Roger Ailes

Roger Ailes Biography

Television Producer, Political Consultant, CEO (1940–2017)
Former political adviser Roger Ailes transformed the cable news landscape during his reign as chief of the Fox News Channel from 1996 to 2016.

Who Was Roger Ailes?

Born in Ohio in 1940, Roger Ailes began his career in TV as a producer for The Mike Douglas Show. He found his niche as a political adviser beginning with Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, and later was involved with the successful campaigns of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988. Named chief of the new Fox News Channel in 1996, he pushed the network to the forefront of the industry by emphasizing opinionated, conservative-slanted coverage. Less than a year after he was ousted from the company over sexual harassment allegations, Ailes died from a subdural hematoma on May 18, 2017.

Early Years

Roger Eugene Ailes was born on May 15, 1940, in Warren, Ohio. He was the second of three children of Robert Ailes, a foreman at the Packard Electric Company, and wife Donna, a housewife who earned extra money by embroidering handkerchiefs.

Young Ailes endured some medical scares; he was diagnosed with hemophilia at an early age, and at age 8 he was hit by a car and hospitalized. Still, he was never shy about exerting himself physically and socially. He joined the drama club at Warren G. Harding High School, and dug ditches during his summertime job with the state highway department.

At Ohio University in Athens, Ailes became a radio and television major and student station manager of WOUB Radio. Additionally, he met fellow student Marjorie White, who became his first wife in 1960.

TV Producer and Political Adviser

After graduating in 1962, Ailes went to work as a production assistant on The Mike Douglas Show, rising to the rank of executive producer. His career took a turn in the early days of the 1968 presidential campaign, when Richard Nixon was booked on the show. After Nixon dismissed television as a "gimmick," Ailes soundly defended the importance of the medium, impressing the Republican candidate to the point that he asked Ailes to join the campaign.

Ailes went on to found his own company in 1969, through which he advised businesses and politicians. He branched out into film, TV and theater production, notably backing the Obie Award-winning The Hot l Baltimore in the mid-1970s. He also made his first attempt at a conservative-slanted network by helping to launch Television News Inc., which operated from 1973-75.

Ailes returned to presidential campaign work in 1984, when he coached Ronald Reagan for his debates with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. He was prominently involved in the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush, which included the controversial "Wille Horton ad" as part of an attempt to paint opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime.

By the early 1990s, Ailes had turned his focus back to television. In 1993, he joined NBC to run the CNBC business news network and launch an early version of MSNBC, then known as America's Talking. Despite his successes – CNBC was generating profits of approximately $100 million by 1995 – Ailes clashed with supervisors and quit before the end of 1995.

Fox News Empire

Shortly after leaving NBC, Ailes met with News Corporation titan Rupert Murdoch to discuss a shared interest in a conservative network. With Ailes on board as chairman and CEO, the Fox News Channel was up and running on October 7, 1996.

Ailes quickly established Fox News as a legitimate presence by luring top talent, including CNBC business anchor Neil Cavuto, former ABC White House Correspondent Brit Hume and former Inside Edition anchor Bill O'Reilly. Additionally, he understood the importance of establishing an identity in a fractured media landscape; while ostensibly offering a "fair and balanced" version of the news, Fox quickly gained a reputation for opinionated, right-leaning coverage.

Ailes's willingness to take risks put his network in a position to shape influential narratives, most notably during the 2000 presidential election, when Fox named George W. Bush the winner of the Florida ballot, prompting other networks to follow suit. By January 2002, Fox had surpassed CNN as the most-watched cable news network.

Ailes consolidated his power within News Corp following the resignation of Murdoch's son Lachlan in 2005, thrusting him into the position of Fox Television Chairman.

Other Endeavors and Personal

Ailes became an author in 1988 with You Are the Message: Secrets of the Master Communicators, a combination self-help book and memoir of his work as a political adviser.

After his divorce from Marjorie in 1977, Ailes remarried, to television producer Norma Ferrer, in 1981. He married a third time in 1998, to CNBC program director Elizabeth Tilson, and had son Zachary in 2000.

Shortly afterward, Ailes moved his family to Garrison, New York, where he bought a local newspaper and reestablished it as a conservative publication under his wife's watch. He also remained involved with his alma mater, providing scholarships for students of the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.

Departure From Fox and Death

By 2016, Fox News was enjoying a daily audience of 2 million viewers, more than the combined total of rivals CNN and MSNBC. However, the success was not enough to shield Ailes during a time of increased scrutiny on workplace behavior.

In July, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes, alleging she had been fired for spurning his advances. Several other women stepped forward with similar claims in the following days, and although Ailes vehemently denied any wrongdoing, he agreed to a settlement with Fox and announced his resignation on July 21.

Ailes continued to serve as a consultant to Murdoch, and also helped advise the successful 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump. On May 10, 2017, he sustained a bad fall at his home in Palm Beach, Florida. He was pronounced dead a week later, on May 18, from a subdural hematoma, complicated by his lifelong battle with hemophilia.

In January 2018, the FBI released some of its files on the former Fox News chief. The 114 pages of documents dated back to 1969, when the bureau investigated Ailes for his work as a political adviser to President Nixon. The files also contained notice of his 1974 arrest for illegally carrying a handgun in New York City, as well as his 1981 interview with the FBI, for information about an attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, by John Hinckley Jr.  

(Photo: Tim Boxer/Getty Images)

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