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The Age of Ailes

What the Fox chief can teach us

It is tempting—as well as, in liberal circles, heretical—to try and separate Roger Ailes from his politics.

That’s a fiery (and gassy) debate. Is the 15-year Fox News epoch more about politics or more about television? And is there a difference?

Or, is joining politics and television more a marketing play than a political play? And is that cynical and amoral, or postmodern and brilliant?

I was in a discussion the other day with executives at one of the large Spanish-language networks and the talk was about how to get the English-speaking media to pay attention to Hispanic media, with its vast audience share. The proposition was why not do it the Fox way. Nobody would have paid attention to a network catering to older conservatives if it had not turned that audience into a political threat. Politics branded Fox.

But is Roger Ailes himself a dedicated extreme right winger? Is Roger Ailes (as his boss Rupert Murdoch has suggested) nuts?

Or is Roger Ailes crazy like a fox? Is Roger Ailes just a trouble maker? Is Roger Ailes one of the greatest promoters in the history of news—hell, in the history of promotion?

A corollary to all of the above: Is Roger Ailes having more fun than anybody else in news and television?

The network business, broadcast or cable, is an unhappy one. I don’t know of anyone in the network business (no less the television news business), save for Ailes, who seems full of piss, vinegar, and brio. I can’t say I know anyone who even terribly likes his job.

The liberal retort: If that is what it takes to have fun, then we all ought to be glad to be glum.

But, if the fun principle isn’t about conservatism, per se, but about giving the finger to everybody else, then shouldn’t Ailes be something of a vaunted anti-hero?

Who, with heart and imagination, and a problem with authority, wouldn’t want to do what Ailes has done?

His accomplishment over the course of Fox’s 15 years is to have rolled the stuffed shirts (part of that accomplishment is to have turned the liberals into the stuffed shirts), to have gone, on the strength of the counterintuitive, from mere rump outfit to paradigm shift and category killer. The people who were sitting pretty have been flattened; he’s now on top. And gloating.

This happened wholly on the basis of doing the opposite of what convention proscribed you to do. Of paying for carriage when nobody did that, of catering to an audience that was largely unserved, of shattering the mood and manners of cool and oracular stuffed-shirt news.

Along the way, he gets to have a shocking amount of political clout—a byproduct of his success.

The rules, in liberal parlance, should have protected us from someone like Ailes.

But the rules were weak, and the people upholding the rules were lazy, and Ailes was a clever, trouble-making opportunist with a voice and a point of view.

Roger Ailes is what a media executive ought to be.

Photo: Jeff Malet

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