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Roger Ailes (1940 – 2017), longtime Fox News chief

by Stephen Segal

Roger Ailes, the longtime Fox News chief who built the company into a populist media powerhouse over two decades before resigning last year amid multiple sexual harassment allegations, died Thursday, May 18, 2017. He was 77.

In a statement given to The Associated Press Thursday morning, his widow, Elizabeth Ailes, said: “I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning surrounded by his beautiful family. Roger was my best friend, the most wonderful loving husband and father to our son Zachary. He was a loyal friend to so many. Roger was a patriot, grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise—and to give back. 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. And so even as we mourn his death, we celebrate his life.”

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Ailes was born May 15, 1940, in Warren, Ohio, where his father worked at an automobile factory. Years later, Ailes would tell his biographer that a formative moment in his life was the occasion when his father stood below young Roger’s bunk bed and told him to jump down into his arms. The boy jumped as he was told, but his father stepped back and let him fall to the ground hard. “Don’t ever trust anybody,” the senior Ailes told his stunned son.

It was a lesson Ailes took to heart, as expressions of trust and the lack thereof became a central motif in his work as a political campaign strategist, as a news media producer, and as an executive who held hiring power over decades worth of young, hopeful media professionals. Eventually, he would go on to capture millions of American television viewers by promising them they could trust Fox News as a more “fair and balanced” network than the others.

Ailes began his career as a television producer for “The Mike Douglas Show” at KYW-TV in Cleveland and Philadelphia in the 1960s. He entered political media as the television chief for Richard Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968. His fortunes as a Republican campaign consultant continued through the 1980s as he produced TV ads for President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign and George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 presidential bid.

Through all the political campaigns he media-managed, Ailes emphasized the use of strong visuals on camera; short, memorable phrases; and other such theatrical flourishes that valued power and stylistic presentation over any deeper discussion of policy. These practices continued to serve him well in the 1990s as he segued back into a TV production career, developing news programming for NBC’s cable efforts.

In 1996, Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, then chairman and CEO of News Corporation, resolved to launch a 24-hour news network in the United States as he previously had done in the U.K. with Sky News. He hired Ailes to turn that vision into a reality, and Fox News launched Oct. 7, 1996.

Under Ailes’ leadership, Fox News’ bold graphical presentation, offering bullet-pointed text onscreen to distill, simplify, and reinforce the key points being made by speakers, proved powerfully effective in capturing viewers’ attention and has influenced the entire generation of cable news since. Fox News was the first network to employ a constant scrolling news-headline ticker at the bottom of the screen; it began the practice Sept. 11, 2001, as a means of keeping up with the constant barrage of breaking news regarding the day’s terrorist attacks.

Through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies, Fox News followed Ailes’ lead in blurring the boundaries between journalistic reporting, entertainment, and political messaging, becoming the nation’s major hub of mainstream expression for populist Republicans and other social conservatives. As talk host Rush Limbaugh, a former Ailes colleague, once said: “Roger Ailes is not on the air, Roger Ailes does not ever show up on camera, and yet everybody who does is a reflection of him.”

In 2016, Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit against Ailes, alleging the network chief had tried to use her career prospects to pressure her into having sex with him. In the days and weeks that followed, dozens of women from throughout Ailes’ long career echoed Carlson’s allegations, including Fox hosts Megyn Kelly and Andrea Tantaros.

Ailes abruptly resigned in July 2016, at the height of the U.S. presidential election campaign season, and Fox settled Carlson’s lawsuit.

It was widely reported that Ailes then proceeded to serve a brief stint as adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump during his months of preparation for the presidential debates.

Ailes is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; their son, Zachary; and his older brother, Robert.

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