Looking back on 20 years of FOX News and the impact of Roger Ailes



Twenty years ago this week, FOX News went live. It was an oddity on the cable television landscape: news with a view. MSNBC, which had launched a few months earlier, was modeling itself after CNN, the doggedly nonpartisan network that had pioneered cable news back in 1980. But FOX News was markedly different from these other cable news networks. Rather than copying the objective reporting of the mid-20th century, FOX reached back to the 19th century, and the age of the partisan press.

Party papers made up much of the press in much of the United States in its first 100 years. Often subsidized by local parties, these newspapers were the campaign surrogates of the day. Editors were perplexed by the idea they should be anything else. "A despicable impartiality I disclaim," wrote a Connecticut editor in 1800, explaining: "I have a heart, and a country."

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Host Megyn Kelly prepares for her Fox News Channel show 'The Kelly File' in New York September 23, 2015. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has announced in a tweet Wednesday morning that he has decided not to appear on Fox shows in the "foreseeable future" as he believes he has been treated unfairly. After Trump's criticism of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and the show "The O'Reilly Factor" in his tweets on Monday and Tuesday, Fox News cancelled Trump's scheduled Thursday appearance on the show. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly poses on the set of his show "The O'Reilly Factor" in New York March 17, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT MEDIA)
Fox News Channel anchor Sean Hannity poses for photographs as he sits on the set of his show "Hannity" at the Fox News Channel's studios in New York City, October 28, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tags: MEDIA POLITICS ENTERTAINMENT)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JUNE 12: Fox News Channel Host Gretchen Carlson speaks onstage during a 'Fireside Chat on Persecuted' at Variety's Purpose: The Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Summit in association with Rogers And Cowan at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on June 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Variety)
U.S. President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Chris Wallace (R), anchor of "Fox News Sunday", in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Pete Souza/The White House/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MEDIA) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 22: TV Anchor Steve Doocy at Fox & Friends All-American Concert Series at FOX Studios on May 22, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 10: Fox News anchor Shepard Smith on the set of 'Studio B with Shepard Smith' at Fox News studios in New York. Fox News Channel celebrated its 15th anniversary on the air on October 7th.
"Fox Business Morning" correspondent Jenna Lee discusses the day's financial news during the debut of the Fox Business Network in New York October 15, 2007. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES)
DES MOINES, IA - JANUARY 28: Moderators Martha MacCallum (R) and Bill Hemmer (L) wait for the beginning of the first forum of the Fox News - Google GOP Debate January 28, 2016 at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa. Residents of Iowa will vote for the Republican nominee at the caucuses on February 1. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Judge Andrew Napolitano, the senior judicial analyst for Fox News, arrives at Trump Tower in New York on December 15, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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And a party. Long before Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch teamed up to start FOX News, Ailes was a GOP operative. He got his first taste of Republican politics in the Nixon era, consulting first on the 1968 campaign and then on the first few years of the administration. It was there that he started dreaming of some sort of pro-Republican media, a Nixon-friendly outlet to counter a press corps that the administration believed was decidedly unfriendly to the president.

Nothing ever came of it. But Ailes would continue to straddle television and politics. He consulted for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, providing election year advice to both men. He produced Rush Limbaugh's television show in the mid-1990s and helped run "America's Talking," a network that tried to build a television counterpart to talk radio. (It was not particularly successful.)

And then came FOX News. Riding the winds of the Republican revolution, Fox became the televised voice of the GOP. It did not claim its party allegiance overtly – "Fair and Balanced" (wink) – but as Gabe Sherman showed in his 2014 biography of Ailes, from the start FOX's goal was to promote Republican politics. The partisan press had returned.

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Roger Ailes through the years
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 13: In this handout photo provided by FOX News, FOX News Channel Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes is photographed November 13, 2015 at the networks Manhattan headquarters New York City. (Photo by Wesley Mann/FOX News via Getty Images)
Bill O'Reilly, tv columnist, at left, shown here with Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of FOX tv at the Radio & TV Correspondents annual dinner held at the Washington Hilton. (Photo by Susan Biddle/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
SLUG: ST/AILES DATE: 3/23/99 NP PHOTOG: Helayne Seidman/FTWP multi use LOCATION: Fox News, 1211 6th Ave. NYC SUMMARY: Roger Ailes, president of Fox TV CAPTION: Roger Ailes, president of Fox TV, in the Fox TV control room. Original Filename: npsent.JPG ORG XMIT: ; 29
385602 07: Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, right, testifies during a hearing on election night 2000 coverage by the networks before the House committee on energy and commerce February 14, 2001 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C. Heads of major news organizations have converged on Capitol Hill to testify before Congress, explaining the mistaken calls made on Election Night and promising changes to prevent further errors. (Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 25: Chairman and CEO of the Fox News Network Roger Ailes participates in the 'America's Best Leaders: How do they lead? Where are they taking us?' National Issues Briefing hosted by U.S. News and World Report October 25, 2005 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The talk was held in collaboration with the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images for U.S. News and World Report)
NEW YORK - JUNE 26: (L-R) Variety Editor Peter Bart and Producer Roger Ailes attend a cocktail party hosted by Harvey and Bob Weinstein and Miramax Books to celebrate Peter Bart's new book ''BOFFO'' on June 26, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JULY 24: Chairman & CEO, FOX News Roger Ailes from 'Fox News' speaks onstage during the 2006 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour for the FOX Broadcasting Company at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel on July 24, 2006 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 08: Roger Ailes, president of FOX News, poses with his wife Elizabeth on the red carpet upon arrival at a salute to FOX News Channel's Brit Hume on January 8, 2009 in Washington, DC. Hume was honored for his 35 years in journalism. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: Fox News President Roger Ailes attends the Hollywood Reporter celebrates 'The 35 Most Powerful People in Media' at the Four Season Grill Room on April 11, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 13: In this handout photo provided by FOX News, FOX News Channel Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes is photographed November 13, 2015 at the networks Manhattan headquarters New York City. (Photo by Wesley Mann/FOX News via Getty Images)
Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Television Stations, answers questions during a panel discussion at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Pasadena, California July 24, 2006. Picture taken July 24, 2006. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/File Photo
Fox News chief and CEO Roger Ailes speaks during a panel session titled "Democracy and the Media: Are They Compatible?" at the 2005 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills April 19, 2005. The Milken Institute is an independent economic think tank, which works to improve the lives and economic conditions of diverse populations in the United States and around the world. REUTERS/Fred Prouser FSP/JK
News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch (R) speaks at a press conference in New York January 30 where it was announced that cable-TV figure Roger Ailes (L) would head the new Fox 24-hour news network. Murdoch said he would spend $80 million a year on the project which will compete with CNN and similar networks planned by ABC and NBC
Prominent cable-TV figure Roger Ailes appears at a press conference in New York January 30 where he was named to head the new Fox 24-hour news network. News Corporation chief Rupert-Murdoch, who made the announcement, said he would spend $80 million a year on the project
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 19: Fox News chairman Roger Ailes walks with his wife Elizabeth Tilson as they leave the News Corp building, July 19, 2016 in New York City. As of late Tuesday afternoon, Ailes and 21st Century Fox are reportedly in discussions concerning his departure from his position as chairman of Fox News. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 08: Janice Min and Roger Ailes attend 'The 35 Most Powerful People In Media' celebrated by The Hollywoood Reporter at Four Seasons Restaurant on April 8, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 07: Elizabeth Tilson Ailes and Television Producer Roger Ailes attend the Carnegie Hall 125th Season Opening Night Gala at Carnegie Hall on October 7, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 09: President of FOX News Roger Ailes attends the 'Kingsman: The Secret Service' New York premiere at SVA Theater on February 9, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Toth/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 30: Roger Ailes attends Erica Rivera's 40th Birthday hosted by Geraldo Rivera at Monkey Bar on January 30, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Geraldo Rivera)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 30: Roger Ailes, Alisyn Camerota and Geraldo Rivera attend Erica Rivera's 40th Birthday hosted by Geraldo Rivera at Monkey Bar on January 30, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Geraldo Rivera)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 14: In this handout image provided by FOX News Channel, FOX News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes (C) as well as featured keynote speakers, Roy Eaton (L), advertising pioneer and L. Douglas Wilder, former Governor of Virginia attend the Ailes Apprentice Program graduation at FOX News Channel headquarters on November 14, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by FOX News Channel via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 14: In this handout image provided by FOX News Channel, FOX News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes (C) as well as featured keynote speakers, Roy Eaton (not pictured), advertising pioneer and L. Douglas Wilder (not pictured), former Governor of Virginia attend the Ailes Apprentice Program graduation at FOX News Channel headquarters on November 14, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by FOX News Channel via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14: Kreskin and Chairman Fox News and Fox Television Stations Roger Ailes attend the 'Conversations With Kreskin' Book Launch Celebration at Patsy's on November 14, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)
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Returned, but with one big difference. The partisan press of the 19th century was eventually eclipsed by the penny press, newspapers driven by commercial interests rather than partisan ones. But Ailes did not see profits as a threat to politics: He believed they were compatible, that a conservative channel could rake in serious cash.

And for a while, profits and politics did cohabitate comfortably at FOX News. From 2001 on, it consistently topped its competitors in the ratings as Republicans held power in Washington. In the last few years of the Bush administration, however, Republicanism was losing its shine. That was a problem for the pro-GOP station, which struggled until it was bailed out by Barack Obama.

Obama's election breathed new life into both the GOP and FOX News. As the tea party spread, personalities like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin sent ratings soaring. Viewers loved the tea party pundits (Beck more than Palin), and FOX News found itself fostering an energetic new movement that both buttressed the Republican Party and threatened to destroy it. As wild-card tea-party candidates cost the GOP seat after seat, the conflict between profits and politics started to become clearer. The political newbies were great for ratings, but not, it turned out, for the Republican Party.

​​​​​Ailes never resolved this tension. His attempt to handpick a president in 2012 fueled a tumultuous primary battle that weakened the party. Worse: It gave voters a taste for reality-television electioneering, something Donald Trump has profited handsomely from. (One of the few things he's profited handsomely from, if his tax records are to be believed.)

So perhaps it is fitting that Ailes was forced to resign during the Summer of Trump. It freed him up to join the Trump campaign, and to actively lay waste to the party he spent a lifetime working to promote.

Happy anniversary.

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