As the man who created and ran Fox News, Roger Ailes was a titan of television and the most influential media executive of the early 21st century.
Ailes, who was born in Warren, Ohio, was also a divisive figure, politically and professionally, who, as the network’s chairman and CEO, was toppled by several sexual harassment claims made against him, which he vigorously denied.
Nonetheless, AIies resigned from the network on July 21, with a reported $40 million exit payment from the network. He died Thursday at the age of 77.
“There’s absolutely no doubt as the creator of the Fox News empire — or network — [Ailes] was part of a significant change in the media landscape,” said David Jackson, professor of political science at Bowling Green State University.
A conservative firebrand, Ailes saw those invisible Americans who felt ignored by mainstream media, and knew how to reach, engage, and often enrage them — particularly as it pertained to politics.
“It’s pretty undeniable that without Fox News there wouldn’t be a President Trump,” Jackson said.
As with his politics, Ailes’ success also can be polarizing.
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On Fox News, for example, he pioneered the popular talking-head news format — Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck — that mixes news and facts with opinions in a way that is often indecipherable to viewers.
“From my perspective as a broadcaster, his biggest influence was blurring those lines of entertainment and news,” said Scott Sands, senior vice president of programming for I Heart Radio’s cluster of Toledo stations and afternoon host on WSPD-AM 1370 and FM 92.9.
“In theory those lines should always be separate — and it’s worth debating — but in today’s fast-paced world and short-attention spans, we don’t get as many people interested in the news and journalism. Ailes made news interesting to watch.”
Such programming invited conversation — and often screaming — on the network and in living rooms as never before, particularly about politics.
“Because of that, people started thinking differently about the political process and what goes on in Washington and state capitols and even local government,” said Andy Stuart, regional vice president and market manager for Cumulus Media Toledo. “That’s where Roger’s influence comes to bear.”
For those who didn’t like Ailes’ politics — or even Ailes — the sexual harassment allegations gave them new opportunities to dislike the conservative media mogul.
Former Fox show host Gretchen Carlson, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes last year was settled for a reported $20 million, claimed her ex-boss once told her, “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better,” among many other comments.
Even after Ailes’ departure last summer, the scandal didn’t disappear, with O’Reilly recently ousted by the network. As with Ailes, O’Reilly also maintains he is innocent.
Stuart said the sexual harassment claims are not likely to be a big part of Ailes’ legacy: “We don’t think of the Lewinsky affair as a big part of [President] Clinton’s legacy.”
Others disagree, saying that juxtaposition of success and alleged personal failings are inseparable.
“You can certainly acknowledge and give him credit for what he did to influence the industry positively, but there’s a lot of things he did that should be remembered on the negative side,” Sands said. “He may have been a smart guy but that doesn’t mean he was a good guy.”
If nothing else, it’s worth noting the rather matter-of-fact statement (and its lack of superlatives) emailed from Ohio University regarding Ailes, a graduate and substantial financial donor to the school: “Today, we learned of the passing of alumnus Roger Ailes. Ohio University sends heartfelt condolences to the Ailes family.”
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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