Roger Ailes and the creation of the conservative media celebrity
“You can’t tell the story of the rise of the conservative movement without talking about Roger Ailes. But you also can’t talk about how it went off the rails without talking about Roger Ailes,” conservative radio host Charlie Sykes told CNN. “To the extent that conservatism has been eclipsed by shrill showmanship — he was the ring leader. He was the guy who brought the circus to town.”
Ailes, who died Thursday at 77, spent decades in Republican politics and was known as a brilliant communicator. He advised Republican presidents from Richard Nixon to George H.W. Bush. In 1984, Ailes gifted Ronald Reagan with the famous one-liner he deployed when confronted in a debate about his old age: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign; I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
But his biggest triumph, the crown jewel of his career, was the Fox News Channel. Ailes was the founding chief executive of the network, in 1996, and he ran it until his ouster amid a number of sexual harassment allegations in 2016. During the span of those two decades, Ailes built the network into a ratings powerhouse and one of the most influential forces in American politics.
Ailes understood that there was a large swath of the country that did not feel served by the traditional news media. Sure, there was the National Review and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. But such outlets had narrow appeal and their readership was largely among the affluent and elite in Washington and New York.
Ailes was thinking bigger. He wanted the Fox News Channel to have mass appeal and break through the coastal elite bubble. A showman, Ailes wanted big personalities with even bigger takes.
The result? The rise of the conservative mega-star. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck. Ailes ushered in a generation of conservative media celebrities.
Even the individuals who didn’t work for the Fox News Channel passed through Ailes’ sphere at one point or another. Ailes served as the executive producer of Rush Limbaugh’s television show in the early 1990s. And the conservative media industry as a whole was lifted up by Fox News.
“Why is Breitbart a big deal today? Because of Matt Drudge. Why was Matt Drudge a big deal? Because Ailes and the company elevated him when he was going after the Clintons,” said Ryan Williams, former deputy national press secretary for Mitt…