The television legacy of Roger Ailes is as impressive as his personal conduct sometimes seemed to be deplorable.
As the architect of Fox News, Ailes didn’t dream up anything new. He simply applied three timeless lessons.
1. Packaged properly, the news can be comfort food.
2. America has a long, rich and successful tradition of a partisan news media.
3. The most important character in any drama is the bad guy.
Ailes and Fox chief Rupert Murdoch recognized there is a core of conservative viewers who think America and the world have gone to hell since the 1960s and probably since Franklin Roosevelt.
Nothing could be more comforting to those viewers than to turn on a news channel that consistently reinforces that belief.
This doesn’t make conservative viewers perverse or even unusual, by the way. Left-leaning viewers turn to MSNBC for the same reason, just as adherents of numerous other ideologies all have their own media.
Anyone who doesn’t work constantly to shut out all media today is battered with a hailstorm of information. Some sounds good, some sounds bad, some sounds credible, some sounds bizarre and disturbing.
Ailes, who died Thursday at the age of 77, provided conservatives with a safe place where the news would be reported and interpreted just as viewers saw it.
The government is giving away your tax dollars! The mainstream media is biased! Someone wants to take away your guns! Patriotism is dead!
Bad guys everywhere. In the 1990s, conservatives flocked to radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh for a voice that denounced and ridiculed these dangerous villains. Now, thanks largely to Roger Ailes, they also have Fox News.
The fact Ailes labeled Fox News “fair and balanced” was almost an inside joke, less a description than a branding tool, reminding viewers their despised “mainstream media” (MSM) is neither of those things.
It also reinforced the idea that Fox News, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with millions of viewers, was somehow a besieged, lonely outpost in the media world.
It’s an appealingly romantic image, though radio talk host Jay Severin, asked a few years ago whether conservative talk was balanced, said that was the wrong question.
“We are the balance,” he said.
Historically, he’s onto something. Our modern media evolved from the newspapers of the 18h and 19th century, most of which were founded to push a political point of view.
From Federalists and Whigs to Republicans and Democrats, parties often underwrote those early papers, which gave loyalists what they wanted.
When Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1884, the Republican Los Angeles Times refused to even report that news for several days.
That’s party loyalty.
The notion of a nonpartisan press took hold in the 20th century, when – among other things – newspapers began to court advertisers like department stores that wanted a broader audience.
People and institutions being what they are, it would be hard to argue we ever achieved a completely nonpartisan press.
We were just closer to it before folks like Ailes and Murdoch realized we were ready for a throwback to the old model of niche journalism.
So today a lot of that aforementioned media noise comes from partisan outlets, whether it’s Fox News, MSNBC or Internet sites and the blogosphere.
This raises its own whole set of questions, like what’s “fake news” and how we average viewers/readers can sift through the mountains of information to find what’s true and valuable.
That ongoing discussion is part of Ailes’s legacy. From his own perspective, asked about that same subject a short while ago, Ailes said he suspected it would be defined in part by his “enemies,” presumably meaning people who would think acting like an entitled bully toward your employees needs to be mentioned.
The fact he phrased it that way, however, showed that he retained his TV lessons to the end.
“Us” works so much better when you first establish a “them”
Worked for John Wayne. Worked for Roger Ailes.