How Roger Ailes Remade Our Reality
Roger Ailes died yesterday. Over the next few days, half the country’s pundits will be coming up with hot-takes to bury him, while the other half try to find the right words to praise him for his accomplishments that gave voice to the voiceless in the conservative world—despite the controversies that forced his retirement last year from the Fox News organization he founded exactly 20 years earlier. But wherever he is now, Ailes would be the first person to take some caramel-pudding comfort in the knowledge that he will have one final chance to dominate the news cycle, in a never-ending, 24/7 feeding frenzy he was largely responsible for creating.
On the one hand, Ailes reinvigorated American conservatism in a way matched or surpassed in modern times only by the likes of William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and Rush Limbaugh. (Of course, his tactics and style were far closer to the latter one than the former two.) On the other, he did it in what was arguably the most demagogic, crude, fear-mongering fashion possible—at times legitimizing “alt-right” and downright racist figures formerly on the fringes of American culture, and instigating a workplace culture that was revealed last year to have had an almost “p*ssy-grabbing” level of sexual assault and harassment, one which shamed not only the conservative movement but all of us in the media. Despite the fact that Ailes and Trump feuded at first (considering both men’s Titanic egos and entitlement, that would have been almost inevitable!), it is fair to say that Donald Trump couldn’t have won it without him. (Nor, for that matter, could George W. Bush.)
Roger Ailes’ signature accomplishment came because he said the things that were not fit to address in polite company—not just on the now-canceled O’Reilly Factor, but in the behind-the-scenes boardrooms and ad agencies of Hollywood and Washington, of Wall Street and Madison Avenue. You may think he was a hero who single-handedly stood up to liberal and left-wing media arrogance and dominance, or you might find him an idiot genius who denigrated the conservative movement by cynically feeding his viewers “steady diet of Southern Strategy bromides about minorities and foreigners and queers and feminists” to manipulate them into doing whatever the billionaire donor class wanted (as that Gen-X Mencken, Matt Taibbi, once put it.) But whether you swear by Fox News or swear at it, Roger Ailes happened because he was canny enough to recognize trends in the media and culture that others preferred to ignore, even as they pushed and profited from them.
And this is the real legacy of the late Roger Ailes.
Ailes’ signature slogan for Fox News—“Fair and Balanced”—seemed to liberals and leftists like the ultimate middle-finger trolling of their concerns, appropriating the language of fairness and objectivity for what they felt was a reactionary, racialist, selfishness-driven agenda. But for Ailes himself, it was as true as Webster’s Dictionary. “If we look conservative, it’s because the other guys are so far to the left,” his New York Times obituary noted. “In [Ailes’] mordant humor, CNN stood for Clinton News Network and CBS for Communist Broadcasting System. What Fox News did, he said, was apply a necessary corrective.”
As the always thought-provoking MTV and TheWrap critic Inkoo Kang noted,
a “facile nostalgia for a more civil, less fractured news ecosystem fails to take into account how much less diverse and democratic the media would still be if it hadn’t grown past the era of most Americans watching the same three networks. As a whole, the news today is full of various failures, but inclusivity of perspective and demographics—probably a worthy goal in the long run, even with extremists like Glenn Beck on the airwaves—isn’t one of them.
Even a self-admitted liberal feminist like Ms. Kang would rather live in a world with Fox News than to go back to the self-congratulatory, Great Consensus “objectivity” of Uncle Walter Cronkite, the Chancellor-Brinkley Report, and the postwar-era New York and Los AngelesTimes of Otis Chandler and Punch Sulzberger.
After ex-hippie, pro-choice, and sexually liberated Bill Clinton (and his feminist, power-wielding wife) suddenly ended the Reagan/Bush era in 1992, Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolutionaries and a still-powerful, tele-evangelizing 1980s Religious Right, went into nuclear mode. Ailes and Rupert Murdoch correctly calculated that after barely surviving Vietnam, civil rights, and Watergate, the mythical tabula rosa “center” that was still worshiped in oh-so “objective” print and TV newsrooms simply would no longer hold. It’s no accident that Fox News started just one year after the OJ Simpson trial forever fuzzed the line between tabloid trash and serious, world-political news. Or that FNC first truly came into its own after Internet muckraker Matt Drudge scooped “respectable” and “responsible” Newsweek with the Monica Lewinsky fiasco in 1998, followed two years later by what was the most controversial election circus in post-WWII (and pre-Trump) American history, Bush vs. Gore.
On the one hand, Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell and a new blonde hottie named Ann Coulter were ruling the radio ratings and the bestseller lists, treating not just Democrats but country-club Gerald Ford Republicans (like Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Pete Wilson, George Pataki, and Christine Todd Whitman) as though they were flag-burning hippies and dangerous radicals. On the other hand, genuine leftists like Ralph Nader, Thomas Frank, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Michael Moore (and a crusty then-Congressman named Bernie Sanders) were prefiguring today’s millennial Marxists and democratic socialists—deploring how “right wing” and “reactionary” self-consciously centrist DLC Democrats like Joe Lieberman, Al Gore, Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Dianne Feinstein (and yes, Bill and Hillary Clinton) all were.
In that way, as Karl Rove is rumored to have once said, we each “make our own reality.” And that was Ailes’ signature insight in a nutshell: to stop pretending that any two people—let alone a diversifying continent of over 300 million Americans and Canadians —would see the exact same news story the exact same way.
But Roger Ailes and Fox News would never have had the footprint they had, or been able to command the audience that they did, were it not for Ailes’ other lightbulb-above-the-head moment. Ailes realized from inside the media bubble that during the entire heyday of Fox News, the “mainstream” media (very much including the broadcast Fox Network) had been deliberately throwing Fox News’ target audience into the demographic trashcan.
Over the past 25 or 30 years, American pop culture diversified itself to a previously almost-unimaginable degree, with gangsta rap and hip-hop, banda and mariachi and “press 2 for Spanish”, Japanese and Korean-made cars and home appliances, out-and-proud LGBTs, and hijab-wearing Muslims. The Obama era delivered a bumper crop of films and TV shows specifically dedicated to the African-American experience, with Moonlight, Chi-Raq, Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained, The Butler, The Help, Precious, For Colored Girls, Loving, Hidden Figures, Talk To Me, Miles Ahead, The Birth of a Nation, and Fences joining top TV shows like Empire, Scandal, Blackish, and How to Get Away With Murder. Empowered LGBT millennials likewise insisted on seeing themselves represented in the media—and not just as token sidekicks or victims, but as sexualized, three-dimensional characters in movies and TV shows like Milk, Brokeback Mountain, Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk, The L Word, Will & Grace, and Shondaland Thursdays. People from once-marginalized racial and sexual minorities spent the entire Fox News era bursting with pride, and celebrating how long-overdue and nice it was that they could finally “see people who look like me!” reflected in the magic mirror of the media.
For better or worse, it was almost natural that the rural and Rust Belt lower-middle and working classes would react with shock and awe to seeing their once-dominant pop culture (not to mention political) “white privilege” get revoked. Suddenly, it seemed to many of them as though everybody else had a platform in the media, while they – the older and whiter, the outsourced and downsized and early-retired, the ones who didn’t live in a hip Chelsea flat or Silicon Valley split-level with a bunch of sexy, glammy 30-year-old Friends to hang out (and have Sex in the City) with, had just as suddenly disappeared. Where could they “see people who looked like me” in modern pop media?
Lower-middle-class and white-working-class whites—especially ones who were struggling from paycheck to paycheck like Roseanne, Al Bundy, and Grace Under Fire—have mostly been a thing of the past on TV for the past 20 years. Even lower-middle-class millionaire Tony Soprano lived in a palatial pool estate and drove a top-of-the-line black Lexus, while Breaking Bad’s Walter White transformed himself from an overworked and underpaid public school teacher into a bling-a-ding-ding drug lord, and tough guy Jack Bauer of 24 was on a first-name basis with presidents and CIA chiefs. And just how many recent feature films (not starring Casey Affleck or directed by Michael Moore) have focused on the blue-collar white experience? Especially in post-Great Recession America? How many movies or TV shows present Red State or non-college-educated people in anything other than what liberal scholars might call an “exoticizing”, objectifying, condescending, and sneering sense? Are Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo-Boo, The Biggest Loser, and Jerry Springer really the best we can do for them?
As proudly leftist writer Emmett Rensin noted in Vox last year, during the last 15 years of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party, “the smug style” of liberal condescension completely took over the must-see media. Of course, from a democratic socialist’s (as opposed to a Democrat’s) point of view like Rensin’s, this was not so much because the media was liberal or leftist but because it was what we late GenXers and early millennials used to call “tragically hip.” In other words, not because it wanted to prove a social/religious or economic/racial agenda’s actual superiority, but to simply use politically-correct positions to “prove” how much more educated and sophisticated they were as people than the “dumb”, “superstitious”, “religious fanatical”, “intolerant” WWC and lower-middle-class people in flyover country. Those backwards dummies who “cling to their guns and [fundamentalist] religions” as one notable media liberal once said. Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, SNL, “New Atheists,” and even Midwestern-raised CBS-stalwart David Letterman didn’t bother pretending to have any use for Joe Lunchbucket, other than to sneer at him, or study him the way a hipster anthropologist might microscope an alternate civilization.
While this neither diminishes Ailes’ accomplishments nor gets him off the hook for his political decisions, ultimately, the most overtly political news chief in modern history transcended mere politics. At the end of the day, Roger Ailes did what bottom-line businessmen have done since the beginning of time. He identified a market that wasn’t being served—indeed, one that was being almost aggressively ignored—and catered to its every want. When the rest of the media willfully changed the channel on dealing head-on with economic inequality and globalism’s fallout…when smug media mavens and self-righteous politicians alike deny that America has a class system, even as they exploit class anxieties and ratings demographics for their own benefit….when top pundits from liberals like Peter Birkenhead and David Masciotra to conservatives like Kevin Williamson and JD Vance all adopt a “screw you” posture towards the misfortunes of Red Staters, Rust Belters, and resentful white retirees, what you get is Roger Ailes.
If he didn’t do it, someone else would have. Whether that someone would have been better or worse is now, with Roger Ailes death, more than just an academic question. We will be dealing with the world Roger Ailes helped create (or if you’re in sympathy with Isaac Chotiner of Slate, the world Roger Ailes “broke”) for a long time. But no real resolution will come from this endless spin cycle, unless all of us in the media start doing a little less talking—and a little more listening.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War. He has written on culture for FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series Pioneers of Television.