At the turn of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson famously said, “The whole purpose of democracy is that we may hold counsel with one another, so as not to depend upon the understanding of one man.” More than 100 years later, Americans find themselves still struggling to uphold this truth. The American political system was not designed by accident. Every federal elected official must stand before voters at regular intervals, with the intention of holding decisionmakers accountable for their actions, minimizing the opportunity for corruption, and preventing the centralization of power within a single individual. America’s representative democracy—”a government of the people, by the people, for the people”—is designed to prevent one voice from drowning out, impeding on, and controlling the voices of the many. However, there is a loophole that allows individuals to obtain the kind of long-term power our Constitution was written to prevent: the media. Without term-limits and re-election campaigns to worry about, the media provides a platform for individuals to influence the narrative throughout their lifetime and change the course of history. No individual has exploited this opportunity quite as remarkably as the architect of Fox News, Roger Ailes.
Roger Ailes was the brainchild behind a network that became an incredibly successful and influential news empire rooted in loyalty, branding itself over the years as a champion of controversy, a warrior of patriotism, and an adversary of censorship. While traditional broadcast news stations are at the mercy of the news cycle, Fox News has controlled it better than most with Ailes at the helm. Its opinion-driven shows and unapologetically conservative hosts have earned it a staunchly loyal following over the years—and at a time when the public has become obsessed with defying the politically correct, this loyalty has only deepened. These circumstances put the network in an advantageous position to absorb the recent blows of controversy that would otherwise shake competitors. Roger Ailes’ resignation from his official position as chairman following accusations of sexual harassment left the nation buzzing, questioning how the fall of Ailes will impact the network. Is an era defined by Fox News’ political dissonance coming to an end? Not quite.
With Fox News, Ailes was able to forever change American politics. Using his network to insert his voice into elections, frame the issues voters care about, and groom politicians for office, Ailes created a political powerhouse outside the bounds of the Constitution. Ailes has positioned his network as the “protector of liberty”—giving the network the freedom to say whatever it wants, whenever it wants, however it wants. In a strategy similar to presidential nominee Donald Trump, Fox News has pushed professional boundaries by serving as a mouthpiece for extreme ideas. From rumors about President Obama’s faith, to his ties to extremists, to the US government’s involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Fox News has seized opportunities to raise issues other networks dare not address. And its viewers love it; they’ve become reliant on the unique brand of journalism Ailes has made mainstream.
While undoubtedly controversial, there is a method to Fox News’ madness. Ailes’ logic behind the network’s combative tone, theatrical production style, and obsession with provocation was to acquire a very distinct and staunchly loyal viewership. Fox News pulls in the oldest audience for cable news shows, with an average viewer celebrating his or her 65th birthday this year. This means that approximately half of all Fox News viewers were born before 1951—an era where misogyny was woven into the fabric of daily life. An ex-high-ranking Fox News executive was anonymously quoted in a Washington Post article comparing Ailes to “Mad Men,” the pop culture example of sexism run rampant, saying, “This guy came of age in the 50s, 60s and 70s when it was a whole different culture.” Women were just breaking into the workplace, and what is now seen as inappropriate was thought of as “just part of the job.” Most Fox News viewers did not grow up watching the world of Mad Men; they grew up living in it, as did Ailes himself. The allegations against him, while crossing the line for many, fall against the hardened ears of a large portion of Fox News stalwarts. This demographic of viewers coupled with Fox News’ unique brand of TV journalism, has allowed Ailes to leave behind a legacy of followers with such rigid expectations of news content that even if they did want to switch networks, they’d likely have nowhere to go. Very few alternative networks could even come close to satisfying this acquired palate.
This loyalty not only extends to the viewers, but also to the employees, investors, and stakeholders that created the notoriously close-knit company. Ailes is known for his “hands-on” approach to business, and this management style has allowed him to remain influential to both politics and the public over the course of his long career. However, this continued success all depends on the strategy of the heirs to his empire: the Murdoch brothers. While it’s understood their modern views sharply contrast with the Fox News philosophy, the success of the network speaks for itself. Will they decide it’s finally time to retire the theatrics for a more conventional approach? We doubt it. Despite Fox News’s aging audience, the network’s perceived candor ties in well with the tide rising against “political correctness.” The media empire’s strategy thus far has made it the most-watched cable news channel for the past 15 years. And as the age old saying goes: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
LEVICK Fellow Kelsey Chapekis contributed to this post.