Few political figures besides, maybe, Ronald Reagan has had more to do with the rise of conservatism in this country than Ailes. Undoubtedly, he has been a visionary. As New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman has reported, Ailes has preached since the start of his career that TV networks would someday take on the role of political parties. That, he hopes, will be his legacy at Fox.
“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 right-wing 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, then George H.W. Bush and 13 Republican senators and eight members of Congress, including Dan Quayle and Mitch McConnell.
In 1996, he was tapped by international media mogul Rupert Murdoch to launch Fox News, which he said would be “fair and balanced.” The balance, however, was weighted against what he believed to be a liberal bias in other networks.
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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 Ailes was working to smudge away the line between opinion and news.
When Fox News called the 2000 election for George W. Bush, the Ailes employee staffing the desk was Bush’s first cousin. When the U.S. went to war in Iraq, Fox News was an unabashed cheering section. In the years since, the network has been a generator of conservative red meat like no other: Fast and Furious. Benghazi. Defunding Planned Parenthood.
This week, those issues 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 rumors that Murdoch’s heirs at Fox News’ parent company want him replaced. There are the explosive, and growing, allegations stemming from a recent sexual harassment suit filed by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. Charges that Megyn Kelly, once a protege of Ailes, is reported to have backed up – sparking a PR war with the network that employs her.
At the convention, there is Donald Trump, whose rise is a sign of Ailes’ waning power. The network did not back Trump originally, preferring candidates such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. But Trump fought back using another powerful medium – Twitter – after Kelly ambushed him at an early Fox News primary debate with a blistering (and well-deserved) question on Trump’s apparent sexism.
Now, it’s clear the network needs Trump more than he needs Fox and Ailes. In conservative politics, the guard is clearly changing. It might not be fair or balanced, but it appears to be reality.