Robert Reich: When Roger Ailes And I Didn’t Make A Deal – OpEd


Roger Ailes did more to degrade the tone of public life in America than anyone since Joseph McCarthy. 

In 1998, Ailes asked me to drop by his office in New York City. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was exploding, and Fox News’s prime-time ratings were soaring because of it. 

I had gone public in defense of Clinton’s insistence that he “didn’t have sex with that woman” — saying I doubted he’d jeopardize his presidency for an affair with a White House intern. But privately I also knew about allegations of extramarital affairs stretching back years. During Clinton’s 1992 campaign, one of his trusted staffers was put in charge of what were crudely called “bimbo eruptions” — women claiming to have had sex with him when he was governor of Arkansas. 

I agreed to talk with Ailes but resolved that I wouldn’t criticize the man who had brought me chicken soup when I was seasick 30 years before and given me the best job I’d ever had. 

Getting to Ailes’s office was harder than getting into the Oval Office. Ailes was surrounded by security guards and locked glass doors. His office was at the end of a long row of offices with their own glass doors and nameplates engraved in gold. Ailes’s door was made of steel, with a wooden veneer. Inside, I found another gatekeeper — his secretary, who asked me to take a seat in her outer office. After almost an hour, she told me he was ready to see me. 

Ailes’s corner office was tastefully decorated and had large windows looking out over midtown Manhattan. 

This was the place where — it came to light years later — Ailes had sexually harassed and attacked a slew of women. What those women endured there was terrifying and stomach-wrenching. Ailes was the worst kind of bully — cruel, manipulative, exploitative, even sadistic. Their accusations and evidence culminated in Ailes’s resignation as chairman and CEO of Fox News in July 2016. He died 10 months later. 

In the fall of 1998, I had little idea of who Ailes was or what he was capable of doing. 

I remember large jowls hanging from fat cheeks, giving the overall impression of a giant bulldog. 

Ailes didn’t smile or engage in small talk. He began our meeting oddly, saying he was solidly working class and hated CNN. When I asked him why he hated CNN, he mumbled something about “fucking Ted Turner” and then whipped a few papers off his desk and began reading them as I sat across from him in silence for several minutes. Was this some sort of humiliation ritual?

He looked up and said he liked my “on-air presence” and wondered if I’d be interested in some “further engagement” with Fox News. He asked how well I knew Bill Clinton. I said I knew him well but wasn’t going to criticize him about Monica Lewinsky. 

Ailes said he’d get back to me with a proposal. He never did. In fact, I never heard from him again. The entire meeting could not have lasted more than 15 minutes. 

ROGER AILES WAS BORN in Warren, Ohio, in 1940, with hemophilia — a condition that didn’t stop his father from beating him with an electrical cord, according tovarious biographical accounts, but did cause his mother to keep her distance for fear of bruising the child. 

I’m no psychoanalyst, but I’d guess that the combination of a fearsome disease, a cruel father, and a distant mother might produce someone who wanted to inflict fear and pain in others. 

Ailes thought of Warren as the real America, which had been degraded by eggheads and the snobs. Ailes majored in television and radio at Ohio University. His parents divorced while he was in college, with his mother telling the court that her husband had threatened to kill her. (A court later found him guilty of “extreme cruelty” to his wife.)

After graduation, Ailes took a job at KYW-TV in Cleveland, where he met Richard Nixon, then running for president. According to Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President 1968, Nixon remarked to Ailes, “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this [television] to get elected,” to which Ailes replied, “Television is not a gimmick.” 

Ailes became Nixon’s television producer and, according to McGinniss, “sold” Nixon to America. He helped repair Nixon’s image after his disastrous first debate with John F. Kennedy, even changing the way Nixon’s face was lit when he appeared on television. Years later, at NBC’s America’s Talking, the channel Ailes ran before Fox News, he continued to manipulate optics — encouraging the female anchors to wear short skirts and sit at translucent desks where their legs were backlit. 

In the 1980s, Ailes’s politics grew more conservative, along with those of the Republican Party. Between 1980 and 1986, Ailes helped get elected 13 Republican senators and eight members of Congress, including Dan Quayle and Mitch McConnell. He also played key roles in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. 

Ailes famously advised Reagan to disarm Walter Mondale in a 1984 presidential debate by saying, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” 

Ailes was also credited with what he called the “Orchestra Pit Theory” of political coverage: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?

In 1991, Ailes met Rush Limbaugh, then host of America’s most successful right-wing radio talk show. It was a genre made possible by Reagan’s 1987 repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which had been established in 1949. Ailes was fascinated by Limbaugh’s cruel use of humor, which entertained audiences by ridiculing liberals. (During Limbaugh’s brief foray into national television, he showed tapes of me making speeches with just the top of my head visible at the bottom of the screen.)

Ailes’s bullying while on the job got him fired from America’s Talking, after a meeting at which he called his associate David Zaslav “a little fucking Jew prick.” An investigation by NBC concluded that Ailes had a “history of abusive, offensive, and intimidating statements/threats and personal attacks made to and upon a number of other people.” Although Ailes signed an agreement not to “engage in conduct that a reasonable employee would perceive as intimidating or abusive,” his days with NBC were numbered. 

But Ailes’s no-holds-barred bullying attracted Rupert Murdoch, who tapped him to run his fledgling Fox News in 1996. At the time, CNN was on top of the cable roost with 60 million subscribers. MSNBC had 25 million. 

Ailes ran Fox News like a mob boss, rewarding those who were loyal to him and punishing those who strayed. Employees — whether they admired or feared him — believed he was invincible.

The Monica Lewinsky scandal gave Ailes all the elements he needed for his “Orchestra Pit” political coverage. The public was fascinated by Clinton’s near fall, and Ailes’s Fox News played up every lurid detail — boosting the network’s prime-time ratings by 400 percent. By the start of 1999, Fox News was beating MSNBC.

He boosted Fox News’s ratings even higher with his one-sided coverage of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. He didn’t care that the network was criticized for promoting the war rather than reporting on it. By January of 2002, Fox was beating CNN, too.

Along the way, Ailes discovered that a continuous on-air mixture of lies, nastiness, derisive humor, and paranoid conspiracy theories — directed at liberals, Democrats, and nebulous “coastal elites” — would grab millions of viewers, and make him very rich. 

Ailes also knew that with the end of Soviet communism, the political right needed an overarching demonic force. He found it in America’s cultural left. Ailes instructed his producers to find far-left Democrats, unhinged left-wing professors, and liberal eccentrics with positions on gays, lesbians, trans people, immigrants, Black people, and crime that mainstream conservative viewers would find deeply offensive. 

By 2004, Ailes had turned Fox News into a major political force. It was a key part of the Republican effort to “Swift Boat” Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry by lying about his military service and denigrating the circumstances related to his combat medals. Although George W. Bush had avoided military service altogether, Fox News’s continuous attacks on Kerry once again confirmed Ailes’s “Orchestra Pit” political coverage. (After Sean Hannity aired one of the attack videos produced by a Republican front group called the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” and proclaimed it a “hard-hitting ad,” even some of the mainstream media piled on.)

Glenn Beck’s show — a crude jumble of sensationalist lies and pseudo-historic lectures — debuted the day before Obama’s inauguration and fueled the Tea Party movement.

In October 2012, Rupert Murdoch renewed Ailes’s contract for another four years. If completed, Ailes would have served as head of Fox News Channel for 20 years. He was earning well over $20 million a year. 

But he never completed the contract. On July 6, 2016, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes, alleging that he fired her for rebuffing his advances. Her allegations led more than a dozen other female employees at Fox to step forward and reveal their own terrifying experiences with Ailes. After Megyn Kelly told investigators that Ailes made unwanted sexual advances toward her at the start of her career, Murdoch told Ailes he had the choice of resigning or being fired. He chose resignation, plus a $40 million exit package. 

On July 21, 2016, Ailes left Fox, but his legacy of cruel and dangerous lies lived on. 

By then, Fox had become presidential candidate Donald Trump’s chief enabler. The same evening Ailes left Fox, Trump accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and delivered a speech about America’s descent into crime and chaos, directed toward people whom Ailes had discovered and cultivated over two decades — mostly lacking college degrees, overwhelmingly white, older, largely rural, and bitter over being economically bullied and left behind by an establishment that barely knew they existed. 

In other words, the bully Roger Ailes bequeathed to the bully Donald Trump a bullied working class. 


On May 10, 2017, Ailes fell and hit his head at his Palm Beach, Florida, home, not far from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. He died a week later, three days after his 77th birthday. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner attributed his death to a subdural hematoma, aggravated by hemophilia.

This article was published at Robert Reich’s Substack

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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