“I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning,” Elizabeth Ailes said. “Roger was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many. He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise — and to give back.”
The former Fox News chairman was credited with making the channel a ratings powerhouse over his 20 years at the helm. The right-wing channel is divisive, though, and Ailes’ personal legacy was clouded by allegations of sexual harassment.
“No one did more to change the media landscape than Roger Ailes, but no media executive did more to divide America,” said Joe Peyronnin, a former network news executive who worked for Fox before Ailes was hired to launch the news channel.
“Ailes had a clear vision for a alternative news channel in 1996, and by rigorously managing its conservative content, he build the most powerful and profitable news brand in the world. Ailes was a brilliant TV executive who saw an opportunity two decades ago to build a conservative news source and seized it, and then with his singular and rigid focus he succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams.”
Ailes stepped down from his post in July 2016 following sexual harassment charges. His resignation came two weeks after embarrassing allegations that he had sexually harassed former anchor Gretchen Carlson. He dismissed the allegations, but faced additional claims of misconduct.
He was reported to have received $40 million in an exit agreement with Fox.
A cause of death was not available, but Ailes was known to be in poor health.
“The actuaries say I have six to eight years. The best tables give me 10. Three thousand days, more or less,” he told biographer Zev Chafets in 2012.
“Because of my hemophilia, I’ve been prepared to face death all of my life,” Chafets’ book “Roger Ailes Off Camera” quotes him as saying. “As a boy I spent a lot of time in hospitals. My parents had to leave at the end of visiting hours, and I spent a lot of time just lying there in the dark, thinking about the fact that any accident could be dangerous or even fatal. So I’m ready. Everybody fears the unknown. But I have a strong feeling there’s something bigger than us.”
Some former colleagues on Thursday praised Ailes’ contributions and place in history.
“Today America lost one of its great patriotic warriors. Roger Ailes. For Decades RA’s has impacted American politics and media,” tweeted Fox News host Sean Hannity. “He has dramatically and forever changed the political and the media landscape singlehandedly for the better. Neither will ever be the same again as he was a true American original.”
“Many people out there would say he saved this country by starting the Fox News Channel,” said Ainsley Earhardt, the co-host of “Fox & Friends.”
Hannity asked the media to leave Ailes’ family alone to allow them to grieve. “But knowing that people that hated him and his politics, and those that forget ’all have sinned and fallen short’ and ‘cast the first stone’ I doubt that will happen,” he tweeted.
At the time of Ailes’ resignation, Rupert Murdoch — executive chairman of 21st Century Fox and a longtime staunch Ailes supporter — had this to say:
“Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country. Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years. Fox News has given voice to those who were ignored by the traditional networks and has been one of the great commercial success stories of modern media.”
In a statement read on the air Thursday, Murdoch said everyone at Fox News was “shocked and grieved” by Ailes’ death.
On social media, news of his death prompted many who had a different view of Ailes and his legacy to express their views. Instead of a hero, some saw Ailes as a promoter of bigotry and fear, who left behind a culture of sexual harassment at the network he built.
Ailes made his early reputation as a strategist and media advisor to Republican political candidates, beginning with Richard M. Nixon and including Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. His behind-the-scenes work to shape a more appealing television image for Nixon during his successful 1968 presidential campaign was chronicled in Joe McGinniss’ bestselling book, “The Sellling of the President.”
During his earlier days as a political consultant, Ailes was a sought-after debate coach, working with Reagan in 1984 and readying then-Vice President Bush for his presidential debates with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988.
In his 2014 book on Ailes, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” Gabriel Sherman described Ailes’ role in preparing Reagan for his second debate with then-Vice President Walter F. Mondale in 1984. Ailes asked Reagan, then in his early 70s, how he would handle being asked about his age.
Reagan’s answer during the debate was memorable: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Ailes was hired to create the Fox News Channel to be an alternative to the established TV news networks. It was aimed to reach an audience outside the New York-Washington media nexus and speak to people who believed that traditional American values were being abandoned and that government interfered too much in their lives.
Ailes was a a skilled TV producer, but he was not a journalist. When he arrived at Fox News, the company already had a veteran network news executive formerly from CBS, Joe Peyronnin. “Roger asked me to continue,” Peyronnin recalled. “He told me ‘I don’t know anything about the news.‘” Peyronnin said he had no interest in staying on to be a part of a plan to work for what Ailes called an “alternative news network.”
But Fox News Channel was not driven by journalism as much as it was a collection of people who talked about the news in a way no one else on television was doing. Ailes took a journeyman TV correspondent, Bill O’Reilly, and turned him into cable TV’s most popular host, with an aura of the educated guy at the end of the bar who wasn’t afraid to give his opinions. Ailes discovered a young local radio talk show host in Atlanta, Sean Hannity, and made him a TV star.
“To this day I have no earthly idea why I was hired and not fired early on, as I had little television experience when I was hired by FNC, as old tapes humbly reminded me,” Hannity said in a statement. Ailes “saw something in me and many others he hired that we never saw in ourselves, and forever changed the trajectory of thousands of peoples’ lives.”
Fox News started gaining traction during the impeachment proceedings of President Clinton in 1998 and truly took hold after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. By the end of 2002, the channel had passed CNN to become the top rated cable news channel and has remained No. 1 ever since.
Infusing conservative commentary into the news coverage not only made Fox News a powerhouse but changed cable news coverage. Opinionated hosts from both sides of the political aisle now command devoted TV audiences.
After his resignation from Fox News last summer, Ailes helped then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump prepare for his televised debates with Hillary Clinton.
MORE ON AILES
8 a.m.: This article was updated with quotes from Rupert Murdoch and a biography by Zev Chafets, and with information about the building of Fox News Channel.
6:40 a.m: This article was updated with reaction from Sean Hannity and others.
6:20 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from former network news executive Joe Peyronnin and others.
6:09 a.m. This article was updated with additional details about Ailes background.
This article was originally published at 6 a.m.