Roger Ailes, Founder of Murdoch's Fox News, Dies at 77

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  • He made FNC the most-watched cable news channel in the U.S.
  • Ailes ousted last year amid sexual-harrassment allegations

Roger Ailes, a former U.S. presidential adviser who started the Fox News Channel to promote a Republican agenda and built it into the most-watched U.S. cable news network before resigning amid sexual harassment allegations, has died. He was 77.

Ailes died Thursday, the network said, citing a statement from his wife, Elizabeth. The cause was “complications of a subdural hematoma” suffered after he fell and hit his head, according to a statement from the the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner. Hemophilia contributed to his death, and there was no evidence of foul play. The incident occurred on May 10 at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, according to a Palm Beach Police Department event report.

Ailes with his wife, Elizabeth Tilson, outside News Corp. in July 2016.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Ailes started Fox News in 1996 at the behest of media mogul Rupert Murdoch as an alternative to what they saw as a news industry dominated by liberals.

“A brilliant broadcaster, Roger played a huge role in shaping America’s media over the last thirty years,” Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox and FNC, said in a statement. “Roger and I shared a big idea which he executed in a way no one else could have.”

Although marketed as “fair and balanced,” critics of the conservative content of the channel’s programs accused it of acting as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party.

One reason: An Ailes deputy sent reporters and news-show hosts memos stating what the message of the day should be. The notes directed positive coverage for Republican politicians and negative news about Democrats.

‘Wholly New’

“It’s an entire network, devoted 24 hours a day to an entire politics, and it’s broadcast as ‘the news,’ ” said Robert Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University and author of “The Age of Reagan,” according to a 2011 Rolling Stone article. “That’s why Ailes is a genius. He’s combined opinion and journalism in a wholly new way -- one that blurs the distinction between the two.”

Using such tactics, Fox News grew in popularity, eclipsing rivals CNN and MSNBC, and remains America’s most-watched news network. This year, FNC will also be the most profitable, with the highest margins among peers at 66 percent, according to researcher SNL Kagan. Sales from cable programming, 21st Century Fox’s largest business, rose 2.1 percent to $4.02 billion in the most recent quarter.

Ailes’s network is now mired in internal strife. In July 2016, he resigned as head of Fox News after a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed by a former anchor, Gretchen Carlson, who claimed she was fired for refusing his sexual advances. Ailes said Carlson’s allegations were false and her lawsuit was in retaliation for the network’s decision not to renew her contract because her “low ratings were dragging down the afternoon lineup.”

Carlson left the network and received a $20 million settlement from Fox several months later. Her accusations were followed by claims of harassment from other women, including Fox News host Andrea Tantaros, who also said she was the victim of hacking, electronic surveillance and social-media intimidation. The scandal further engulfed one of the network’s biggest stars, Megyn Kelly, who alleged that Ailes harassed her. Kelly left the network earlier this year to join NBC News.

In perhaps biggest fallout from the scandal for the network, Fox News ousted its most valuable host, Bill O’Reilly, after dozens of advertisers fled his top-rated show amid new allegations of sexual misconduct. O’Reilly denied charges of sexual misconduct, as did Ailes. Weeks later, co-President Bill Shine resigned over network’s handling of such claims against top executives.

The toll has been considerable. Fox has spent $45 million so far on legal settlements and provisions related to the departure of Ailes, including $10 million in the most recent quarter. Federal prosecutors have also been investigating secret settlement payments the company made to female on-air hosts who complained of sexual harassment. The probe, disclosed in February, centers on whether the payments should’ve been disclosed to investors.

O’Reilly, Hannity

Given his mission, Ailes hired conservatives, including eventual star commentators O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. He lured anchor Neil Cavuto and others from CNBC, the leading cable business channel, where Ailes had been president prior to starting Fox News.

“Today America lost one of its great patriotic warriors,” Hannity said on his Twitter account Thursday.

Ailes ruled with a volatile temper and domineering behavior, according to a 2014 unauthorized biography “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News -- and Divided a Country” by Gabriel Sherman.

He once punched a hole in the wall of an NBC control room where he was producing “The Tomorrow Show,” according to the biography “Roger Ailes: Off Camera,” by Ze’ev Chafets. Ailes told the author: “It was just a drywall, and luckily I didn’t hit any beams. But somebody put a frame around the hole and wrote, ‘Don’t mess with Roger Ailes.”’

Fox became a refuge for out-of-office conservative politicians, including Sarah Palin, John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. Some, such as Kasich, went on to run for office again.

GOP Takeover

Murdoch names Ailes as the head of Fox News, on Jan. 30, 1996.

Photographer: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Under Ailes, Fox News was credited with helping to create the anti-government Tea Party movement and aiding the GOP takeover of both chambers of Congress in 2014 for the first time in eight years.

“Roger was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many,” his wife said in the statement, according to Fox News. “He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise -- and to give back.”

Roger Eugene Ailes was born May 15, 1940, in Warren, Ohio, to Robert Ailes, a factory foreman, and his wife Donna. He had hemophilia yet his father sometimes beat him with a belt, according to Sherman’s biography.

He attended Ohio University, in Athens, where he acted in plays and worked at the radio station. After graduating in 1962, he landed an entry-level job on “The Mike Douglas Show,” a daytime variety program initially based in Cleveland. A television wunderkind, he rose to executive producer by age 25 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1968.

In 1967, while working at the show, Ailes met Richard Nixon and lectured him on the importance of television following the politician’s failed runs for the presidency in 1960 and for governor of California in 1962. He was hired to help shape Nixon’s public image during the 1968 presidential campaign and was later fired for negative remarks he made about the Republican candidate to Joe McGinniss for his book “The Selling of the President 1968.”

Coors Connection

Ailes got some of his ideas for Fox News from his work for Joseph Coors, the right-wing beer magnate, who in 1974 asked him to be the news director at Television News Inc., a network that supplied free video to local stations to inject conservative content into broadcasts. TVN, whose slogan was “fair and balanced,” shut down within a year.

In the 1980s, his skills as a television producer and political consultant fused. Ailes advised President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 re-election campaign, crafting TV ads and suggesting how the aging ex-actor could improve his debate performances.

“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan memorably said during a debate with Democratic candidate Walter Mondale.

Advised Bush

Ailes helped George H. W. Bush win the presidency in 1988 and advised Bush again four years later in his unsuccessful re-election bid.

In the early 1990s, he also became an executive producer for a short-lived television program starring Limbaugh, host of a successful right-wing radio talk show.

In 1993, he became president of CNBC, a cable business network. During his three years there, he “more than quintupled profits and minted stars like Chris Matthews and Maria Bartiromo,” according to the Rolling Stone story.

Ailes eventually rose to chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Business Network and chairman of Fox Television Stations.

His marriages to the former Marjorie White and Norma Ferrer ended in divorce. In 1998, he married the former Elizabeth Tilson. The couple had a son, Zachary.

Watch Next: An Appreciation of Roger Ailes: Charlie Rose

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