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What Roger Ailes did to America

He changed the way presidents get elected.

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At age 28, long before he launched the cable channel that would command the conservative movement, Roger Ailes was a consultant for Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. A famously anti-telegenic presence, Nixon had assembled a group of media experts to help him master the visual language of television. Together, the team choreographed his talk show appearances, smoothed out his speaking tics, and staged TV town halls where the candidate could show off a warmer, less queasy public persona.

Ailes — whose background lay in TV, not politics — contributed countless visual nips and tucks. He gave sartorial orders (off-white shirt, simple ties), dictated camera placement (eye-level, partly to the side), and urged Nixon to invent more “memorable phrases.” He prescribed whiter eyelid makeup and, to combat sweat, handkerchiefs soaked in witch hazel.

What Nixon had once dismissed as surface-level “gimmicks” Ailes recognized as the future of American politics. “This is it,” Ailes told journalist Joe McGinniss shortly before Nixon’s November victory. “This is the way they’ll be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers.”

Ailes died at age 77 on Thursday after an influential television career that ended in scandal. At Fox News, he victimized women while teaching conservatives how to perform, to great success, an imitation of paranoid victimhood. He will be remembered for both.

To Ailes, the power of TV was its shallowness

In his early years as a media consultant to presidents Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, Ailes learned to embrace television’s limitations. “Television rarely, if ever, tells the whole story,” Ailes said in a 1971 a speech he titled “Candidate + Money + Media = Votes.” “It is imperative that we begin to understand what TV can and cannot do.”

Ailes recognized that primetime television was not a thinking medium; its constraints would not permit ideas to fully unfurl. Many saw this as a shortcoming, but with Fox News, Ailes showed how shallowness could be a strength: On television, it becomes hard to distinguish arguments that genuinely lack depth from those compressed to fit the format.

Ailes rejected the idea that the TV could lie, but conceded that it could magnify and distort. By his reckoning, though, the liberal media was already distorting reality, so when the opportunity came for him to launch his own channel in 1996, he set out to be the nation’s corrective lens.

Fox News was where Ailes fully came into his powers as the architect of the television age in politics. He had a strong conservative viewpoint, but retained his eye for drama, honed by his years of experience as a TV producer. His channel excelled at mining scandals for ratings, starting with the Monica Lewinsky affair, which crowned early stars like Bill O’Reilly and Brit Hume, and later evolved to sustain itself with scandals of its own making. Ailes’s news judgment was indistinguishable from his instinct for spectacle. He accepted that the news was whatever people wanted to watch, even if his audience craved conspiracy theories and thinly sourced rumors.

This idea of merging entertainment and news was not exclusive to the right. On the left, programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report occupied a similar space — only Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert called themselves comedians, not journalists or activists. For the audience of Fox News, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck took on that trinity of roles, and they quickly attracted rivals on the left like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. By the Obama era, the cable news landscape was more polarized than even Ailes had at first intended. It turns out many Americans on both sides crave bold opinions expressed loudly.

The potent Fox News formula

Much has been made of Fox News’s winking slogan “Fair & Balanced,” but what it noticeably avoids is any mention of accuracy. To Ailes, Fox News was above all a project in perspective. One of his key insights was that most Americans have little interest in the news, which is too abstract, too distant from their everyday lives. Fox News excelled at wrangling facts — and sometimes fictions — into familiar points of view. It transposed the bewildering world of current events onto simple storylines: us versus them, regular folks versus elites, the righteous versus the unjust.

This formula won huge ratings, enviable revenues, and a loyal base of fans. By adapting the rhythms of talk radio to cable news, Ailes had discovered the perfect medium for making propaganda profitable. In the depthless, two-dimensional realm of the TV screen, appearances and emotions do most of the work. A confident delivery can make outrageous ideas sound self-evident in the moment. (And what is television if not a collection of beguiling moments?)

One of the central convictions Ailes brought to Fox News was a sense that conservatives were under siege, politically and culturally: The mainstream media was a liberal conspiracy; coastal elites were sneering at the honest folk of the heartland (Ailes was born in Ohio); “real” America was crumbling and liberals were dancing on its grave. These Nixonian anxieties, amplified onscreen, sustained an ecosystem of indignant zeal, from the Tea Party to the Benghazi witch hunt to the birther movement.

And these were the same kinds of grievances, of course, that carried Donald Trump to the presidency. By all accounts, Trump is an obsessive watcher of Fox News; it is no stretch to suspect that Ailes’s channel was his first tutor in populist politicking and demagoguery (Ailes would later join the campaign). Trump, in many ways, represents the culmination of Ailes’s decades-long project to cultivate a strain of conservatism that is native to the idioms of television. His affect is technicolor; he speaks in sound bites; he distills ideas to their simplest, and always caps them with an emotional appeal. He is at heart a performer — obsessed with the surfaces of things.

Back in 1970, when he was still consulting for Nixon, Ailes resisted the idea that style, not substance, would come to dominate American politics. “Television doesn't have that much control,” he assured the US News and World Report. “The candidate must stand on his own feet, do his own homework, face grilling in question-and-answer format, make clear his grasp of the issues.”

“Even if we tried to make something out of nothing, we couldn’t get away with it,” Ailes continued. “If a man is a phony, he will come through on TV as a phony.”

If anything, Ailes may have underestimated the power of his medium.

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