BORN: May 15, 1940 • Warren, Ohio
American chief executive officer, president of Fox News
In a career that has spanned more than four decades, Roger Ailes has succeeded in U.S. politics and journalism. From the late 1960s through the late 1980s, he ranked as one of the Republican Party's most effective campaign advisors. Some critics claimed that his work on behalf of various political candidates distorted the records of Republican opponents and appealed to voters' prejudices (opinions or ideas formed without knowing all the facts). But Ailes flatly rejected these claims, and his campaign efforts often ended in victory for his candidates.
"I worked hard, and I was always taught that you work hard, and you use your brain, and you provide a value to whoever you're working for."
Ailes moved into the world of television as a producer in the early 1990s. He first worked as an executive for the cable news channels CNBC and America's Talking (which later became MSNBC). But Ailes became well-known for his work as the head of Fox News. Hired by Fox owner Rupert Murdoch (1931–) to build up the new network, which began broadcasting in 1996, Ailes turned Fox into the most popular cable news network in the United States. Critics say that he did this by developing a news operation that routinely agreed with conservative and Republican points of view (also known as right-wing political views). But Fox and its defenders insisted that the network is the only one that does not present the news with a liberal or Democratic bias (also known as left-wing political views). Ailes insisted that Fox News's slogan, "fair and balanced," accurately represents its news-gathering philosophy.
Youth marked by illness and ambition
Roger Eugene Ailes was born in Warren, Ohio, on May 15, 1940. He was the son of a factory foreman at the local Packard Electric plant and a stay-at-home mother. As a youngster, Ailes suffered from hemophilia, a disease in which the blood does not clot properly, leaving sufferers prone to excessive bleeding from even minor scratches. He was an average student, but his grades were good enough for him to enroll at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, in 1958.
Over the next four years, Ailes divided his time between campus life and summer and vacation work on area road crews. He joined the campus Air Force ROTC (a training program for military officers), but his hemophilia disqualified him from service. He also worked at the university radio station as a disk jockey (a person who selects music to be played on the radio). This job gave him a taste for broadcasting, and when he graduated from Ohio University in 1962 with a bachelor's degree, he sought work in the field.
Within a few months of graduating, Ailes had secured a job as property assistant on The Mike Douglas Show, a television talk show that was filmed in Cleveland, Ohio. Over the next few years, the program expanded to a national audience, and Ailes rose to the position of executive producer. "I worked hard, and I was always taught that you work hard, and you use your brain, and you provide a value to whoever you're working for," he later told U.S. News and World Report.
Moves into political consulting
Ailes eventually received two Emmy Awards for his production work on The Mike Douglas Show, in 1967 and 1968. During this same time, he met Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon (1913–1994). Nixon was reportedly so impressed with Ailes that he invited the young man to join his campaign as a media consultant (a person who helps candidates present a positive image in the media).
Ailes accepted the invitation, and during the last few months of the campaign, he became Nixon's most visible media advisor. Among other Nixon advisors and journalists, Ailes became known as a confident and brash individual who understood the growing importance of television to political campaigns. When Nixon narrowly won the November 1968 presidential election over Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978), Ailes received a fair amount of the credit. "Ailes became a national political player virtually overnight, and he had not yet turned thirty," wrote television historian Scott Collins in Crazy Like a Fox.
During the 1970s, Ailes divided his time between serving as a consultant for Republican politicians and working as a theater and television producer. His most successful experience in theater was the hit play Hot-L Baltimore, which enjoyed a highly successful multi-year run. Ailes received four Obie Awards (annual honors presented to Off-Broadway theatrical productions) from 1973 to 1976 for his work as a producer on the show.
In addition, Ailes produced a handful of television specials from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. In 1984, Ailes won an Emmy Award (annual honors recognizing excellence in television programming) as executive producer and director of a television special, Television and the Presidency. He also served as executive producer of three television programs: Allen Ludden's Gallery (1969), Steve Allen's Laugh-Back (1976), and Tomorrow: Coast to Coast (1981).
Returns to presidential political consulting
Ailes provided consulting services to several Republican political candidates during the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1984, he signed up for his first presidential campaign since the 1968 Nixon campaign. As media advisor to President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89), Ailes helped lift the Republican president to an easy November 1984 re-election victory over Democratic candidate Walter Mondale (1928–). According to campaign insiders, Ailes played a particularly valuable role as a debating coach for Reagan. When Mondale scored a victory in the first presidential debate between the two candidates, Ailes stepped in. He helped Reagan regain his focus and sharpen his debating skills, and the president gave a much stronger performance in the second presidential debate. Reagan's showing reassured voters and stalled Mondale's effort to pull off a come-from-behind victory.
The Republican Party called on Ailes again four years later, when Reagan's vice president, George H. W. Bush (1924–), gained the party's presidential nomination. Bush's Democratic opponent in the general election was Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis (1933–). As the presidential campaign heated up in early 1988, Dukakis held the lead in most polls. By mid-summer, however, Dukakis's lead had vanished in the face of a series of harshly negative political ads sponsored by the Bush campaign.
Ailes was one of the leading creators of this campaign, which described Dukakis as unpatriotic and out of step with ordinary American values. Many of the campaign ads put together by Ailes and his fellow Republican media consultants reduced public support for Dukakis. Perhaps the most effective—and controversial—negative campaign commercial was the so-called Willie Horton ad. This ad blamed Dukakis for a Massachusetts program that allowed certain criminals to be released from prison when authorities determined that they were not likely to pose a threat to other citizens. This program had led to the release of a convicted murderer named Willie Horton, who proved to be a threat to others when he committed rape and armed robbery following his release. Supporters of the much-debated commercial claimed that it raised a valid point about the Democratic nominee's positions on crime. But critics charged that the Republican ad appealed to prejudices among white voters who were then inclined to vote for Bush.
Bush ultimately won the November 1988 presidential election over Dukakis, and in January 1989 he was sworn in as the forty-first president of the United States. Midway through his first term in office, it appeared that Bush (served 1989–93) would easily win re-election. But concerns about the U.S. economy enabled Democratic nominee Bill Clinton (1946– served 1993–2001)to defeat Bush in the 1992 election. Unlike Bush's presidential campaign of 1988, Ailes was not heavily involved in the 1992 election battle.
Producing television news
After Bush's victory in 1988, Ailes decided to focus his energies on television news programming. He later acknowledged that he had no doubts that he would become a powerful figure in the business once he set his mind to it. After all, he had already worked in most areas of the television industry, from director and producer to salesman and technical assistant. These jobs helped him develop the gut instincts needed to create news programs that would appeal to viewers.
In 1992, Ailes combined his interests in media and Republican politics for the first time, serving as executive producer of a television show featuring right-wing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh (1951–). One year later, Ailes was named president of CNBC, a cable financial news channel owned by the NBC TV network. Around this same time, NBC executives asked Ailes to help begin another cable channel, called America's Talking. The new network debuted on July 4, 1994. Within a matter of months, Ailes actually had his own talk show on the channel, called Straight Forward with Roger Ailes.
Ailes received credit for boosting the ratings and profits of CNBC, but in 1996, he and NBC parted ways. NBC canceled America's Talking and announced plans to partner with Microsoft to create a new cable news network, called MSNBC, in its place. Meanwhile, Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch (1931–) convinced Ailes to head a proposed new 24-hour cable news operation called the Fox News Channel.
Ailes spent the next several months overseeing all aspects of Fox News's development, including the construction of studios, the arrangement of licensing deals, and the hiring of reporters, news anchors, and other staff. "It's probably the toughest thing I've ever done in my career," he admitted to Multichannel News. "But pressure doesn't effect me the way it does some people. I started out digging ditches for the county highway department—this beats that."
Architect of Fox News
When Fox News made its debut on October 7, 1996, Ailes promoted the channel as the only major television news outlet that was impartial in its reporting on political events. He made heavy use of such marketing slogans as "fair and balanced" and "we report, you decide" to suggest that Fox was the only reliable source of news that was not tainted by a liberal slant. Within months of the channel's launch, this strategy helped Ailes establish Fox as the favored network of Americans who described themselves as conservatives or Republicans.
But Fox News was also criticized for this approach. Critics claimed that Fox exaggerated the issue of liberal bias in other media as a way of excusing its own bias in favor of conservative political beliefs and the Republican Party. From the first day of the Fox News Channel's existence, Ailes has denied this charge. "[Fox] is not a conservative network!" he declared in the October 1999 issue of Brill's Content.
Still, some media critics continued to claim that Ailes and other Fox executives provided slanted news coverage. "Since its 1996 launch, Fox has become a central hub of the conservative movement's well-oiled media machine," declared the liberal advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Liberal media critic Eric Alterman, meanwhile, believes that Ailes and his Fox News Channel have influenced all news reporting in America. "The conservative orientation of Fox is invaluable to the right, not merely because Fox offers the spin [interpretation] on reality conservatives prefer to have people see and hear, but also because it helps pull the rest of the not-terribly-liberal media in its direction," he claimed in What Liberal Media?
As the controversy continued over whether Fox News inappropriately favored conservative causes and politicians, there was no debating the success of Ailes's time at the network. Since January 2002, Fox has regularly beaten CNN and all other cable news networks in the ratings, often by large margins. As chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president of the network, Ailes usually receives most of the credit for Fox's stunning rise to the top.
For More Information
Alterman, Eric. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the Media. New York: Basic Books, 2003.
Collins, Scott. Crazy Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN. New York: Portfolio, 2004.
Ailes, Roger. "Campaign Strategy." Time, May 11, 1992.
Hass, Nancy. "Rogers Ailes: Embracing the Enemy." New York Times Magazine, January 8, 1995.
Hayden, Thomas. "Natural-Born Networker." U.S. News & World Report, October 31, 2005.
Karz, Richard. "Ailes Talks Tough on Fox Launch." Multichannel News, September 23, 1996.
Ackerman, Seth. "The Most Biased Name in News: Fox News Channel's Extraordinary Right-Wing Tilt." Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1067 (accessed on May 22, 2006).
"Ailes, Roger." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/A/htmlA/ailesroger/ailesroger.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).