By Joe Flint
Roger Ailes, who combined political savvy with television showmanship to build the Fox News Channel into a conservative media juggernaut, becoming one of American media's most controversial figures along the way, died Thursday. He was 77 years old.
The cause of death wasn't immediately known. Mr. Ailes had been in failing health, and had recently been hospitalized after a fall.
Mr. Ailes pioneered a style of cable news with opinionated, right-leaning programming delivered by pugnacious hosts. It was an approach that delighted conservatives and proved extremely successful financially, even as it often triggered a negative response from liberal audiences.
But he will also be remembered for the sexual-harassment scandal that brought his fabled career at the network to an abrupt end last summer and threw Fox News into a period of turmoil. He exited in July 2016, after a former network anchor sued him, alleging sexual harassment, and parent company 21st Century Fox Inc. investigated his conduct. Mr. Ailes denied wrongdoing.
21st Century Fox and Wall Street Journal-owner News Corp share common ownership.
Known for his bluntness and disdain for the so-called liberal media elites, Mr. Ailes was the perfect choice to execute media mogul Rupert Murdoch's vision of launching a news channel that would serve as a thorn in the side of CNN and the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC.
Mr. Ailes once said that his first qualification to run a news operation was "I didn't go to Columbia Journalism School."
When Fox News made its debut in October of 1996, few were optimistic about its chances of success. CNN had a 16-year head start, and NBC and the deep-pocketed Microsoft Corp. were launching MSNBC, which promised to combine the prestige of Tom Brokaw with cutting-edge technology from Bill Gates.
But Fox News's mix of news and opinionated talk targeting conservatives struck a chord with Americans who felt their views weren't being represented sufficiently in the rest of the media. The Fox News slogans "We report, you decide" and "Fair and Balanced" were mocked by rivals but became mantras for the network's talent and audience.
It took Fox News less than six years to surpass CNN in the ratings, but as far as Mr. Ailes was concerned, his news channel would always be the underdog. He cultivated an us-versus-them mentality in the newsroom and preferred having a chip on his shoulder, people who worked with him at the channel have said.
After the triumph over CNN, rather than pat his team on the back he lectured them about complacency.
"I had to womp them and get them out of a winning mind-set," he told The Wall Street Journal in a 2003 interview.
He also loved tweaking rivals. The marketing team at Fox News became known for its aggressive attacks against CNN and MSNBC as well as being more than willing to disparage anyone who might challenge their own credibility or write favorably about their rivals.
Mr. Ailes' straddling of the line between politics and journalism made him a target of media watchdogs, who accused Fox News of being a megaphone for the Republican Party and coarsening the national discourse. Mr. Ailes dismissed such criticisms, countering in the authorized biography "Roger Ailes Off Camera" that "we're not programming to conservatives, we're just not eliminating their point of view."
Roger Eugene Ailes was born May 15, 1940, in Warren, Ohio, a blue-collar town in the northeastern part of the state. His father Robert was a factory worker who, at times, was physically abusive to his son. "He used an electric cord, a belt, whatever was handy," Mr. Ailes said in the biography.
Mr. Ailes also suffered from hemophilia, which made him feel even more vulnerable as a child. At the same time, Mr. Ailes felt he had something to prove, both to his father and schoolmates. He didn't back down from fights and played football.
After graduating from Ohio University, Mr. Ailes went to work on "The Mike Douglas Show." It was there in 1967 that an off-the-cuff conversation with then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon led Mr. Ailes into politics. Mr. Nixon, who had lost to President John F. Kennedy in 1960, was bemoaning having to go on television, which he called a "gimmick."
Mr. Ailes told the future 37th president, "television is not a gimmick, and if you think that, you'll lose again." Mr. Ailes was soon running Mr. Nixon's television strategy.
Mr. Ailes was later involved in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush as well as scores of other politicians. In between, he produced theater and various television projects, including a special for Liberace.
He returned to television full-time in the early 1990s, first as executive producer of a show for conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and then as president of CNBC, the NBC-owned business news channel. He left in early 1996 after NBC decided to convert America's Talking, another channel Mr. Ailes oversaw, into MSNBC, and give oversight of it to another executive.
At Fox News, Mr. Ailes was a hands-on executive who got deeply involved in selecting on-air talent. He assembled a team of commentators that included Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. They developed loyal audiences, and their shows became go-to venues for conservative lawmakers and pundits. News anchors such as Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace, who weren't focused on opinion-driven coverage, struck a different tone.
Mr. Ailes also demanded loyalty, and he usually got it. When Mr. Ailes was building Fox News, almost 100 people from NBC went with him, causing executives there to complain that he was stealing staff. "You don't know the difference between recruitment and a jailbreak," he fired back.
Fox News proved a financial powerhouse, thanks to lucrative carriage deals with cable TV distributors and high ratings that translated into ad dollars. The network eventually accounted for some 20% of operating income for 21st Century Fox.
Because of his success, 21st Century Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch gave Mr. Ailes far more autonomy than other executives at the company. That often caused tensions with other members of the Murdoch family. He clashed with Lachlan Murdoch over the operation of the company's local TV stations and was seen as a key factor in the elder Murdoch son leaving the company for several years.
When Rupert Murdoch appointed Lachlan and younger son James to the positions of 21st Century Fox co-executive chairman and chief executive, respectively, Mr. Ailes initially was to report to them. He balked and ended up negotiating a deal in which he kept his direct line to the senior Mr. Murdoch.
Mr. Ailes's fortunes began to change in the summer of 2016. In July, Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor, filed a lawsuit alleging that Mr. Ailes sexually harassed her and then retaliated against her -- by sabotaging her career and not renewing her contract -- after she rebuffed his unwanted advances. In the suit, Ms. Carlson alleged that Mr. Ailes injected sexual comments and innuendo into their conversations and made lewd comments about her body.
Mr. Ailes denied the allegations but more women -- some from decades ago -- came forward in media reports, alleging that Mr. Ailes had harassed them. 21st Century Fox soon launched an internal probe to examine Mr. Ailes's alleged misconduct.
Just over two weeks after Ms. Carlson filed her suit, Mr. Ailes resigned, bringing a sudden end to his 20-year tenure. In his letter of resignation, Mr. Ailes didn't address the sexual-harassment claims but told Mr. Murdoch, "I am proud that we have built Fox News and Fox Business channels into powerful and lucrative news organizations that inform our audience and reward our shareholders."
Mr. Ailes received an exit package worth more than $40 million, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Murdoch took over as chief executive of Fox News.
Fox ultimately settled the suit by Ms. Carlson for about $20 million. But the scandal continued to reverberate. There were revelations of earlier, previously undisclosed settlements paid to other women who alleged they were harassed by Mr. Ailes. And 21st Century Fox reached settlements with some new complainants.
Critics argued that Mr. Ailes had fostered a workplace that was hostile to women, where harassment was tolerated. Earlier this year, a New York Times investigation revealed that Fox and Mr. O'Reilly had reached previously undisclosed settlements with multiple women who had alleged the prime-time star harassed them. He denied the allegations and departed Fox News.
After exiting Fox News, Mr. Ailes moved to Florida and had kept largely out of the public eye. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth, son Zachary, brother Robert and sister Jean.
Write to Joe Flint at [email protected]