The media world reveres hackers and derides hacks, and although by the time of his Thursday dethroning as CEO of Fox News following allegations of sexual harassment Roger Ailes had come to seem something of the latter, he will shuffle off with riches and acclaim due to an unlikely run as the former.
21st Century Fox announced on Thursday that Ailes would step down as CEO of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, to be replaced on an interim basis by Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company. The move came 15 days after Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor, filed a lawsuit against Ailes alleging sexual harassment. A number of other women subsequently came forward with similar allegations spanning decades. Ailes has denied the allegations. 21st Century Fox’s announcement of Ailes’s departure did not mention the lawsuit. Spokespeople for the company did not immediately respond to TIME’s request to speak to Ailes.
As a young man, Ailes intuited how television could upend electoral politics. He had Marshall McLuhan’s grasp for the significance of the medium with Morton Downey Jr.’s taste for the tawdry. In a long career that ping-ponged between both politics and TV—and in his run at Fox, erased any practical distinction between the two—he invented and reinvented himself too many times to count. He survived bumpy times in his disciplines and a shift in mass tastes, cultivating fierce loyalty and abiding fear among his staffers and elevating paranoia to a high art.
Ailes’ first act sprung from the heartland. By age 27, the northeast Ohio native had become executive producer of The Mike Douglas Show, a gauzy ’60s daytime chatfest that had gained a following on the air in Cleveland before syndication nationwide. As the legend goes, on one fateful 1968 day the show had booked then-Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon among other guests (though not, as some accounts have had it, a belly dancer and her snake). Nixon wound up chatting backstage with Ailes. Though the precise language of their interchange has taken several forms now decades later, Nixon said something along the lines of, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like television to get elected.” According to Ailes’ account of the event, he retorted something like, “Television is not a gimmick. And if you think it is, you’ll lose again.” Before too long, Ailes joined the campaign.
The popular accounting of the 1960 presidential race had credited Kennedy’s upset of Nixon in part to the incumbent vice president’s pallid unease on camera during the first of the debates. And so in ’68, the young media consultant Ailes put Nixon in a series of town-hall-style commercials where he took questions from an audience of supposed regular people. (They had actually been rounded up from local Republican meetings.) About his client, Ailes told journalist Joe McGinniss for his book The Selling of the President 1968, “A lot of people think Nixon is dull. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a book bag, who was 42 years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas. Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it… Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away. He’s a funny-looking guy…That’s why these shows are important: to make them forget all that.”
Ailes’s signature insight: Television, by its very nature, caricatured everyone desperate or misfortunate enough to appear on its airwaves. Politicians could fall victim to that, or they could use it to their advantage. As he wrote in his 1988 book You Are The Message, “If your audience likes you, they’ll forgive just about everything else you do wrong. If they don’t like you, you can hit every rule right on target and it doesn’t matter.”
Nixon would win a landslide electoral victory, and McGinniss’s book became a bestseller upon its release in October 1969, with Ailes as its star. He had fashioned himself an image … as the consummate image-fashioner. Though his on-the-record candor had raised eyebrows at the White House, he had not followed the Nixon crew to Pennsylvania Avenue, opting instead to produce a pair of short-lived talk shows and a shorter-lived Broadway musical while also consulting for a variety of Republicans (including Nixon). During one 1970 campaign, while advising underdog Robert Taft Jr. in an ultimately successful U.S. Senate bid from Ohio, Ailes gave the candidate a folded-up piece of paper before a debate, telling him to use it only if he needed it. Taft read the note and won the debate. It read simply: “KILL.” The musical—Mother Earth, a rock production about the ecological ravages of pollution—did not quite kill. It lasted 12 performances. Ailes had more success with The Hot l Baltimore, an off-Broadway play about the riff-raff, druggies and prostitutes living in a condemned hotel. Ailes made sure that one of the play’s promotional photographs featured an actress wearing only a towel, and he made sure to shoot it himself.
In the early 1980s, Ailes would pilot a number of successful senatorial campaigns, with some of his clients (Mitch McConnell, Dan Quayle, Al D’Amato) turning into big names after they arrived in Washington. He also landed a brief gig producing NBC’s Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder, which aired each night after Johnny Carson. As would become his signature, Ailes pushed the show toward tabloid fare. He booked an interview with Charles Manson in his prison cell and attended himself. His efforts couldn’t save Tomorrow and it was replaced by David Letterman.
But his electoral triumphs during the same period had helped to insinuate him in Ronald Reagan’s reelection bid. It was Ailes who coached up the president after a lackluster performance in the first 1984 debate against Walter Mondale. As Gabriel Sherman recounts in his Ailes biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room, Reagan said he found himself hamstrung by needing to remember a litany of facts. Ailes responded: “You know, Mr. President, the American people want you to be a leader and don’t care whether you don’t know a billion or a million, and we’ll ensure going forward you won’t have those big cram sessions.”
Ailes’s biggest campaign would come in ’88, when he was charged with selling Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush. (That year TIME would dub Ailes “The Dark Prince of Negative Advertising… Falstaffian in his appetites for food, combat and attention.”) Sherman writes that Ailes told Bush to play Gary Cooper—the tough guy. Accordingly, Ailes coaxed Bush into squabbling on-air with CBS’s Dan Rather and told him he could not under any circumstances wear short-sleeved shirts. Though Ailes has long denied any involvement in perhaps the most infamous maneuver from that campaign, a race-baiting ad blaming Michael Dukakis for the actions of felon Willie Horton, Ailes was quoted in TIME’s story as eager to attack Dukakis on that front. “The only question,” he said, “is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”
As after ’68, Ailes did not follow his victorious client to the White House. But he kept his hand in Republican politics, assisting Rudy Giuliani on his losing mayoral bid in 1989, and producing ads for Big Tobacco front groups, e.g., Californians Against Unfair Tax Increases, which argued in a series of overheated negative ads that increased taxes on smokes would lead to smuggling and a wave of violent crime. Ailes’ ads failed to stop the tax increase. He also published his book, executive-produced his friend Rush Limbaugh’s foray into syndicated television and invented an electoral-politics board game, “Risky Strategy.” And he remained voluble in the presence of reporters. He told the Chicago Tribune of President Clinton: “He’s not a bad guy. To be honest with you, if I wanted to go out on a Friday night drinking and looking for girls, I’d like to go with him.”
But Ailes began to change then, too. The portly maven—who used to joke that much of his girth was muscle—dropped 40 pounds and shaved his signature goatee. Perhaps it was a concession to to his new corporate masters; in 1993, General Electric brought him in to helm its fledgling cable business-news channel, CNBC, and to develop a chat-driven channel named America’s Talking. Then again, Ailes did not turn entirely abstinent: When legendary G.E. CEO Jack Welch had bypass surgery and commanded the executive dining room’s chefs to cook healthy food, Ailes reportedly said “I’m not eating this crap,” and ordered a double cheeseburger and fries.
Cable news had been starved for a figure like Ailes. CNN had launched long before CNBC (and its erstwhile competitor, Financial News Network, which was folded in after a merger) and had achieved dominance by building a global footprint, vivifying the experience of reading a national newspaper. But outsize personalities had little place there. At CNBC, Ailes coined the slogan “First in business, first in talk.” He was the programmer behind Hardball with Chris Matthews. (Another programmer, Elizabeth Tilson, who held jobs at both channels would eventually become Ailes’s third wife.)
America’s Talking showed off Ailes’ freewheeling side. He brought in an old Mike Douglas hand as his deputy. The network boasted a series (Pork) devoted to exposing government waste, a psychologist-hosted show named Am I Nuts?, a call-in advice show with writer E. Jean Carroll, and an interview show, Straight Forward, hosted by Ailes himself. A clip from 1995 shows him wearing a paisley tie, attentively interviewing Judy Collins in a studio decorated like a college professor’s study. Later Ailes chats with her when she’s at the piano.
The channel, however, was about to fall through a trapdoor. America’s Talking made it a year and a half before NBC brass, responding to favorable market conditions and aided by a $220 million investment from Microsoft, opted to turn the channel into MSNBC, a putative high-tech competitor to CNN. And shortly thereafter Ailes wound up at Fox. (His exit agreement, according to Sherman, included language that prohibited him from working for CNN, Dow Jones or Bloomberg. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. was fair game.)
The format change was one thing that occasioned his arrival at Fox. So too did a feud with David Zaslav, then a rival executive in the NBC cable hierarchy and now the CEO of Discovery. Ailes was alleged to have called Zaslav an antisemitic slur, according to Sherman’s biography. Both men have denied it.
But the primary cause for Ailes’s landing there was that it made so much sense. Murdoch had for his whole career approached the news with high spirits and irreverence. And Ailes was those qualities incarnate. The network’s much-dissected political sensibilities may have more than anything else been means to an end.
“We’ll rue the day we let Roger and Rupert team up,” Welch reportedly told a top lieutenant upon the unveiling of Fox News. That day, Jan. 30, 1996, was 7,478 days before the day when Ailes exited the top job. Under Murdoch’s supervision, Ailes presided over an increasingly successful business at a time when more traditional news outlets were fighting ratings declines and revenue shortfalls. And among Ailes’ creations at Fox was a series of outsize stars, the women among whom all had a particular look and affect, and whose appearance was fair game for on-air conversation. In the end—during the same week that the party that revered and feared Ailes crumbled in Cleveland—his creation proved his undoing.