BOSTON (CBS) – The death of Fox News impresario Roger Ailes has inspired mixed reaction, and that’s no surprise.
For his fans, the rightward lean of Fox News was long-awaited relief from a network news landscape dominated by liberals. To his critics, Ailes made Fox News into the leading edge of a descent into bitter partisanship and toxic infotainment.
“My primary qualification for running a news channel is that I don’t have a degree in journalism,” he said.
But for me, the Ailes legacy is a story of brilliant marketing overwhelming convention wisdom and constraints.
As a producer for Mike Douglas’s syndicated talk show in the 1960s, Ailes saw that the turbulent politics and cultural upheaval of the time could be ratings-grabbing. From Muhammad Ali to John Lennon, the Douglas show featured guests who could draw viewers, regardless of what Ailes may have thought of their politics.
As a political ad-maker for Republican candidates, like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, Ailes went for the jugular, most notably against Michael Dukakis with the infamous Willie Horton ad about a killer let out on furlough. It was a preview of his Fox News credo that political correctness was to be shunned in favor of blunt, sometimes insensitive coverage of touchy issues.
And Ailes determined that many viewers like getting their news from attractive blondes in short skirts.
Off camera, he liked them too, apparently a bit too much.
Roger Ailes succeeded where others had failed in fusing three key elements of the baby-boom generation – obsession with pop culture, a fondness for conflict and grievance, and a passionate commitment to their own political beliefs.
The question is, did he do so for better, or for worse?