Roger Ailes, the man who pioneered “alternative facts,” is dead. During the first five years of Fox News—which was built almost single-handedly by Ailes’ genius—I was a regular on-air contributor/panelist there. I dealt with his right-wing lieutenants plenty, but only met Ailes once, at a Fox News “Holiday Party.” The invite did not call it a “Christmas Party.” It was one of hundreds examples of hypocrisy at the TV channel that would soon launch the “War on Christmas” hoax.
Fox News was created in Ailes’ image—a channel that preached family values while subjecting women employees to intense harassment and body-shaming. Before Ailes launched Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s millions, he was executive producer of Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated TV show—which once displayed a photograph of Chelsea Clinton while Limbaugh referred to her as the “White House dog.” She was 13 years old at the time.
I wrote this in my book Cable News Confidential:
I met Ailes once at a Fox News holiday party. If you knew nothing about him, this short, pudgy, balding fellow might appear cuddly, almost huggable, like a nice old uncle you’d nickname Jolly Roger.
Looks can be deceiving. Ailes was the media consultant for Bush Sr.’s vicious 1988 campaign that linked Democratic candidate Mike Dukakis to black rapist Willie Horton. “The only question,” Ailes remarked, “is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.” Lee Atwater, his partner in the campaign, said that Ailes has “two speeds—attack and destroy.”
So Rupert Murdoch was putting Ailes in charge of a TV network during the reign of Bill Clinton, whom Ailes scorned as “the hippie president.” Given his genius with 30-second TV attack ads, imagine what Ailes could do 24/7.
What Ailes accomplished from 1996 until last year was a political/media revolution. As much as I hate to admit it, I can’t think of a single individual who’s had more impact on our country’s politics over the last 20 years. There would have been no Trump presidency without the decades of disinformation spewed by Fox News (and talk radio allies) to millions of voters—on issues from Christmas to immigrants to abortion, from economics to “socialist” Obama to “liberal media bias.”
I learned from my five years on-air at Fox News that its viewers were a fanatical bunch. Not serious readers or thinkers, but ardent voters. Years before pro-Trump “fake news” hoaxes were shared by millions on the Internet during the 2016 campaign, Ailes had reached his audience of voters with cable TV’s version of fake news. It matters that millions of hardcore activists and voters are operating from a worldview where racial minorities, women, immigrants, foreigners and terrorists have the upper hand against beleaguered white males, the depleted US military and persecuted corporations (I mean, “job creators”).
Perhaps Jon Stewart said it best in 2001 when The Daily Show earned a Peabody Award, given for excellence in television without any specific categories. Jon Stewart accepted the award by joking that he had won in the “News Parody” category: “There was not much competition this year. It was just us and Fox.”