As the news broke that longtime Fox News chief Roger Ailes had died this morning at age 77, the network’s on-air personalities immediately moved to secure his place in history.
Ailes “changed television as we know it,” in the words of Bret Baier. He “founded one of the most important and successful media outlets in American history,” as Laura Ingraham put it. He “dramatically and forever changed the political and the media landscape singlehandedly for the better,” according to Sean Hannity. "Many people out there would say that he saved this country by starting the Fox News Channel," Ainsley Earhardt said on Fox & Friends.
Fox’s efforts to use Ailes’ death to rehabilitate his reputation, and burnish the network’s, are ham-handed and self-serving. We can have empathy for the loved ones Ailes leaves behind without forgetting who he was and what he stood for.
Ailes was a monster who was pushed out of the network he founded because dozens of women who had worked for him came forward and reported that he had sexually harassed them. And the legacy he leaves behind is a propaganda machine he created in his own image that has done incalculable damage to the country, slanting facts and information -- and sometimes completely inventing them -- in service of a vicious, right-wing agenda.
“At Fox, Ailes has ushered in the era of post-truth politics,” Media Matters for America founder David Brock wrote in a 2012 book about the network. “The facts no longer matter, only what is politically expedient, sensationalistic, and designed to confirm the preexisting opinions of a large audience.” Now that focus on “alternative facts” is an overarching theme of the presidency of the man Ailes helped put in office.
In Fox News, Ailes found a way to exacerbate and monetize the conservative movement’s paranoid opposition to the “liberal media,” turning millions of Americans into devoted followers who were inculcated to trust no other source of information. Mainstream outlets soon internalized his critique, forced by constant accusations of bias to elevate hackish conservative commentators and provide false balance.
Ailes saw political opponents as enemies and created a network that demanded the same behavior of conservative politicians. Fox brought political vitriol to a new level. Chasing the approval of Fox’s hosts and its audience, Republican politicians became ever more partisan and intransigent, making congressional bipartisanship and even collegiality a thing of the past.
He was a bigot, with well-documented prejudices against people of color, Muslims, women, and LGBTQ people. The network he created ran on division and hatred, consumed by an unslaked thirst to oppress the oppressed and comfort the comfortable.
He was a conspiracy theorist, and so were the hosts he hired, channeling ridiculous accusations from fringe websites to the masses, creating for their audience an alternate reality in which dark liberal forces were ever ready to steal away their freedom.
Over the last two years, his network has been devoted to propagandizing on behalf of Donald Trump, an Ailes friend who shared his bigotry, misogyny, and spite.
For power and money, Ailes turned Americans against one another. He made the nation a meaner, less informed place. That is his legacy.