The Rise, Fall And Lasting Influence Of Roger Ailes Roger Ailes' biographer Gabriel Sherman discusses Ailes' influence on conservative politics and what his departure from Fox News means for the network's future.
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The Rise, Fall And Lasting Influence Of Roger Ailes

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The Rise, Fall And Lasting Influence Of Roger Ailes

The Rise, Fall And Lasting Influence Of Roger Ailes

The Rise, Fall And Lasting Influence Of Roger Ailes

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Roger Ailes' biographer Gabriel Sherman discusses Ailes' influence on conservative politics and what his departure from Fox News means for the network's future.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to spend a few minutes talking about a towering figure in American media. Roger Ailes created Fox News and ran it for two decades until he was forced to step down this week after allegations of sexual harassment became too big for Fox's owner, Rupert Murdoch, to ignore.

We're turning now to biographer Gabriel Sherman to hear more about why Ailes is such an important figure and what his departure could mean, both to politics and television. He's the author of the unauthorized Ailes biography, "The Loudest Voice In The Room," and a writer for New York Magazine. And he's with us now from Cleveland. Gabe Sherman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GABRIEL SHERMAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, obviously you wrote a whole book about this, but could you just give me the broad outlines of Roger Ailes' biography? How did he become such a pivotal figure?

SHERMAN: Roger Ailes revolutionized American politics and media and became the most influential Republican in American life over the last 40 years by figuring out that television and politics were going to become one and the same thing. He got in on the ground floor of "The Mike Douglas Show," a pioneering daytime TV show. And from those early days, he learned the techniques of show business and communication as an effective tool of political messaging.

And in 1968, he was hired by Richard Nixon as a 27 year old to be his chief television adviser. And he scripted and packaged Nixon, who had a famously dour and unappealing television image, and he reintroduced Richard Nixon to America as the new Nixon. And from that moment on, Republicans all over America flocked to him to craft and rebrand themselves.

You know, it seems inevitable that Donald Trump has become the Republican nominee as a reality television star because he is the conclusion of all of the work that Roger Ailes has done injecting right-wing populism through moving images on television.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you in a minute about what Roger Ailes' relationship with Donald Trump has been. But before we get to that - so was it Ailes' intention to use the network as a tool for influencing Republican politics and specifically bringing conservatives to power?

SHERMAN: Without question, as I document in my book. You know, Roger Ailes is a charismatic, towering figure. He runs Fox News - or he ran, I should say - as a cult of personality. And he believes deep in his heart, as he said to people many times, that he needs to save America, that Fox News was his megaphone to change and save America and preserve the republic.

What Roger Ailes did when he created Fox News was to create a television news network that was anti-journalism. And so what he did with Fox News was to create it as a political campaign that would run against the American media, that would convince millions of Americans not to trust the mainstream - so-called mainstream media, and that Fox News would be the only place on television where you could find the truth.

It was a brilliant marketing and political message that created a loyal core of viewers. And so the impact that it's had on American life over the last 20 years is almost impossible to overstate.

MARTIN: Why is Roger Ailes' departure coming now? There are other - there have been other incidents at Fox over the years. This didn't just happen overnight, so why now?

SHERMAN: Principally, what's different now is that Rupert Murdoch's two adult children, James and Lachlan Murdoch, have been elevated into co-leadership positions atop the corporate parent that owns Fox News. And both Murdoch children have had their tangles with Roger Ailes in the past. Both children have been seeking a way to move him aside, and this lawsuit that Gretchen Carlson filed - it really gave them a powerful cudgel.

And since then, Fox newswomen, including their biggest star Megyn Kelly, have come forward to say that Roger Ailes made unwanted sexual advances towards them. So this gave the Murdoch children enough leverage with their father to say, it's time for Roger Ailes to be removed from the company.

MARTIN: What is Roger Ailes' relationship with Donald Trump? I mean, you have argued that Donald Trump is, in fact, the culmination of what Roger Ailes has built.

SHERMAN: I think it's a very close relationship. The two men have known each other for decades. They travel in similar circles. Roger Ailes really created Donald Trump as a political figure. While "The Apprentice" on NBC made him a celebrity, Roger Ailes gave him access to Fox News. He gave him a weekly segment to call in to the morning show and spout off on politics. And he really got the ball rolling with Republican voters that Donald Trump could be a presidential candidate.

In the wake of Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit, Donald Trump was advising Roger Ailes on how to navigate the sexual harassment scandal. And there is a lot of speculation here in Cleveland that with his exit from Fox News, Roger Ailes could, in fact, land as Donald Trump's media adviser and try to rekindle his role that started his political career in 1968 by helping Donald Trump get elected president.

MARTIN: And, finally, how will this affect Republican politics, since, in your description, he has been such a key political player both overtly and behind the scenes?

SHERMAN: The future of Fox News is in many ways a metaphor for the future of the Republican Party. If Trump wins, the party will become rebranded as the Fox News party. But if he loses - you know, the Republican Party is going through soul searching, and the same is going to happen for Fox News.

Fox News is going through the same competition that the mainstream networks went through when Ailes launched the network. There are now multiple conservative media outlets on the right. There is Newsmax Television, which is a conservative media company run out of Florida that is now broadcasting into people's homes. Glenn Beck has started his own television and digital media company to compete with Fox. So we're seeing a fracturing of the conservative audience in the same way we saw a fracturing of the mainstream audience when there were just three broadcast networks way back when.

And the Murdoch family is going to have to reassess, is this style of programming a profitable business strategy going forward? And my sense from talking to people inside the company - that all bets are off, that they are looking far and wide at ways that they might reposition the channel as less overtly partisan and populist and try to relate to a different audience. And I think that's what we're going to see playing out in the months ahead.

MARTIN: Gabriel Sherman is a writer for New York Magazine and author of the unauthorized Roger Ailes biography, "The Loudest Voice In The Room." We were able to catch him in Cleveland just before he packed up to move on to his next assignment. Gabe, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHERMAN: Thank you.

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Roger Ailes' Unparalleled Impact On The Public Sphere

Roger Ailes' Unparalleled Impact On The Public Sphere

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Fox News CEO Roger Ailes in his New York City studios in 2006. Ailes served as CEO from Fox News' first day in 1996. Jim Cooper/AP hide caption

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Jim Cooper/AP

Fox News CEO Roger Ailes in his New York City studios in 2006. Ailes served as CEO from Fox News' first day in 1996.

Jim Cooper/AP

The news that sexual harassment allegations have cost Roger Ailes his job threatens to obscure Ailes' singular career and his almost unrivaled influence in the public sphere.

But no contemporary figure has done more to shape the intersection of American media and politics than Ailes, who, until Thursday, had been the Fox News chief since its very first day on the air in 1996.

In his long career, Ailes advised a succession of Republican presidents on how to gain power and maintain it — both on their payrolls and off the books.

He showed how to bring flair and flash to financial coverage as president of CNBC.

Then Ailes gave a turbo boost to the Republican movement in the mid-1990s, just in time to fuel opposition to the Clinton White House, with the creation of Fox News. It was a partnership and mind meld between Ailes and his new patron, media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard and a familiar figure on Fox News, told me the new network gave conservatives hope.

"They were so used to thinking that the media was completely barren as far as they were concerned," Barnes said. "There was nothing there for them. It was all for liberals. And then Fox comes along — and they really glommed on it."

Fox served as the home of debate within the conservative movement. At its default setting, Fox blended pugilistic, right-of-center populism, resentment of changing demographics and sexual mores, and a strong nationalistic tone.

Fox News' success also drove television news as a whole more toward conflict, given its emphasis on assertion over reporting.

From Entertainment To Politics

Fred Barnes spoke to me outside the arena for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. It was perhaps fitting that the end game for Ailes played out as Republicans gathered there.

Ailes, an Ohio native, enjoyed his first big professional success in Cleveland, as a producer of a local variety and talk program called The Mike Douglas Show.

In time, the show went national. So did Ailes.

After Richard Nixon appeared on the show during the 1968 campaign, Ailes gave the candidate some advice: use televised appearances to go around the press and interact with voters. More to the point, be seen interacting with voters.

Roger Ailes was a political consultant in 1971, advising many leading Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Karl Rove. Jerry Mosey/AP hide caption

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Jerry Mosey/AP

Roger Ailes was a political consultant in 1971, advising many leading Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Karl Rove.

Jerry Mosey/AP

In one such encounter, former college football coach Bud Wilkinson, a Nixon fan and friend, served as moderator. "No one has any idea what questions will be asked," Wilkinson told viewers. "Mr. Nixon cannot possibly know. His answers must be immediate and direct — and our panel is representative."

In reality, the panelists were pretty carefully screened.

Ailes ended up advising the Nixon White House. He also rose to be executive producer of The Mike Douglas Show, which lasted for thousands of episodes. Ailes dabbled in Broadway, producing two shows, including The Hot l Baltimore.

He advised President Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984, helping Reagan revive his fortunes following a disastrous first debate against Walter Mondale.

Reagan dominated the second debate with remarks that became political legend. Pressed on his age, for example, Reagan said, "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." Reagan never looked back.

Ailes kept toggling between producing television specials and serving as a political consultant, sometimes doing both at once.

In 1988, Ailes played a key role in George H.W. Bush's White House bid. A climactic moment arrived early that year. Ailes warned Bush that CBS News anchor Dan Rather was primed to go after him on the Iran-Contra scandal during a live interview. The conversation turned testy.

Bush ordinarily displayed a patrician reserve. Ailes goaded Bush to rumble. When pressed by Rather, the vice president roared back, "It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?"

Bush was jabbing Rather over a 1987 incident in which the network delayed the start of CBS Evening News to carry the end of a U.S. Open tennis match. Rather, infuriated, walked off the set (on location in Miami, not New York). When the match ended, the network went black for more than six minutes before Rather returned.

That year, Ailes published the book, You Are the Message, a primer on how candidates and corporate executives should communicate with the public. He proceeded to manage several unsuccessful Republican campaigns, starting with Rudy Giuliani's first mayoral bid in New York City in 1989.

Ailes left politics once more, though hardly definitively. He produced Rush Limbaugh's radio show and then joined CNBC to build it up into a recognizable version of what the channel is today.

The Era Of Fox News

He later jumped at the chance to run Rupert Murdoch's Fox News — defined as an alternative to the liberal media at its launch in fall 1996.

Roger Ailes (left) speaks at a news conference with Rupert Murdoch in January 1996 after it was announced Ailes would be chairman and CEO of Fox News. Richard Drew/AP hide caption

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Richard Drew/AP

Roger Ailes (left) speaks at a news conference with Rupert Murdoch in January 1996 after it was announced Ailes would be chairman and CEO of Fox News.

Richard Drew/AP

Fox built up momentum during the impeachment process of President Bill Clinton and then surged after the disputed 2000 presidential election and the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The channel draped itself in patriotism — a constant Ailes refrain. Fox would become the top-rated cable news channel and has remained so ever since.

Before Thursday evening, many with ties to the network said there is no way to disentangle what they felt about Fox from what they felt about Ailes.

"At Fox, everything is due to Roger," Fred Barnes said. "It was entirely his vision. And what he created — one guy creating that. I'm still amazed."

News reports were often straight ahead. But common themes cropped up on the opinion shows, including some racial undercurrents.

In a 2009 appearance on Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck, who at the time hosted his own show on Fox, said of President Obama, "This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

Ultimately Beck's conspiracy-driven rhetoric and his belief that his star shined brighter than the network's was too much for even Ailes, who did not renew Beck's contract.

Ailes never fully shed his partisan activities. He counseled President George W. Bush's chief adviser, Karl Rove, during the invasion of Iraq.

In 2012, he personally encouraged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run against Obama and sent an emissary to Afghanistan to try to coax Gen. David Petraeus into the race. (That secret mission, carried out by a Fox News national security analyst, was taped.)

Ailes had put many of the candidates in the past few cycles on the Fox payroll; John Kasich and Mike Huckabee used to be Fox News hosts, while Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ben Carson had all been paid Fox News commentators.

Fox News host Megyn Kelly moderates the Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 28. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Fox News host Megyn Kelly moderates the Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 28.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Above all, Ailes wanted Fox News to referee Republican Party politics.

That backfired, in a sense, last August, when Fox News host Megyn Kelly confronted Donald Trump in the first Republican debate.

Kelly said, "You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals."

Trump interjected, "Only Rosie O'Donnell."

"No, it wasn't," Kelly said.

After the debate, Trump attacked Kelly and Fox News and appeared repeatedly on rival networks, driving up their ratings.

Ailes effectively sued for peace with Trump, alienating Kelly.

The Obsessions Of Roger Ailes

One of Ailes' former executives once told me you just had to watch Fox to understand his obsessions.

The channel was drenched in stories about sex.

Female presenters on Fox were often overtly sexualized. They were steered to wear revealing outfits, while cameras lingered over their legs.

The morning show Fox & Friends, a peppy mix of fraternity humor, gossip and conservative chat, was a particular source of charged banter.

Gretchen Carlson had been a co-host on the show for years. She filed suit earlier this month alleging that Ailes had demoted her to an early afternoon show several years ago, cutting her pay, as a result of her complaints of sexism on the set. He then proceeded to make increasingly plain sexual advances, according to her suit.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears on Fox & Friends with co-anchors Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade in 2011. Carlson filed suit earlier this month alleging that Ailes had demoted her to an early afternoon show several years ago, cutting her pay, as a result of her complaints of sexism on the set. Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images hide caption

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Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears on Fox & Friends with co-anchors Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade in 2011. Carlson filed suit earlier this month alleging that Ailes had demoted her to an early afternoon show several years ago, cutting her pay, as a result of her complaints of sexism on the set.

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Some anchors and hosts defended Ailes, including some women, in what appeared to be a coordinated effort.

Megyn Kelly, by contrast, held back from public comment and cooperated with an inquiry set up by parent company 21st Century Fox. She reportedly told the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison — which was conducting the inquiry — that Ailes had harassed her, too, when she was a young reporter in the network's Washington bureau. Others have also come forward.

Ailes' management style knit together fierce loyalty and paranoia. Many Fox News journalists have told me of their deep fears of offending Ailes, including one who, like Carlson, says she was sexually harassed by him in recent years.

One way such loyalty can be enforced: Ailes' PR department has peddled negative stories about colleagues who fell out of favor. In one instance, a publicist successfully planted a story in the Washington Post depicting then-anchor Laurie Dhue as drunk at a black-tie affair; after leaving the network, she acknowledged she was an alcoholic. Her lawyer said Thursday she, too, is writing a book about her interactions with Ailes and others at Fox.

Ailes is receiving a severance package in the tens of millions of dollars, though he will remain an adviser to Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch will oversee the network in the short term.

Carlson's attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, tells me the payment of such an astonishing sum to get Ailes to resign falls short given all the accusations against him.

Until Carlson's lawsuit, Ailes' charisma, his accomplishments and his stature held sway.

No longer.