Awful presidents come and go, but the damage wrought by Roger Ailes may last forever. Can one think of a single individual who, in the past half-century of American history, has done more to degrade our democracy and debase our discourse?
By creating a propaganda channel under the guise of “fair and balanced” news, and then using it to undermine the very idea of truth—all in the service of racism and sexism—Ailes, with Rupert Murdoch’s backing, paved a path for a whole host of faux “journalists” and right-wing demagogues to do the same. Inside the headquarters of Fox News, he fostered a culture of sexual intimidation and racial animosity, one that was reflected on the air as well. Had Ailes not spent two decades tearing down the journalistic safeguards that were supposed to defend our country against just such demagoguery, it is impossible to imagine that a pathologically dishonest, egomaniacal, racist, sexually predatory huckster like Donald Trump could ever have been elected president of the United States. Indeed, well before he created Fox News—from the time Ailes left The Mike Douglas Show in 1968 to sell Richard Nixon the way Douglas sold mouthwash—Republican presidents have at least partly owed their election victories to Ailes. (“It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” Nixon once lamented to his Mephistophelean manipulator.)
Though he ran an alleged news organization, Ailes continued to offer private instruction in the art of public deception for Republican politicians and even generals, frequently deploying the power of Fox as a bribe or cudgel. In The Loudest Voice in the Room, his biography of Ailes, Gabriel Sherman describes the Fox founder wooing Chris Christie in 2010, promising him the network’s support if he ran for president. Bob Woodward uncovered a conversation, preserved on audio, in which Ailes apparently dispatched K.T. McFarland, then of Fox and now of the National Security Council, to Kabul to ask David Petraeus if there was “anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently.” McFarland then enjoined the general to “just chat with Roger” should he want to run for president. She even floated the idea that Ailes would resign to run the campaign and Murdoch would finance it.
But Ailes didn’t do it alone: He was empowered by everyone he worked with at Fox. Nobody who stayed there long enough to realize what was going on without quitting deserves to call himself or herself a “journalist.” Ailes certainly received his share of criticism in the wake of his comeuppance and recent death. But what about all the people who made excuses for him before the wave of sexual-harassment lawsuits and reports of secret payoffs turned him radioactive? What about the Fox executives, past and present, who enabled his sexual terrorism? What about the liars who did his bidding on the air? What about the so-called “mainstream media” members who adopted Ailes’s lies as truth and even defended Fox when others tried to expose it—and him?