He Brought American Democracy to Ruin

We have a tradition in American journalism — unlike British journalism — to not speak ill of the dead. We also are taught by our mothers that if we can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Thus Roger Ailes is all but being buried in an unmarked grave on cable news and even on his own channel — a few Fox Friends’ tears notwithstanding.

He dies in shame because of his sexual harassment of women and the culture he created that empowered other men to follow his horrid example. Deserved.

The irony is that his death is just the kind of BREAKING NEWS! that cable news loves to stick with for hours even though there’s nothing breaking about it; like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, he’s still dead. But cable news — even his own cable creation — rushed away from his death to concentrate on the latest scandal of the Frankenstein monster Ailes helped build, Donald Trump. If Ailes hadn’t been ejected in ignominy, he could have distracted cable news — squirrel! — from Trump but he won’t do Trump that last favor.

Ailes deserves to die in shame. But by dying in whispers like the uncle we don’t talk about, something important is being lost, a profound cause for eternal opprobrium:

Roger Ailes brought American democracy to ruin. The blame for what we are going through in this nation today points to him — and the boss who empowered him— more than anyone else.

Ailes was brilliant, all right, but he brought his genius to the cause of sowing and then exploiting polarization and hatred in the American public.

Ailes also ruined journalism. Not all the blame is his, of course. Liberal — yes, liberal — mass media left a vacuum he eagerly filled. He could have provided a respectable, responsible alternative from another perspective but instead he chose to try to destroy the rest of media.

Ailes’ real insight in building Fox News relates to business more than politics. He realized that talk is cheap and compelling while journalism and facts are expensive and so he built a format entirely on cheap talk and a competitive landscape that brought his competitors down into his institutionalized attention deficit disorder.

And Ailes helped create Trump.

In Ailes and Trump we see the last gasp of mass media and what it has wrought: the clickbait candidate who knew how to exploit every weakness of media with cheap showmanship and, worse, hate and fear.

This is Roger Ailes’ legacy.

Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek

Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek