Roger Ailes: The Maestro of Shock & Rage

Roger Ailes Blog Photo (resize)

Who and what killed Roger Ailes? In a USA Today tribute to his long-time mentor, Bill O’Reilly writes that the “hatred” now “almost celebrated in some quarters” is what “killed him.” Loyal to the end, O’Reilly doesn’t name names. Instead, he writes of Ailes being “convicted of bad behavior in the court of public opinion” and “stunned” by a sudden exile from which Ailes “never really recovered.”

Meanwhile, detractors may vengefully rejoice over the death of Ailes. And in doing so, note the irony that Ailes’ fatal, head-banging fall at home in Palm Beach, Florida, followed on the heels of his fall from power at the Fox News channel he founded with Rupert Murdoch’s money. If so, those detractors will still have to come face-to-face with Ailes’ success and legacy.

The easy way out would be to regard Ailes as more or less the equivalent of Batman’s foe, The Penguin. Certainly, the aging, ever more corpulent Ailes looked the part.  Forget the top hat, the tuxedo, the white gloves, the cigarette holder, and even the umbrella. The key to the Penguin’s hold on our imaginations is that he’s wickedly smart and flush with belief in himself.

Might Ailes really be The Penguin, however? The answer is no, twice over. First, the Penguin is from an aristocratic family and Ailes hailed from blue-collar Warren, Ohio, and even when wealthy still saw himself as a working-class bruiser. Second, Ailes was no comic book character. His impact on America may be as profound as anybody in this country over the past half-century, and for many, many years to come.

The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours.

Let’s start with family values. Vice President Dan Quayle made the term famous in 1992, seeking votes. But leave it to Roger Ailes to make money from it by launching Fox in 1996. Now I for one have no issues with the term family values in theory. The support of a nurturing family while growing up is as emotionally healthy as enjoying a good, solid marriage or partnership in adulthood. The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours. When family values devolves into divisiveness – an issue of who is and isn’t worthy of respect and compassion – that’s when darkness descends.

Under Ailes, Fox was diabolically clever. While CNN aimed for the head, Fox went for the heart and the wallet and purse and cleaned up, big-time. In barely half a decade, the upstart Fox surpassed CNN, becoming the most-watched cable news network and staying No. 1 with a simple, grizzly emotional formula: anger compels. Once upon a time psychologists believed that venting enables the rage to pass. Now they know that stoking anger tends instead to keep it burning red hot. Ailes didn’t need professors and scientific research to uncover that fundamental truth about human nature.

Ailes was no fool. Yes, he displayed anger to a degree that exceeds what’s normal. Yes, he apparently once put his fist through a control room wall at Fox. (Somebody put a frame around the hole and wrote, “Don’t mess with Roger Ailes.”) But Ailes’ signature expression was crouched, lowering-the-boom eyebrows: a look of concentration and focus. In short, Ailes had the pulse of how TV can be exploited as a medium and was for the longest time a man on a mission.

In 1968, Ailes was at age 28 the executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” when Richard Nixon put in an appearance. In an off-camera conversation, Nixon mocked the medium as a “gimmick,” provoking Ailes to tell the candidate: “Television is not a gimmick and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”

Soon, Ailes was producing Nixon’s presidential campaign commercials, leading to The White House and Nixon’s own opportunity to invoke family values in an exchange with gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Told that Thompson’s mother, son and himself all hated Nixon, and that “this hatred has brought us together,” Nixon laughs and replies, “Don’t worry. I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege.

From Nixon to Donald Trump, Ailes helped to orchestrate Republican campaigns with the knowledge that the twigs of the bonfire you’re stoking are the latest incidences in the daily news cycle. The logs come in two forms: personalities caught or showcased on camera, and the beliefs or value systems of news anchors and especially the audience at home viewing the show.

Ailes once described his audience as TV “for people from 55 to dead,” putting on its ear the conventional wisdom that you strive for a viewership between the ages of 18 and 49 or some such demographic slice of America. A recently deceased aunt of mine fit Ailes’ model perfectly. Everyday my retired aunt would turn on the TV to learn about the latest indignities heaped on her sense of how the world should be and, transfixed by smoldering resentment, she would keep the TV on Fox all the way from breakfast to bedtime. Ailes gave her sunset years structure and meaning: witness more enemies and threats to be indignant about.

Ailes had only a passing resemblance to The Penguin. How about instead Alfred Hitchcock? As the maestro of shock and anger, wasn’t Ailes Fox’s equivalent to the famous director known as the master of suspense? Perhaps, but I prefer to think of Ailes as the antithesis of Walt Disney. While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege. Think in terms of Main Street, U.S.A. with its storefronts figuratively lapped by flames.

O’Reilly was the perfect vehicle for Ailes’ version of current events. As angry as Ailes but more expressive of surprise than the sadness Ailes revealed when not angry, O’Reilly beat the drums for years and was equally, phenomenally successful. Ultimately, sex scandals involving Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and others would force out both the mentor and his signature on-air talent, exposing the reality that “fair and balanced” didn’t extend to gender issues within the newsroom. It’s a new era now at Fox, and in O’Reilly’s place is Tucker Carlson. He’s the stepson of an heiress and somebody given to the smiles and smirks that put him closer, temperamentally, to The Penguin than to Ailes.

Carlson O'Reilly Ailes Blog Photo (2)(resize)

A new era it may be, but Ailes’ legacy will linger for some time to come. Perhaps it’s because tomorrow I leave on vacation to visit parts of disembodied Yugoslavia that the Balkans, namely the Balkanization, the fragmentation of America into ever fiercer, nonstop partisan bickering, so worries me.

I’ve been reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and re-reading Rebeccca West’s older classic travelogue, The Black Lamb and the Grey Falcon, with its take on the former Ottoman and Hapsburg dynasties: “I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else.” There, people write memoirs with titles like Land Without Justice. Here at home, those who cast opposing votes now see each new White House administration not as victor but conqueror, without merit. And for that hard-nosed viewpoint, we have to thank Ailes in no small part.