compete with CNN and other TV outlets they deemed left-leaning.
That October, Ailes flipped the switch on Fox News Channel, which within a few years became the audience leader in cable news. It also emerged as a powerful force on the political scene while the feisty, hard-charging Ailes swatted off criticism that the network he branded as “Fair and Balanced” had a conservative tilt, declaring he had left the political world behind.
By mid-2016 Ailes still ruled supreme as he prepared to celebrate Fox News’ 20th anniversary.
But in little more than two weeks, both his legacy and job unraveled following allegations by former anchor Gretchen Carlson that he had forced her out of Fox News after she spurned his sexual advances. The lawsuit quickly triggered accounts from more than 20 women with similar stories.
Despite Ailes’ staunch denials, 21st Century Fox corporate head Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, determined that Ailes had to go. The announcement was made on July 21.
Before Carlson’s bombshell legal action, Fox’s roaring success and enormous earnings (with some estimates that it accounted for nearly a quarter of the parent company’s profits) insulated Ailes from any suspicion as well as from his past scrapes with the Murdoch sons over whom he would report to.
His dismissal was a head-spinning downfall and a breathtaking defeat for Ailes, a man who all his life seemed to be spoiling for a fight and was used to winning them.
Brash, heavyset and bombastic, he was renowned for never giving in, for being ever confrontational with a chip on his shoulder and a blistering outburst at the ready.
This attack-dog style served him well when, at 27, Ailes wrangled a job with Nixon, then vying for a political comeback in the 1968 presidential race.
Nixon, whose run for the White House had been dealt a blow eight years earlier in a televised debate against his camera-ready rival John F. Kennedy, was a challenge Ailes eagerly accepted at a moment when, as he realized better than most, TV could make or break a candidate. Concluding that viewers would never warm to Nixon, nor would the media establishment, Ailes struck a winning formula by packaging him in comfortably staged TV town-hall meetings as a man whose intelligence the audience would respect.
The remainder of Ailes’ career would draw on various blends of showmanship, ruthless politics and an unmatched skill for recognizing TV’s raw communication power before his opponents did, and harnessing it better.
Born in Warren, Ohio, Ailes was afflicted with hemophilia. He spent much of his early years housebound in front of, and fascinated with, television, and after graduation from Ohio University landed an entry-level position at a TV station in Cleveland that had just started a local talk and entertainment program starring a has-been former big-band singer named Mike Douglas.
In 1984, he helped President Reagan recover from his disastrous opening debate with Democratic opponent Walter Mondale. And in 1988, he orchestrated the media campaign for Vice President George H.W. Bush’s presidential bid. It was a campaign widely seen as being no less nasty than it was successful.
By 2002, Fox News was a ratings leader, dominating cable-news competition and tying his rivals in knots in both daytime as well as prime time, where he deployed a murderers’ row of hosts led by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Ailes helped make a hot property out of Glenn Beck, and signed a virtual salon of former-and-future GOP big names who found a welcoming platform for party talking points.
Other hires included Carlson, who came to Fox News from CBS News in 2005, and Megyn Kelly, an attorney-turned-TV-journalist who joined the network in 2004 and a decade later was arguably the network’s biggest marquee name.
Though ratings continued to soar, in later years Ailes’ power was challenged. He seemed incapable of stopping Trump’s rise as the GOP’s top contender for the 2016 election. By summer 2016, Ailes and Trump had seemingly reached detente, with Fox News climbing on the Trump bandwagon and vice versa. It was ironic, then, that Ailes was ousted only hours before Trump accepted the GOP nomination for which Fox had helped pave the way.
Ailes is survived by his third wife, Elizabeth, who had worked for him at CNBC as vice president of programming, and their son, Zachary.
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