News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Roger Ailes, Founder Of 'Fox News,' Dies At 77


The man who made Fox News into a conservative force has died. Roger Ailes was 77. The Palm Beach County medical examiner says his death was accidental, that Ailes had fallen in his home and hit his head and that haemophilia contributed to his death. Ailes built Fox News into a powerhouse. He also built a toxic culture there, revealed as women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. Here is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Heartfelt tributes poured in for Roger Ailes on the Fox News Channel throughout the day.


AINSLEY EARHARDT: Roger believed in hard work.

FOLKENFLIK: This from "Fox & Friends" host Ainsley Earhardt.


EARHARDT: He ran four political campaigns. Many people out there would say that he saved this country by starting the Fox News Channel.

FOLKENFLIK: He certainly saw it that way. More than any other person in this country in recent decades, Roger Ailes blurred the boundaries separating the worlds of politics and media. He emerged from producing talk shows to help lead the White House campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Ailes created what became CNBC but found his patron and calling in media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch had a vision serving conservative viewers and launched Fox News in 1996. Fox News analyst Fred Barnes spoke wistfully of that time last summer, hours after Ailes was forced out of Fox. Barnes said conservatives had found a home.


FRED BARNES: They were so used to thinking that the media was completely barren as far as they were concerned. There was nothing there for them. It was all liberals, and then Fox comes along, and they really glommed on it.

FOLKENFLIK: Ailes called Fox fair and balanced and said the other news outlets weren't. He defined Fox as patriotic, implying that competing journalists didn't care about their country. Chris Ruddy is chairman of Newsmax, a rival conservative media group.

CHRIS RUDDY: Roger almost single handedly built the number one TV network for cable news in the country, and he did it within three or four years.

FOLKENFLIK: Instead of demanding that cable television providers pay to carry Fox News, Murdoch and Ailes initially struck deals to pay the providers, who happily took Murdoch's money. Ruddy also points to another factor.

RUDDY: One of the key components of his success, I think, is that he does come from a background in politics because politics is about messaging.

FOLKENFLIK: Ailes identified stories with saints and villains, saviors and victims; not so much journalistic offerings as cultural obsessions, sometimes even conspiracy theories. During the Obama years, Ailes doubled down, making Fox the home in exile for Republican politicians, hiring Newt Gingrich, John Kasich, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson, among others. Former Fox News producer Joe Muto also pointed to the coverage of a non-politician.

JOE MUTO: Trump equaled the ratings.

FOLKENFLIK: That, of course, would be Donald Trump.

MUTO: People really went nuts for him. Every - you know, if we had him on the show, if we talked about him, if we put a video of him up on Bill's website, it got a huge response.

FOLKENFLIK: And Fox repeatedly allowed Trump to offer up offensive and utterly groundless claims that President Barack Obama had not been born in this country.

MUTO: They let Trump come on here and make these insane allegations, basically flat Earth allegations, and just said - and presented it as a story of balance.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox presented Trump to the Republican electorate as a plausible political figure. And when Trump ran for office, Ailes routinely advised him from his offices at Fox News. It was during Trump's triumphant week at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July that Ailes' tenure unraveled. Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson had sued Ailes days before alleging he punished her for rebuffing his sexual advances. Other women came forward too, star host Megyn Kelly among them.


MEGYN KELLY: And the problem that we had at Fox, like so many other companies in America right now, was that there was not a safe avenue for reporting.

FOLKENFLIK: Kelly spoke on Fresh Air with Terry Gross late last year.


KELLY: Here was the CEO and chairman of the board on industry publications as the most powerful man in news harassing young women of the company like myself who had been there for 12 months and who typically were in a vulnerable position.

FOLKENFLIK: Ailes was forced out with a $40 million pay day. He denied all the allegations, and had it not been for this scandal, Ailes' legacy would have been one largely viewed through ideological blinders. Instead, Ailes presents as a complicated figure, even to admirers. At his death, Ailes faced multiple lawsuits from former employees. And there's a federal criminal investigation of Fox News, too. It is the kind of story Roger Ailes would have given blanket coverage to had it only happened at any other network. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.