Roger Ailes, Polarizing Ex-Fox News Chief, Dies at 77

Wesley Mann/Courtesy of FOX News
Roger Ailes

Rupert Murdoch remembered him, recalling of the man he recruited to launch the network, "Roger and I shared a big idea which he executed in a way no one else could have."

Roger Ailes, who as a political consultant helped elect Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush before joining Rupert Murdoch’s empire as the hard-charging founding CEO of the Fox News Channel, has died, his former network Fox News announced Thursday. He was 77.

Ailes resigned as CEO of Fox News in the wake of numerous sexual harassment allegations last summer. The network's Fox & Friends morning show anchors reported on Ailes' death, reading a statement obtained by Matt Drudge, from Ailes' widow, Elizabeth.

"I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning," Elizabeth Ailes said. "Roger was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many. He was also a patriot, profoundly 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."

Ailes died as a result of complications from a fall, a Fox source told The Hollywood Reporter. A report from the medical examiner in Palm Beach County, Florida on Thursday afternoon stated that Ailes died Thursday morning of "complications of a subdural hematoma after he fell at home injuring his head."

"Hemophilia contributed to his death and his manner of death was accidental," the statement added. "There was no evidence of foul play."

In a separate statement, 21st Century Fox and Fox News executive chairman Rupert Murdoch said, "Everybody at Fox News is shocked and grieved by the death of Roger Ailes. A brilliant broadcaster, Roger played a huge role in shaping America’s media over the last 30 years. He will be remembered by the many people on both sides of the camera that he discovered, nurtured and promoted. Roger and I shared a big idea which he executed in a way no one else could have. In addition, Roger was a great patriot who never ceased fighting for his beliefs. At 21st Century Fox we will always be enormously grateful for the great business he built. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Elizabeth and son Zachary."

Ailes, arguably the most divisive executive in American media before his exit, wielded outsized power in U.S. politics and culture. He introduced the populace to Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and other right-leaning hosts who drew massive audiences and, in doing so, became a notorious figure among progressive activists eager to discredit him and his top-rated network.

Ailes was an NBC executive who ran CNBC in the 1990s before Murdoch hired him to launch Fox News in 1996 to a mere 17 million cable homes. Conservatives embraced the upstart news network, and within a decade it was routinely drawing more viewers than competitors CNN and MSNBC combined.

In recent years, Fox News has earned more than $1 billion annually as the most profitable asset at Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox conglomerate.

Ailes described Fox News as "real journalism," "fair and balanced" and, more recently, with the phrase, "We report, you decide," and the marketing slogans were an endless source of both frustration and amusement to his left-leaning detractors, some of whom delighted in calling his creation "Faux News" or other derisive derivatives.

Ailes, who never gave an inch of satisfaction to his enemies or competitors, was fiercely protective of the Fox News brand, once even suing comedian (and future U.S. senator) Al Franken for copyright infringement over Franken’s 2003 book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, though a judge ruled the case was without merit.

Left-leaning AlterNet petitioned unsuccessfully to have the U.S. Patent Office rescind the network’s “fair and balanced” trademark, arguing it was inaccurate, and Ailes and Fox News were the No. 1 target of progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America. He and Fox News inspired documentary films and several books with a critical take on the man and his network, including 2014’s The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country.

Fox News TV hosts and PR executives feverishly maligned author Gabriel Sherman and his unauthorized biography on the air, in social media and behind the scenes, an effort allegedly orchestrated and micromanaged by Ailes himself.

Ailes consistently seemed to get the best of his enemies, and in March 2015, a scientific poll from Quinnipiac University determined that American consumers considered Fox News the most trusted news network on cable or broadcast. Ailes and others at Fox News also repeatedly pointed out that Fox News had about as many liberal guests as conservative guests on its channel, a goal not pursued by its competitors, they said.

Ailes never argued that Fox News wasn't different, but he took offense to accusations that it shut out opposing voices. "The first rule of media bias is selection," Ailes told Zev Chafets, author of Roger Ailes: Off Camera, a rare book in that it is a positive look at Ailes. "Most of the media bullshit you about who they are. We don't. We're not programming to conservatives, we're just not eliminating their point of view."

Ailes also told Chafets — who received unprecedented access to Ailes' office, home, family and friends — of a discussion at a cocktail party with a man who told him that Fox News isn't needed because CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC and PBS already satisfy his needs. "If they all have the same take and we have a different take, why does that bother you?" asks Ailes. "The last two guys who succeeded in lining up the media on one side were Hitler and Stalin."

So powerful was Fox News that it was credited (or blamed, depending on one’s political bent) with turning a rag-tag, grassroots movement called the Tea Party into an estimated 40 million-strong political force. Stories accusing Ailes and Fox News of manufacturing the right-wing Tea Party were legion, many times reported by the same journalists who championed the left-wing Occupy Wall Street movement.

In 2011, a 10,000-word article in Rolling Stone magazine compared Ailes to former Communist dictator Mao Tse-tung and accused him of “redbaiting,” of having been “on the take from Big Tobacco,” injecting “venom into the media bloodstream” and orchestrating “disinformation” campaigns; it also quoted myriad insiders who said he was anti-gay, anti-Muslim and anti-Jew. “It is Ailes who built the most formidable propaganda machine ever seen outside of the Communist bloc,” reporter Tim Dickinson concluded in his piece.

“Attacking me and Fox News is nothing new — it’s a cottage industry,” Ailes told The Hollywood Reporter in January 2014. “But I won’t quit stirring things up. I saw [CBS Corp. chief] Les Moonves one night in a restaurant with my old friend [former Sirius XM Radio CEO] Mel Karmazin. They came over to my table and said: ‘We got a pool on you, Ailes. It’s up to a million dollars. Everybody wants to know when you’re going to die or retire because you’re killing us!’”

The beginning of the end for Ailes came on July 6, 2016, when former anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit claiming that she was let go from Fox News as retaliation for rebuffing his sexual advances. Other women soon came forward with complaints, and even Kelly reportedly told investigators that he made "unwanted sexual advances toward her" about a decade ago.

Terms of his exit agreement were not released, but sources said Ailes walked away with $40 million, which is the remainder left on his contract that ran into 2018.

Ailes was born and raised in Warren, Ohio. He suffered from hemophilia so he didn’t participate in recess at school and was hospitalized because of the disease. He delivered newspapers as a boy and considered himself a movie buff back then, fond of John Wayne Westerns and patriotic films like Yankee Doodle Dandy with Jimmy Cagney.

His father, Bob Ailes, was a maintenance man for automaker Packard, and he was abusive by today's standards — but a hero to his son. "When he got mad, he beat me … he used an electric cord, a belt, whatever was handy," the Fox News exec told Chafets.

"One time I visited my father at work and saw him getting dressed down by some college boy executive," Ailes said in the book. "I asked him why he was taking that kind of shit. I remember exactly what he said. He said, 'I'm taking the guff so that someday you will be one of the guys giving the orders.'"

Ailes came close to death as a boy when he bit his tongue and, because of the hemophilia, no one in Warren could stop the bleeding, so his dad drove him 60 miles to Cleveland, where a doctor saved him. His father's co-workers from Packard donated blood. "Always remember … you've got blue collar in your veins," Bob Ailes told his son.

After graduating high school, Ailes was kicked out of the house. He presumed it was another life lesson from his dad, but he learned later that the harsh treatment was owed to the fact that his mother was in the process of leaving his father. Ailes enrolled at Ohio University, where he studied radio and television. He later admitted he “was hammered all the time” as a young man.

The Air Force ROTC rejected him because of his health, so he joined the college radio station and did some acting in collegiate stage plays. After graduating, he took a low-level job on The Mike Douglas Show, working his way up to executive producer by age 25.

The position afforded him the opportunity to meet powerful people, including Nixon, who told Ailes that he considered television a “gimmick” that had cost him his 1960 presidential bid. Ailes cautioned the candidate to have more respect for TV, and Nixon hired him as his media consultant during his successful run in 1968.

After he was elected, Nixon discarded Ailes, who by then had founded Ailes Communications, and he was soon consulting for numerous political candidates and other high-end clients. In the early 1970s, he turned his attention, once again, to theater, co-producing a flop called Mother Earth before scoring an off-Broadway hit with The Hot L Baltimore (later adapted by Norman Lear for an ABC sitcom). Ailes also produced and directed a 1984 TV special, Television and the Presidency.

In 1984, he helped re-elect Reagan in one of the most lopsided presidential victories in history, and in 1988 he helped orchestrate Bush’s come-from-behind win over Michael Dukakis, in large measure by scripting a “Revolving Door” TV commercial that focused on a “furlough” policy approved of by the then-Massachusetts governor. The ad showed an actor portraying Willie Horton leaving prison on a weekend pass, then explained to the audience that the convicted murderer committed rape and armed robbery while on his furlough.

In 1992, Ailes encouraged radio star Rush Limbaugh to try television, resulting in a syndicated half-hour show that Ailes produced for four years. “I had to learn how to take being hated as a measure of success,” Limbaugh said at an awards dinner for Ailes in 2009, “and the person that taught me to deal with this and to remain psychologically healthy was Roger Ailes. … The things I’ve learned from him about being a man, about the country, about how to be a professional, nobody else taught me.”

Ailes was named president of CNBC in 1993, and the next year he launched a sister channel, America’s Talking, on which he hosted a show called Straight Forward. While CNBC flourished under Ailes, the network decided to ditch America’s Talking after only two years, replacing it with a joint venture with Microsoft to be branded as MSNBC. He quit and went to work for Murdoch, who had dreamed of creating an all-news cable network that would some day eclipse CNN.

“We all know that whatever Roger touches works,” Limbaugh said in 2009, referencing Fox News. “Roger Ailes does not ever show up on camera, and yet everybody who does is a reflection of him. He has the ability to inspire, to motivate, to enthuse.”

In his later years, hemophilia, Sherman wrote in his Ailes book, “caused blood to pool in his knees, hips and ankles. Though the swelling ravaged his joints, he was stoic about the problem — on occasion he’d sit through a meeting, his shoe filling up with blood from a cut. His pain became a kind of badge. ‘The difference between pros and amateurs is that pros play hurt,’ he once said."

Even President Barack Obama, scorned privately by Ailes and publicly on Fox News, has acknowledged the executive’s massive influence. Sherman wrote that when Ailes visited the White House in 2008, Obama greeted him with, “I see the most powerful man in the world is here.” Ailes replied with: “Don’t believe what you read, Mr. President. I started those rumors myself.”

In a THR cover story published in April 2015, Ailes said that he was writing a memoir, not for his own sake but for that of his son, Zac. "I don't want my son to have to collect a bunch of New York Times articles to see what I was like … you read The New York Times, you think, 'Gee, my dad was a monster,'" he said.

"I did what I did," he continued. "I went against the grain. And I understand that I would be criticized. Those were all choices. I really can't bitch about it. They are choices I'd make again."