Former Fox News Channel chairman and chief executive Roger Ailes, who revolutionized TV news, but left the network amid sexual harassment allegations last summer, died Thursday. He was 77.
Ailes, a hemophiliac, died after a fall at his Palm Beach, Florida, home on May 10 caused bleeding on the brain, the Palm Beach County medical examiner’s office said.
“During a career that stretched over more than five decades, his work in entertainment, in politics and in news affected the lives of many millions,” Elizabeth Ailes said in a statement announcing her husband’s death. In a separate statement, Fox News and 21st Century Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch said, “A brilliant broadcaster, Roger played a huge role in shaping America’s media over the last 30 years.”
Tempestuous, volatile and widely considered the most influential television news executive in the modern history of the medium, Ailes cut a wide swath across culture as well as politics. As the first independent political consultant of the TV age, he helped to elect presidents Richard Nixon — whom he met while a producer with “The Mike Douglas Show” — Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In addition, he engineered Alfonse D’Amato’s successful election bid in 1980 by deploying D’Amato’s mother in an ad.
In a tweet Thursday, Bush wrote, “not sure I would have been President w/o his great talent, loyal help.”
Ailes’ style was hard-hitting and colorful — outlined in considerable detail in “The Selling of the President 1968,” author Joe McGinniss’ classic account of the Nixon campaign. Nixon — who had lost to John F. Kennedy following the televised debates in 1960 — had long considered the medium more of a nuisance than a valuable political tool. Ailes convinced him otherwise. Ailes was also blunt in his assessment of Nixon, telling McGinniss that people look at him as someone “who was 42 years old the day he was born.” Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, later forced Ailes out of Nixon’s orbit.
He also was blunt with D’Amato who had hired him to run advertising for his campaign against Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman and incumbent Jacob Javits, telling him, “nobody likes you [and] your own mother wouldn’t vote for you. Do you have a mother?” Ailes subsequently produced an ad starring his mother, Antoinette D’Amato, walking to her Island Park home saying, “Vote for my son Al. He’ll be a good senator.” The ad was a sensation, and even Jimmy Breslin wrote, “I’d never vote for Al D’Amato, but I’d vote for his mother.” D’Amato won.
After a run as president of CNBC, Ailes joined Fox News just before its launch on Oct. 7, 1996.
To critics, Ailes’ Fox News exploited the culture wars and used the network as a proxy for right-wing causes, and, by association, the Republican candidates it embraced.
But to viewers, Fox News became the true alternative to what many saw as a liberal, media-elite establishment personified by CBS News or CNN. Ailes coined the catchphrase “fair and balanced.” Ailes critics dismissed it as a cynical commercial tagline that was the exact opposite of what Fox presented on the air. But to supporters, it was both a battle cry and gauntlet thrown. To them, finally, there was an alternative.
Ailes had a standard reply to those who said Fox was biased. If the other networks “all have the same take and we have a different take, why does that bother you?” he said in a 2013 authorized biography. “The last two guys who succeeded in lining up the media on one side were Hitler and Stalin.”
Fox News struggled in its early years, but caught a tail wind during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Fox News’ prime-time lineup during those years included two programs that in time would become the top-rated programs on cable news — “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity & Colmes.”But Ailes later would be undone by one his biggest stars. In early July last year, Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, saying he terminated her employment because she had refused his sexual advances.
Two days later, Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, said it would launch an internal investigation into the allegations. Carlson charged that Ailes fired her on June 23 after “ostracizing, marginalizing and shunning her after making clear to her that these ‘problems’ would not have existed, and could be solved, if she had a sexual relationship with him.”
Fox News’ parent company settled with Carlson in September for a reported $20 million. Ailes denied the allegation, but at least six other allegations of sexual harassment by Ailes against female employees subsequently surfaced — including from Megyn Kelly, who later joined NBC News.
Ailes was forced out 15 days after Carlson filed suit, with a reported $40 million payout.
Born in Warren, Ohio, the son of a factory foreman, Ailes worked at a Cleveland TV station after graduating from Ohio University and later launched a talk show with former big band singer Mike Douglas. After starting his media consultancy in 1968, he also produced a handful of Broadway shows, including 1973’s “The Hot L Baltimore,” which ran for three years at the Circle in the Square.
In addition to his wife, Ailes is survived by their son, Zachary.
1940: Born in Warren, Ohio, son of Donna Marie and Robert Eugene Ailes, a factory foreman
1962: Graduated Ohio University, later joined “The Mike Douglas Show”
1967-68: Executive producer, “Mike Douglas Show”
1968: Media adviser to Richard Nixon campaign
1968: Founded Ailes Communications, political media and production company, and produced two Broadway plays
1984: Media adviser to the Ronald Reagan campaign
1988: Media adviser to the George H.W. Bush campaign
1989: Adviser to Rudy Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign
1993: President of CNBC
1994 Launches cable channel America’s Talking, which was later replaced by MSNBC
1996: Named president of Fox News Channel, 1996
July 6, 2016: Gretchen Carlson files sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes
July 21, 2016: Resigns from Fox News.