“I want to elect the next president,” Roger Ailes, the recently deceased founder of Fox News once told a group of executives in 2010, according to his biographer Gabriel Sherman. It was the height of the Obama years when the Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House and demographers were grimly predicting the demise of the Republican Party. At the time, it seemed like the country was being pulled permanently leftward.
For Ailes and other conservatives, those were dark days. Long-cherished conservative goals like tax cuts and welfare reform seemed doomed to the dustbin of history, and liberal dreams like carbon taxes, entitlement growth, and Federal investment in education looked closer than ever.
However, politics is not a river, flowing inexorably in a single direction. It is a pendulum. And Ailes headed up a powerful counterweight, Fox News.
Founded in 1996, Fox News set out to provide “balance” to the media landscape conservatives saw as too liberal. It was a common complaint of conservatives going back to the 1940s when the weekly Human Events set out to promote conservatism through current events. But while Human Events had the backdrop of wartime emergencies and Cold War atomic arsenals to force a measure of national unity on its editorial board, Fox News was founded with no great war nor superpower existential foe to corral its more imperious instincts. Conservative media during the Cold War had been forced to make common cause with liberals to overcome the Soviet threat. Fox News saw liberals themselves as the threat to national survival.
Ailes set out to build a media empire that eventually hijacked the heart of the Republican Party. One of his earliest hires was Bill O’Reilly in October 1996, the recently ousted political commentator who earned his early fame in the Bush years by shouting at liberals on air. Sean Hannity was hired that same month. Ailes gathered a dream team of anti-Clinton media personalities, including Drudge Report founder Matt Drudge, who most famously helped break the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Yet those early years were markedly different from the Fox News that would emerge in the Obama years. When Drudge hoped to show a photo of Samuel Armas in 1999, who at the time was a fetus undergoing spinal surgery and who was photographed reaching out from his mother’s uterus to grab a doctor’s finger, Fox executives shot him down, believing he would use the image to push his pro-life views. Drudge quit Fox shortly after that.
Fox News served as a Bush administration cheerleader, providing spin for the White House. Their approach to journalism helped inspire The Colbert Report, which satirized Fox News and other conservative media outlets with over-the-top patriotism and absurdly pro-Republican lines of questions during interviews.
Despite the spin of Fox News’ commentators and the increasingly focused attacks on the network by other journalists, Fox jumped to #1 in cable for years. Though Ailes’s foes might call out his journalistic integrity, few could argue with his results.
When the GOP was swept entirely out of power in 2008, Ailes provided a platform for the counterattack. He brought in Glenn Beck, the chalkboard conspiracy commentator who became infamous for crocodile tears as he begged to have his country back. (Following the election of Trump, Beck has since reached out to liberals he used to shun). Ailes gave prominent places to Tea Party activists who helped sweep Congress in 2010. He softened the network’s image by hiring an array of blonde bombshells, forcing them to sit beneath glass anchor desks so viewers would watch even with the TV muted.
airtime he started to give air time to the bizarre claims of a New York real estate mogul that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
In the Obama years, the network switched from cheerleading to scorched earth tactics. It was not enough to merely reinforce the GOP message of Reagan and Goldwater. With O’Reilly, Hannity, and Glenn Beck each attacking different aspects of the institutions and traditions that supported Obama, and with Trump bandying the earliest prototypes of alternative facts to see what would stick, Aisles sought to create just enough political chaos to create an opening against the Democrats’ reputed demographic juggernaut.
His female cast of anchors provided covering fire from accusations that Fox News was just the last holdout of misogynistic white men, while carefully managed token liberals were trotted out to provide a sheen of credibility to the notion that the network was “balanced.” Aisles also sacrificed Beck in 2011, whose on-air ranting went leagues beyond O’Reilly and Hannity. His departure gave credence to Fox News’ professionalism.
Fox News remained #1 in cable for the entire Obama presidency. Near competitors like MSNBC and CNN were left in the dust. Al-Jazeera America, backed by the immense wealth of the Qatari royal family, couldn’t even break into the market.
But there’s a problem with scorched earth tactics. It’s easy to burn what one hoped to save.
The first stirrings of this blowback came during the debt crisis of 2011, when Tea Party Republicans, empowered by Fox News airtime, held the government hostage over the debt ceiling. They did it again in fall 2013, this time shutting the government down. Fox News and conservative media believed that tactics such as these, which threatened the credit rating of the United States, would pave the way for a presidential victory.
Voters rewarded them. Despite losing to Obama in 2012, the GOP decimated Democrats in state races and in Congress. By the election of 2016, the Democrats were almost entirely a coastal party, having lost most state governorships and legislatures and finally losing their grip on the Senate in 2014.
Yet the influence of Fox News was not fully understood until the first primary results of the presidential election last year. Fox had given voice to Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories, none of which were ever proven. Within the Fox News bubble, however, Trump earned a reputation as a truth teller from viewers, the only Republican to say what everyone else was thinking.
Both the GOP and Fox News itself did not fully understand how powerful that was.
In August 2015, Megyn Kelly, one of Fox’s top broadcasters, hosted the first presidential debate. She grilled Trump on his insults towards women. Trump lambasted political correctness and then attacked Kelly later on Twitter.
The Kelly-Trump feud revealed the first great crack in the House of Ailes. His pretty frontwoman had grown a mind of her own and tried to hold one of Ailes’ creations to account. Trump’s infamous “blood from her wherever” comment forced Fox News to defend Kelly against one of their own frequent guests. But the damage was done. A gender bomb had been lit in the Fox newsroom.
In July 2016, Gretchen Carlson, a former host (blonde yet again), sued Ailes for sexual harassment. Kelly came forward alleging that Ailes had harassed her too. By the end of the month, Fox executives decided Ailes had become too much of a liability and pushed him out.
In September 2016, Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the genitals. He won the election in 2016 anyway.
The house that Roger built could still stand even without its creator.
But the cracks were widening. The election had been bruising and dividing. Anti-Trump activists were increasingly targeting the corporate interests of those aligned with the new president. Fox News, which had held such a prominent role in elevating Trump, was no longer as safe a bet for advertisers.
When Bill O’Reilly was accused of sexual harassment in early 2017, just as the Trump presidency began, O’Reilly had a scant few weeks before he too was forced out. Advertisers, fearful of losing the youthful buyers who overwhelming went against Trump (and did not watch Fox News), cascaded away from him. It didn’t matter that O’Reilly’s viewer base remained loyal. The lawsuit’s liabilities coupled with fleeing advertisers was a death sentence.
Fox had spent two decades dividing up Americans into conservatives and liberals. In the spring of 2017, it discovered many of its advertisers were not nearly so ideological.
This now leaves Sean Hannity, the last great pillar of the Ailes era. With O’Reilly gone, Beck forming his own media network, and Trump in the White House, Hannity is one of the last remaining voices of the Ailes manifesto of disinformation. Even he, however, is getting burned by old habits. When Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer, was killed in a botched robbery last year, Hannity elevated the Internet conspiracy theories that Rich was in fact killed for leaking information to Wikileaks. This has been widely debunked, including by the source of the original story. That hasn’t stopped Hannity from crying conspiracy.
This time, however, the story has not simply disappeared into the conservative ether, left to rile up Republican voters for future elections. It has outraged both Rich’s family and the wider media and spooked the advertisers on Hannity’s show. With dwindling advertiser revenue, Hannity has now reportedly gone on vacation.
Should Hannity depart, it will leave only a handful of personalities left at Fox News hired and honed by Ailes. Ailes got what he wanted. He elected a president almost of his choosing. But the value left in his ideas is running out.
[Featured Image by Alex Wong/Newsmakers]