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John Doyle: What the loathed Roger Ailes leaves behind is wreckage

There are plenty of people ready to dance on the grave of Roger Ailes. He wouldn't expect anything different. It's typical of the media and politics he forged.

In shaping and leading Fox News, he made the aggressive and often-obnoxious right-wing all-news channel feared, loathed and immensely successful. In running the workplace that was Fox News, he seems to have fashioned a media company where the sexual harassment of women was common and, unconscionably, tolerated with blithe indifference.

Ailes died at 77 on Thursday, less than a year after he was forced out of the top job at Fox News, following allegations that he sexually harassed several employees including former anchor Gretchen Carlson. She alleged in a lawsuit that Ailes had fired her after she refused to have sex with him. Carlson had spent a decade at Fox News and her claim was that Ailes engaged in "severe and pervasive sexual harassment." He denied all allegations but, as the channel's proprietor, the Murdoch-owned 21st Century Fox investigated, it became clear that other women backed Carlson. A picture of rampant harassment emerged. Fox settled with Carlson and Ailes was out.

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It was a humiliating end for Ailes. And his death not only marks the end of a media era, it comes at time when Fox News is shockingly transformed and, finally, diminished in the media war that matters – ratings. This week, Fox News has ranked number three in prime time behind both CNN and MSNBC, in key demographics, which is a stunning collapse. The reasons aren't hard to fathom. With the White House in turmoil and viewership for all-news channels shooting upward, Fox News has tried to avoid the main story.

These days, there are prime-time hours when Fox News hosts dismiss the news of the day – about Donald Trump pressuring fired FBI director James Comey about Michael Flynn or Trump sharing intelligence information with Russian officials – as partisan non-stories. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity attack CNN or The New York Times and then, bizarrely, concentrate on pseudo-news items that denigrate Democrats. It is surreal to see and it's not working. It's the problem with propaganda and blind partisanship – if there is an alternative source of information and opinion, viewers will drift toward that.

The death of any major media figure usually means reflection and analysis on what they achieved and what they leave behind. What Ailes left behind, in the months since his exit, is wreckage. Two of the marquee figures at Fox News are gone. Megyn Kelly, whose questions enraged Donald Trump as a candidate, left the channel for NBC. That was her choice. In the matter of Bill O'Reilly, there was no choice.

On April 1, The New York Times reported Fox and O'Reilly had paid five women a total of $13-million (U.S.) to settle sexual-harassment claims. Soon after, others came forward with tales of O'Reilly's lewd behaviour. O'Reilly claimed, in the Fox News way, that there was a left-wing conspiracy behind it all. Women's groups called on advertisers to boycott The O'Reilly Factor and Fox News. Some major advertisers heeded them. O'Reilly, the most blustering, bullying epitome of everything that is Fox News, was out.

Ironies now abound in the consideration of what Roger Ailes wrought. The right-wing Republican populism that Fox News nourished and honed for two decades climaxed in the election of Trump as President. That was a triumph. Fox News was and remains Trump's favourite channel. It favoured him and he favours it with his praise, attention and interviews. But, just as Trump has roiled American politics into a cauldron of scandals petty and large, Fox News was rocked by its own scandals.

Fox News is now incapable of covering the political circus it created. The madness of its male-centric, right-wing partisanship looks even more malignant in the light of Trump's victory and ensuing chaos. It looks feeble in the face of daily eruptions of chaos at the White House.

From the time Ailes began running Fox News in 1996, he took the view that reporting on news was itself a feeble exercise. What viewers wanted was something that stirred their emotions. That meant punditry and stirring the politics of resentment. Any progressive change in politics or the culture was to be attacked, sneered at and denigrated. Fox News essentially created the culture wars of the past two decades in U.S. politics. And it worked. The channel was a ratings giant, a huge financial success and it changed U.S. TV forever. CNN eventually added more punditry and pizazz to its style. MSNBC, launched almost simultaneously with Fox News, soon abandoned thoughtful discussions and documentary-style programming to become the left-wing mirror image of Fox news – combative and opinion-driven.

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When the legacy of Roger Ailes was considered at the time of his departure from the channel last year, his impact was presented as epic. He was a disruptor and a hugely successful one. Today, on his death, that legacy has to be reconsidered. As Fox News flails and fails in the ratings, he leaves behind wreckage. He was loathed and little wonder there is such glee at his departure from life.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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