How Roger Ailes changed the news, and the country, for the worse
It was only fitting that Roger Ailes died the morning after the network he created spent its second consecutive night at No. 3 in the ratings, behind CNN and MSNBC, a rarity for the channel since it began its meteoric rise in the mid-90s. It’s too early to say if the network, having lost its CEO, its number one primetime personality, and millions in sexual harassment payouts, will go the way of its founder, but their dramatic falls have certainly coincided perfectly. An oddity, considering the election of a loudmouth entertainer as president of the United States was the ultimate victory Fox News had been working toward for its entire existence.
Ailes changed the face of the news, for the worse. While yellow, shoddy journalism has existed for as long as people have been hawking papers, the fake news epidemic that has run rampant since 2016 can be traced back to the playbook developed by Ailes and Fox: News as entertainment.
Around the same time Fox Sports was adding computer-generated robot football players to its broadcast interstitials, Ailes was taking the same approach at his news channel, adding snazzy graphics and bombastic headlines. It was the first channel to employ a 24/7 news ticker following 9/11. But it was the on-air talent that really set the network apart. Ailes brought on anchors like tabloid media veteran Bill O’Reilly and radio jock Sean Hannity, who acted less as newsmen than smarmy talk show hosts. (Hannity to this day does not refer to himself as a journalist.) The few women who got spots on air were all bubbly blondes who for the most part served to either agree with or be talked down to by their male counterparts.
“The reporter and the host became personalities,” Tom Goldstein, director of media studies at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, told The Washington Post in 2011. “They became almost more important than the stories.”
“[It had] that talk show mentality where you really want to create controversy, where you want to create energy, where you want it to be entertaining — like when he worked on ‘The Mike Douglas Show’ — you can see it when Fox News debuted,” Betsy West, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, told CNBC. “It had a different rhythm to it than CNN.”
Like any good piece of entertainment, Ailes’s network appealed to viewer’s feelings, not their brains. CNN and C-SPAN, the major 24/7 cable news networks of the day, were dry and boring, as facts usually are. A veteran producer, Ailes knew people wanted a show. They want to tune in and get excited. They want to feel good about themselves and comfortable with the things they know and understand, and angry about the people they disagree with and scared about the things they don’t understand. And Ailes had the perfect audience — an audience he believed was underrepresented in the mainstream media: Conservative America.
Fox News became the first network that was your friend, that would tell it like it is — that is, if you consider “how it is” to be only exactly what you already believe and nothing that contradicts or undermines it. “It was the beginning of people going to their own echo chambers, listening to the programming that conformed with their own political thinking,” West said. The network’s slogan “Fair and Balanced,” read to outsiders like some sort of sick joke.
Within five years, Fox had shot to the top of the ratings, propelled by its coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and finally cemented by the most deadly terror attack on U.S. soil. The only world right-wingers had ever known — where white Christians were on top and the USA was invincible — was changing rapidly. Viewers were scared, and Fox News’ demonizing reports on Muslims, minorities, and the LGBT community confirmed that they should be. But, so long as they tuned in, Fox would keep them safe.
While other networks like MSNBC attempted to pilfer Fox’s model to create their own success with a more liberal demographic, the network’s tactics would also influence the Beltway, which was so often the source of its coverage. If you were to reduce George W. Bush’s administration to a single disastrous decision, the invasion of Iraq would likely be the main contender. And the justification for that endless, bloody war — not actual intelligence or facts, but on what amounted to a “feeling” — is pure Fox News. Stephen Colbert coined a term for it: “Truthiness.” The quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.
Truthiness went mainstream, with both ends of the political spectrum, to their own degrees, diving head in headfirst. But while liberals and Democrats have certainly spent their fair share of time with heads in the sand, it would be the Republican Party, working hand in hand as they have for the past two decades with their network of choice, that would use the Fox playbook to test the American experiment as it never had been before. While early attempts with folks like Sarah Palin weren’t successful, in 2016, using trademark fear, bigotry, and misinformation, Ailes was able to get a blustering primetime TV star — the exact kind you might see any given evening on Fox News — elected president.
And it’s all been downhill from there.