Last summer I recounted the time that Roger Ailes tried to get me fired from Nielsen, claiming I had leaked Fox Business News’ bad ratings to The New York Times.
But that wasn’t the first time I had run across Ailes and his modus operandi. An earlier encounter was almost as revealing of the Ailes ideology of enemies, revenge and hate.
In the mid-1990s, I worked for a PR agency that did a lot of work for NBC, which came to us with those in the business called an “executive transition” assignment. Ailes, then the head of CNBC, had expressed his displeasure with the way things were going. Among other grievances, “America’s Talking,” the cable network he created for NBC, had been taken from his control and changed into MSNBC through a partnership with Microsoft. He’d indicated that he planned to leave CNBC at some undetermined time in the future. But NBC didn’t want to wait until he jumped. They were going to push first.
So we created a PR plan announcing that Ailes had resigned and that Bill Bolster, the head of NBC’s New York affiliate, was taking his place. On January 7, 1996, NBC informed Ailes he was resigning that day, and the day after that we made the announcement.
As executive transitions go, this was pretty benign. NBC said very nice things about Ailes, and the media played it as we wanted: that this was his decision, which was mostly true.
Ailes, of course, was quickly hired by Rupert Murdoch to create Fox News, a competing cable channel, proving that NBC had been right to force the issue when it did.
So everyone should have been happy, right?
Apparently not, because someone started planting negative stories about the new CNBC management in the New York tabloids — personally nasty stories about the new executives and how much everyone at CNBC hated them. Whenever Ailes hired someone new away from the CNBC newsroom, this would be the occasion for another negative story. Reporters soon told us that Ailes’ PR guy was behind these stories.
There was really no strategic reason for this vindictive campaign against CNBC. Ailes gained nothing from it other than revenge. The new Fox News was not going to be competing against a financial news network like CNBC. It was just nastiness for its own sake.
Ailes went on to create the juggernaut of Fox News and changed American politics forever (it’s also worth mentioning that CNBC itself became an immensely more profitable asset after Ailes left). You have to wonder, though, the extent to which Ailes’ rage powered his success — and whether it actually was a good thing for the political causes he supported.
The day Ailes died, Ross Douthart tweeted that there were two eras in conservative journalism: the William F Buckley era and the Roger Ailes era. Buckley’s form of journalism was rooted in intelligent argument, wit, and sunniness. The Buckley approach to politics reached its climax with the Reagan presidency. Reagan was considered by his opponents to be an amiable dunce, but he was actually a man of ideas and a Buckley acolyte.
By contrast, Ailes began his career advising Richard Nixon and ended up as a consultant to Donald Trump. What these three had in common was a burning resentment at real and perceived slights. They passionately hated anyone who dissed them, starting with the political and media elites.
The Buckley era resulted in the most successful implementation of conservative ideas in a century. And the Ailes approach? The New York Times’ Bret Stephens made a good point about Ailes and Fox: that they were really in the business of hating the Left, not in pushing conservative causes. Ailes-style candidates gave us one disgraced presidency that resulted in a huge expansion of government, and another presidency on its way to disgrace and the potential destruction of the Republican Party. That’s some legacy.
Here’s the thing. Ailes was a genius to recognize there was a huge audience for a news network that was not dominated by the liberal elite. For the Right, Fox news coverage actually was “fair and balanced,” for a change.
But a lot of conservatives can’t stand to watch Fox, with its nastiness, conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism and endless grievances. Liberals sometimes conflate conservatism with populism, but they are two entirely different things. Fox’s goal was to generate huge ratings by stoking resentment, decidedly not a conservative approach.
So when Ailes launched his vengeful campaign against his successors at CNBC in 1996, none of us could understand why he couldn’t just move on. Little did we know that he was in the process of constructing a network explicitly dedicated to not moving on – to being perpetually outraged. And maybe it made business sense to keep his audience of older white men in a state of fury. But let’s not pretend he was successfully making the country more conservative.