May 22, 2017

Roger Ailes dies, his legacy sadly lives on


Did you hear? That Roger Ailes died last week? You may have missed it, as it happened on the same day that Chris Cornell—a fine singer and songwriter, an enduring icon of the grunge era, a charitable soul, and someone who didn’t try to destroy the fabric of our society—also sadly passed away.

But, it happened. At seventy-seven, Ailes, former Nixon advisor, former George H.W. Bush advisor, former Trump advisor, serial sexual harasser, and founding, longtime chairman of Fox News, died. From our vantage point, the news raises only one real question: Is the worst part of his legacy a) a career spent being rewarded for harassing and abusing women, b) the personalities he helped to elevate, whether on TV or in the White House, or c) unleashing zombie hordes of low-information voters on our democracy?

A willingness and a desire to exploit people’s fears, insecurities, and worst instincts for personal gain makes one more shameless than genius, but it’s undeniable that Ailes was successful in changing journalism, changing politics, and changing our society. (No “for better or worse” here — it should go without saying for the worse). You can thank Ailes every time you turn on CNN and see Jeffrey Lord, every time you remember that Alex Jones is a person that other people seek out, listen to, and believe, and every time you think about Donald Trump which, let’s be honest, is all the time.

But enough about us. What did other people think?? A small sampling, below.

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, “Roger Ailes Was One of the Worst Americans Ever

We are a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online, and we’re that way in large part because of the hyper-divisive media environment he discovered.

Ailes was the Christopher Columbus of hate. When the former daytime TV executive and political strategist looked across the American continent, he saw money laying around in giant piles. He knew that all that was needed to pick it up was a) the total abandonment of any sense of decency or civic duty in the news business, and b) the factory-like production of news stories that spoke to Americans’ worst fantasies about each other.

Fox News personality Sean Hannity:

A New York Times commenter, as tweeted by the paper’s Toni Monkovic:

Personally, I’ll never forgive him for the effect his network had on my grandparents in the last years of their lives. They were enthralled by Fox News, had it on day and night, whenever they were awake, and it infected them with paranoia, anger and most of all, fear. Visits were consumed with lectures about the latest conspiracy theory about the nefarious plots by the Clintons, Obamas, minorities, poor, or whoever else was allegedly hell-bent on destroying their way of life that day. When my grandfather died, it took hours of searching to find where he’d hidden all of his valuables and guns — Obama, you see, was coming to take them at any moment. He lived in a constant state of dread.

Bill O’Reilly thinks it was our hate that killed Ailes:

We are living in a rough age, with technological advances changing behavior and perspective. The downside of that is turning us into a nation where hatred is almost celebrated in some quarters.

Roger Ailes experienced that hatred and it killed him. That is the truth. But he would not want to be remembered that way. He did both good and bad in his life and in that, he has something in common with every human being.

Kurt Andersen has some memories of the man:

And perhaps most nuanced of all of us, Gabriel Sherman at New York, who wrote the definitive biography of Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country

As I spoke about Ailes yesterday in television and radio interviews, I thought of Ailes’s victims, who were denied the closure of seeing their sexual-harassment lawsuits against him go to trial. I thought of Ailes’s teenage son, Zachary, who lost his father and will grow up with that sordid legacy. I thought of the immense damage Ailes did to our political system.

I also felt overwhelmed as I thought about the enormity of what I had taken on. Writing about Ailes had taken a personal and professional toll on me. It was difficult to talk to many people about the downright crazy things I found out about him — and the downright crazy things Ailes was doing to me. When I did, few believed me. At the time I wrote my book, Ailes was embraced by the Establishment. Yes, he was polarizing and controversial, but liberals courted him. (Rachel Maddow, for instance, asked Ailes to blurb her book.) As I did interviews to promote The Loudest Voice in the Room in the winter and spring of 2014, many questioned my portrayal of Ailes as a paranoid and ruthless cult leader. Charlie Rose questioned why I wrote about Ailes’s family, and Norah O’Donnell asked me if I was just a “liberal journalist.”

Recently, people have asked me if I feel vindicated that what I wrote about Ailes years ago is now accepted as truth. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. At the same time, I feel a deep sense of loss. The subject that had been a singular focus of my writing life is now gone.

So long, Mr. Ailes. May the country, the news industry, and the concept of truth soon recover from your life’s work.



Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.