Roger Ailes turned television news into an Us vs. Them free-for-all

Roger Ailes was “old school.”

Or at least that’s how many have characterized the disgraced Fox News founder since news of his death broke Thursday.

Certainly Ailes changed the direction of American media when he launched the network two decades ago, and along with his star host, Bill O’Reilly, became a figurehead for conservative traditionalists who felt the rest of American media had lapsed into a politically correct coma brought on by toxic liberalism.

Yet Ailes’ vision for his news network was anything but a throwback to simpler times.

In fact, it was the future.

It was Ailes, not a pack of progressive “snowflakes,” who blew apart the way news had been reported and presented on television since the 1950s.

It was Ailes who filled the newly discovered 24-hour television news cycle with more pontificating than reporting, who dismissed the notion of objectivity and replaced it with conservative spin.

Fox was born in 1996 when apolitical, nightly news anchors such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather ruled the ratings. Partisan commentary was allotted to special, end-of-the-broadcast segments or Sunday shows, and fledgling network CNN had actual reporters on the ground as opposed to rows of talking heads in a studio. Facebook wasn’t even a twinkle in the World Wide Web’s eye, Twitter a thing “real men” would never do.

It was Ailes, advisor to Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump, who pioneered the idea of a high-profile, partisan television news platform built around personalities and unapologetically filtered through a conservative lens. Fox would do for TV what Rush Limbaugh had done for radio.

Under Alies’ tight control, Fox News mixed right-leaning commentary with reported news — often making no distinction between the two — and did so under the straight-faced banner of “fair and balanced.”

The tagline “we report, you decide” was such a joke that it became a joke; Fox take-downs shored up the ratings of “The Daily Show,” launched “The Colbert Report.”

Meanwhile, Ailes and Fox laughed all the way to the bank. The network perfected the idea of the personal bubble, choosing and presenting stories in a way that bolstered its viewers’ ideological beliefs. Fox anchors and hosts were free to appear just as outraged by gay unions and a president with “a Muslim name” as their predominant demographic of 70-year-old white male viewers.

But bubbles have a habit of proliferating, and just as O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are part of Ailes’ legacy, so is the rise of left-leaning avengers like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes.

And it’s Maddow, not the fallen O’Reilly, who now has the top-rated news show in the nation.

The reversal of fortunes, however, still feeds into an ideology that Ailes made the cornerstone of his network’s coverage: Us versus Them.

That was the baseline for much of Fox’s coverage during the rise of the tea party, the Obama presidency, and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Ailes, in fact, helped Trump prep for the debates in which derogatory phrases, like calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman,” helped him win the election.

The undeniable power Fox had in making Trump a serious contender, and ultimately the president, has also contributed to a divide so wide in this country that we can’t even agree on what constitutes a true fact anymore.

Americans’ identities are attached to the news source they turn to. All you need to do is ask what one is watching to know where loyalties lie: Fox or MSNBC? Huffington Post or Breitbart? And each outlet promises real news to combat the fake news from the other side.

It’s a dangerous dynamic that has contributed to a distrust, animosity and fear among Americans who once left such heated partisan arguments up to pundits. Ailes and the Make America Great Agains may have wanted a time machine, but it seems to have sent us back not to the 1950s but to an exaggeration of the decades after, when no one trusted the government or their neighbors.

But there’s more than just one definition for the term “old school” in relation to Ailes, and that also depends on which side of the aisle you sit.

O’Reilly offers his definition in his new book, “Old School”: “Did you get up this morning knowing there are mountains to climb — and deciding how you are going to climb them? Do you show up on time? Do you still bend over to pick up a penny? If so, you’re Old School.

“Or did you wake up whining about safe spaces and trigger warnings? Do you feel marginalized by your college’s mascot? Do you look for something to get outraged about, every single day, so you can fire off a tweet defending your exquisitely precious sensibilities? Then you’re a Snowflake.”

(Perhaps Trump never read the part about Twitter.)

For others, the term Old School is coded language for romanticizing the racism and sexism of pre-equal and civil rights America, and a white man wouldn’t likely be pushed out of the company he founded for pressuring the help to have sex with him.

Ailes was ejected from Fox less than a year ago after the network paid out several sexual harassment settlements alleging Ailes preyed on the women who worked at Fox. O’Reilly met a similar fate last month.

Old school behavior that manifested in new school firings.

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

http://twitter.com/lorraineali

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