I knew Roger Ailes. Here's the biggest mistake most people make about him

  • Roger Ailes is being remembered as some kind of conservative ideologue.
  • But he was really just a showman with a keen understanding of what audiences like.
  • And that showmanship definitely had a personal dark side that also had nothing to do with politics.
Roger Ailes
Bob Riha Jr. | Getty Images
Roger Ailes

FOX News founder Roger Ailes passed away Thursday morning at age 77. Get ready for a number of retrospective pieces about how in addition to launching the enormously successful FOX News network, Ailes was some kind of leading conservative ideologue who advanced the conservative agenda in front of and behind the scenes for five decades.

Not quite.

What Ailes truly was, for better or for worse, was an impresario. He knew that the essential ingredients for putting on a good show were strikingly similar to putting on a good campaign. First, last, and always he was about image, personality and style. And another key ingredient was humor, sometimes biting and cruel, but still humor.

I worked at FOX and FOX Business for 5-plus years and had several interactions with Ailes during that time. His message was always the same: Put on entertaining shows. He never pushed a policy or a political ideology. That was true for us as his employees even when we were covering important stories with important sources.

For example, business programs under his authority were given strict orders when discussing companies like Apple or JPMorgan, to refer exclusively to their leaders Steve Jobs and Jamie Dimon instead. Political policies also got the "my eyes are glazing over" treatment from Ailes, who insisted on talking about the candidates and their soundbite-friendly statements alone.

Even an ongoing story like the Iraq War got short shrift in our newsroom. Ailes recognized as early as 2005 that most viewers were tiring of the story, even though his cable competitors and the newspapers were convinced the war was still the top issue in America. He favored culture war stories, true crime and car chases.

"I worked at FOX and FOX Business for 5-plus years and had several interactions with Ailes during that time. His message was always the same: Put on entertaining shows. He never pushed a policy or a political ideology."

At a time when competitors like CNN were still convinced that slapping a live camera in front of every breaking news event was the ticket, Ailes knew that connecting with the viewers' emotions and giving them a familiar face to relate to each night was the better, if less journalism-centered, way to go. The ratings proved him right as he created media mega-stars from Bill O'Reilly to Megyn Kelly.

But the key piece of knowledge Ailes possessed was that even the most educated viewers and voters would make their viewing and political decisions based on emotional rather than intellectual reasons.

Ailes used this wisdom time and time again. He climbed the ladder quickly to the job of director of the nationally syndicated Mike Douglas Show. Then he brought his showman's insight to politics, convincing then-candidate Richard Nixon to use striking imagery of street crime and protests in a key 1968 campaign ad. It was also the knowledge that led him to urge President Reagan to open a crucial 1984 debate against Walter Mondale with a self-deprecating joke. In both cases, that imagery and personal style over substance delivered big time.

It needs to be said that Ailes' preoccupation with personality and appearances had a serious dark side. The many allegations and subsequent settlements against him for using his position at FOX to sexually harass and pressure female on air staffers and others connected with FOX are frankly not a surprise to me based on his obsessions with looks.

I was one of many producers who would often get warning phone calls in the control room when Ailes saw a female or male guest on my program whom he considered to be unattractive. In this way, Ailes was no trailblazer. Anyone who's worked long enough in the news business, particularly those of us who worked several years in local news, have run into lots of news directors and other executives in this field who clearly use their position of authority to initiate inappropriate relationships with female employees.

That kind of behavior ultimately sank Ailes' career and, based on multiple reported harassment settlements, the same thing sank O'Reilly, his biggest star for decades. And it will always serve as much more than a minor footnote in his story.

But it's important to remember that Roger Ailes put on shows. And he put on more watchable shows than his competition, even if those shows were news programs or political campaigns. They were still shows to him, and that's why he so often won.

That's his legacy with plenty of positive and negative lessons to go along with it. But Ailes was no political thought leader and certainly not a groundbreaking or authoritative conservative thinker. Anyone who eulogizes him that way doesn't really know what Ailes was all about.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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