Roger Ailes and the dawn of hyper-partisan television

Roger Ailes speaks to a reporter. Image copyright Getty Images

Roger Ailes revolutionised cable news in the US, creating the hyper-partisan, opinion-based environment that currently dominates the American media landscape.

It's probably fitting, then, that the responses to the death of the man who founded conservative media behemoth Fox News have been sharply divided along partisan lines.

He was a "monster" who poisoned American society and made people "dumber and angrier". Or he was a "great American patriot" and a "media genius". One man, two decidedly different pictures in one country with two decidedly different outlooks on the world.

Much has been written recently about the fracturing of US culture; of how Americans are withdrawing to their own bubbles, where they are fed news and entertainment that caters to their political and social predispositions.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFox News in the spotlight - Amol Rajan reports

Over the course of the past two decades, Ailes built Fox News into one of the biggest bubbles of all.

In 1996, when Ailes was hired by Fox head Rupert Murdoch to start his new network, CNN dominated the cable news world. Its style was not too unlike the network evening news formats that had become a way of life in America since the dawn of television, from Walter Cronkite to Tom Brokaw. Authoritative, purportedly unbiased television presenters read the news and introduced stories, day and night, week after week.

A few talks shows dotted the schedule. Crossfire and Capital Gang had politicians and pundits who exchanged barbs, and Larry King offered a safe space for major public figures to get their message out. CNN, however, styled itself as a neutral forum.

Ailes took cable news and gave it a partisan edge. The long-time Republican operative, who worked for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, fashioned the television news format into an ideological tool - a megaphone or a cudgel, depending on one's perspective.

His network's nightly line-ups dispensed with the appearance of even-handedness and offered conservative red meat - which the audiences devoured in record numbers.

Ailes successfully concluded that much of the American public didn't want information from their television news, they wanted confirmation.

It's impossible to separate Ailes, who for decades was perhaps the most powerful man in US media, from his precipitous downfall, of course. He was accused of being a serial sexual harasser who abused his position of influence to demean and degrade the women around him. More than 25 women came forward to accuse him of a range of predatory behaviour, and Fox Corporation had to pay millions of dollars in legal settlements.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Fox News has been beset by allegations that it is a hostile workplace for female employees

If Ailes built a news empire unlike any before it, like all empires there is a peak followed by eventual decline. His network has been beset by a wave of crises. Many of its top talents have departed - including Megyn Kelly, who wrote a book that included details of Ailes's misdeeds. Bill O'Reilly, the highest-rated Fox News personality, was recently deposed in his own sexual harassment scandal.

Beyond the accusations that it has become a toxic environment for some of its employees, Fox News has found itself adrift in the Donald Trump era. The sunny picture it paints of the Republican president has often seemed woefully out of step with the daily drumbeat of crises wracking the White House. If the Trump presidency turns into a sinking ship, Fox News is poised to be the orchestra that plays Nearer My God to Thee until the bitter end.

This week, when James Comey's memo-writing habits and the details of Mr Trump's conversations with Russians in the Oval Office were sending shockwaves through Washington, Fox evening hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity were focusing on Hillary Clinton's email server and a bogus conspiracy theory about a Democratic staffer who was murdered last year.

Even viewership ratings, which Fox News once dominated, have lately shown signs of weakness, as left-leaning MSNBC has frequently posted better numbers during the evening hours over the last few weeks.

With Ailes gone, Fox News' future is far from certain. Murdoch recently toured the networks New York headquarters and unveiled plans for a massive structural renovation. A similar programming overhaul could eventual reshape much of what Ailes built.

His legacy, however - both the good and the bad - is secure.

Related Topics

More on this story