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.
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.