Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes dies at age 77

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 May, 2017, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 May, 2017, 10:28pm

Roger Ailes, a former US presidential adviser who started the Fox News Channel to promote a Republican agenda and built it into the most-watched US cable news network before resigning amid sexual harassment allegations, has died. He was 77.

Ailes started Fox News in 1996 at the behest of News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch as an alternative to what they saw as a media landscape dominated by liberals. Although marketed as “fair and balanced”, critics of the channel accused it of acting as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party.

“It’s an entire network, devoted 24 hours a day to an entire ­politics, and it’s broadcast as ‘the news’,” said Robert Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University and author of The Age of Reagan, according to a 2011 Rolling Stone article. “That’s why Ailes is a genius. He’s combined opinion and journalism in a wholly new way – one that blurs the distinction between the two.”

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Fox grew in popularity, eclipsing rivals CNN and MSNBC. Fox New’s 2014 prime-time audience of 1.7 million households was more than the combined number of viewers of the other two, according to Pew Research Centre.

In July 2016, Ailes was ousted as head of Fox News after a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed by a former anchor, Gretchen Carlson, who claimed she was fired for refusing his sexual advances. Ailes said Carlson’s allegations were false and her lawsuit was in retaliation for the network’s decision not to renew her contract.

Carlson left the network and received a US$20 million settlement. Her accusations were followed by claims of harassment from other women.

On 2014 revenue of US$2.1 billion, Fox News made a profit of US$1.1 billion, according to Pew. That made it the most profitable division of 21st Century Fox, its parent, according to the 2013 authorised biography Roger Ailes: Off Camera by Zev Chafetz.

Given his mission, Ailes hired conservatives, including eventual star commentators Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

Ailes ruled with a volatile temper and domineering behaviour, according to a 2014 unauthorised biography The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman.

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He once punched a hole in the wall of an NBC control room where he was producing The Tomorrow Show, according to the Chafetz book. Ailes told the author: “Somebody put a frame around the hole and wrote, ‘Don’t mess with Roger Ailes’.”

Roger Eugene Ailes was born May 15, 1940, in Warren, Ohio, to Robert Ailes, a factory foreman, and his wife Donna.

He attended Ohio University, in Athens, where he acted in plays and worked at the radio station. After graduating in 1962, he landed an entry-level job on The Mike Douglas Show, a daytime variety programme. A television wunderkind, he rose to executive producer by age 25.

In 1967, while working at the show, Ailes met Richard Nixon and lectured him on the importance of television. He was hired to help shape Nixon’s public image during the 1968 presidential campaign but fired for negative remarks he made about the candidate.

Ailes advised President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 re-election campaign, crafting TV ads and suggesting how the aging ex-actor could improve his debate performances.

“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan memorably said during a debate with Democratic candidate Walter Mondale.

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Ailes helped George H. W. Bush win the presidency in 1988 and advised Bush four years later in his failed re-election bid.

In 1993, he became president of CNBC, a cable business network. During his three years there, he “more than quintupled profits and minted stars like Chris Matthews and Maria Bartiromo”, according to the Rolling Stone story.

Ailes eventually rose to chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Business Network and chairman of Fox Television Stations.

His marriages to the former Marjorie White and Norma Ferrer ended in divorce. In 1998, he married the former Elizabeth Tilson. The couple had a son, Zachary, according to Marquis Who’s Who.