If Ronald Reagan was rightly called the Great Communicator, Roger Ailes, who died Thursday at age 77, has to be considered the greatest creator of communicators in the history of politics or television.
Political professionals talk about the importance of “getting your message out.” Ailes knew the message mattered, but he also knew the message wasn’t worth much unless you knew how to deliver it.
Ailes relished challenges, so it’s no surprise that his first political client was presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who told Ailes in 1967 that TV was a gimmick. “If you think that,” Ailes replied, “you’ll lose again.” In 1968 Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey. Ailes would later advise Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and after the trauma of 9/11 George W. Bush.
Any understanding of Ailes’s success, though, must always return to the medium of television. His TV career started in 1962 in Cleveland as a property assistant for “The Mike Douglas Show,” a daytime talk show. At age 27 he was executive producer for the likeable Douglas, and the show became a hit.
Ailes’s biggest TV moment arrived when Rupert Murdoch, the owner of this newspaper, asked him to start a cable news channel in 1996. Fox News rose and eventually rolled over rival cable networks CNN and MSNBC.
Ailes’s competitors and critics acknowledged his success with Fox but never could understand how this “conservative” channel attracted and held so many viewers. Asked once how he accounted for this, Ailes told us it was pretty simple: NBC, CBS , ABC and his cable competitors aimed their programming at audiences on the East and West Coasts. He programmed for the country in between.
His liberal critics smirked at his famous Fox banner, “fair and balanced,” but failed to appreciate his deeper insight. A relentless competitor, Ailes thought traditional television had tilted its news and U.S. politics by elevating a single point of view. He saw a market for news and commentary that no one else offered, and he filled it (including a weekend show with Wall Street Journal editors).
Ailes’s career ended at Fox amid allegations of sexual harassment, but it is hard to overstate the importance of his legacy in television and American politics. He rebalanced both in the U.S. The competition in both will continue, but Roger Ailes redesigned the playing field.