In June, US TV host Gretchen Carlson launched a sexual harassment lawsuit against her boss, the “all-powerful” Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, claiming he had “sabotaged her career because she wouldn’t have sex with him”, says The Washington Post. Within weeks, Carlson would be out of a job, and a cascading series of events, unfolding with dizzying speed, would culminate in the public shaming and resignation of Ailes, “one of the most influential executives in American TV history”.
Since then, some 25 other women – including Megyn Kelly, who clashed with Donald Trump over his treatment of women – have come forward with claims stretching back five decades to Ailes’ days as a young TV producer in the 1960s. He denies them all.
But retaining him was a reputational risk too far for Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. Or was it? “Some Ailes loyalists suspect the scandal… has become a convenient vehicle for Murdoch’s sons – Lachlan and James – who have long wanted to vanquish the bombastic Fox News titan who had always been shielded by their father,” says The Washington Post.
Ailes’ downfall marks the end of the line for America’s most influential “kingmaker”, says The Economist. “The pre-eminent master of the dark arts of politics and television” had been helping Republicans get elected since the days of Richard Nixon.
He built Fox News – “a joke” when Rupert Murdoch started it in 1996 – into the “number-one powerhouse in cable, eventually collecting profits of $1bn a year”. The son of an Ohio factory foreman, Ailes, 76, “instinctively knew how to appeal to white, working-class voters, disaffected, as he was himself with liberal elites and political correctness”. His brand of “angry, conspiracy-driven political news and opinion set Fox News apart”.
Ailes grew up a fighter because he was born a haemophiliac, says Esquire. After bullies beat him up once, his father told him to fight every fight like “it’s life and death”. He got his first break in TV as a prop boy, eventually joining The Mike Douglas Show – a talk show that was nationally syndicated in 1963. Ailes worked his way up to executive producer and, in 1967, booked Richard Nixon on the show. Soon he was working for him. “It was Roger Ailes who gave us Richard Nixon” and Richard Nixon who “gave America Roger Ailes”.
Ailes’ work on the Nixon campaign made him a political star. When Rupert Murdoch hired Ailes in 1996, he secured “a kindred spirit” who gave him “a seat at the top table”, says the FT. But the seeds of his downfall were sown last year when the Murdoch brothers were given senior roles within Fox. TV’s “tetchy… ogre-in-chief” was only ever tolerated “because he was worth it” – his “singular vision brought riches”, says The Observer.
Yet recently, Fox News’ ageing audience implied Ailes’ influence was fading. Doubtless he’s now out to disprove that. The rumour, says the Daily Mail, is that Ailes is advising Trump on his election campaign.