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Roger Ailes, One of a Kind

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On my first visit to Roger Ailes' office, I half expected to find him petting an enormous white tiger, perhaps feeding it from a bowl of raw meat. After all, this was at the height of Ailes' reputation as a kind of James Bond villain (and well before the sexual harassment scandals that ended his career).

That wasn't his reputation in-house at Fox News (where I am a contributor), of course. He elicited enormous affection and loyalty from most of the people who worked for him, particularly those he plucked from obscurity and turned into superstars. But in a field that trails only Hollywood and pop music for its capacity to create divas, Ailes understood that fear -- which tends to encourage humility -- was a useful tool for managing superstars.

Over the course of the meeting it became clear that Ailes was sizing me up for a project he thought I might be right for. (I wasn't.) His language was alternately ribald and cerebral. I realized that there was a brilliance behind the bawdiness; it helped him take the measure of people. I've often joked that Ailes was an odd mix of Boss Hogg and Aristotle.

But Aristotle is probably the wrong comparison. Aristophenes -- the Greek playwright -- is a better fit.

Ailes was proud of the fact that he got his start in theater. He told me that he brought that sensibility to television. TV is an entertainment medium, one that appeals to the rational parts of our brains but also to the emotional parts. This was not an insight unique to Ailes, but he understood better than most that if the emotional part wasn't working (what people see), people wouldn't pay attention to the rational parts (what people said).

That's why Ailes famously watched the news on mute when he was assessing talent. "If there was nothing happening on screen in the way the host looked or moved that made me interested enough to stand up and turn the sound up, then I knew that the host was not a great television performer," Ailes wrote in his book, "You Are the Message."

Of course, he took his understanding of human nature and drama to politics as well. Discovered by Richard Nixon, Ailes went on to become one of the most influential political consultants in American history.

When Ailes started Fox News, the joke goes, he discovered an underserved niche in television news: half the country.

Most of the people who decry Fox News as "right wing" either don't watch it or cherry-pick quotes from the opinion side. The truth is, Fox was always more nationalist and populist -- patriotic, if you prefer -- than ideologically conservative. Ailes had a healthy (and sometimes unhealthy) contempt for the journalistic establishment, which by the early 1990s had become ideologically cosmopolitan.

As a broad generalization, the elite media saw itself as a kind of transatlantic guild, with at best loose attachments to this country, and a dim and cynical view toward anything that smacked of not just conservatism, but patriotism and traditionalism.

For example, in 1987, Columbia University held a symposium with political, journalistic and military leaders. The journalists were asked if they'd agree to embed with an enemy army unit. They said they would. When asked if they would tip off Americans about to be ambushed, then-ABC News anchor Peter Jennings agonized and finally said he would. Mike Wallace of CBS chastised Jennings, saying it was "another story. ... You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!" Jennings switched his position.

Ailes not only had contempt for this kind of thing, he understood that many decent Americans shared it. "My first qualification" for running Fox News, Ailes once said, "is I didn't go to Columbia Journalism School."

Dramaturgically, Ailes' vision for Fox News was predicated on the belief that America is a decent country -- particularly in the vast middle where coastal elites do not dominate -- and that there is no inherent contradiction between good reporting and the sort of patriotism common to journalists such as Walter Cronkite and Ernie Pyle.

Fox's populism was an easy fit with American conservatism for two decades because populist indictments of liberal elites and conservative ones overlap a great deal. In the era of Donald Trump that overlap has been attenuated somewhat, and that has been a challenge at Fox -- and beyond.

Ailes, a man of demons and angels, brilliance and bawdiness, shaped his times more than almost anyone. It would have been fascinating to hear his ultimate answer to that challenge.

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