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Carl Nettleton headshot

The Ailes Legacy: A Divisive Formula of Confrontation

By Carl Nettleton

The passing of Roger Ailes on Thursday inspired stories about his career broadcast on all the major network and cable stations. However, the Ailes legacy should not be about his groundbreaking efforts in politics and media, but rather his role in creating the divisive and polarized political atmosphere gripping the country today. The Ailes formula sacrificed traditional impartial news coverage in the name of ratings and revenues for Fox News.

Sometime in the 1990s when Roger Ailes was emerging from his role as a political operative and merging into his future as the CEO of Fox News, he was quoted as saying there are four things the media will cover: pictures, polls, charges and mistakes.

If it was only Fox that took Ailes’ theories to heart, it would have been a one-off. But as ABC News Chief Legal Analyst Dan Abrams told the New York Times last year: “Fox was cleaning our clocks in the ratings” when Abrams took over as general manager of MSNBC in 2006. “Many cable viewers, it turned out, were not interested in television news’s bread and butter – a diverse newscast of multiple dispassionate stories – no matter how important,” Abrams told the Times. “Despite what they might tell pollsters, viewers were clearly looking for a great yarn, and Mr. Ailes could spin one.”

Abrams summed up the Ailes formula as follows: “Pick one or two hot stories, add numerous live guests and stick to that story throughout the day.” To compete, Abrams led MSNBC to copy the Ailes strategy, and CNN soon followed.

Ailes was caught in the formula he created

Ailes recent resignation came as he was caught in the very formula he used to shape Fox News.

He apparently made one or more mistakes, became the subject of multiple charges of sexual harassment, and had his picture displayed side-by-side with that of Gretchen Carlson, the attractive news host with whom he is alleged to have sexually harassed.

A 2011 Rolling Stones story described Ailes as “the classic figure of a cinematic villain: bald and obese, with dainty hands, Hitchcockian jowls and a lumbering gait.” This image displayed next to Carlson’s likely created questions in the minds of viewers about what drove many of the hiring and political decisions Ailes made during a career when he not only built a media dynasty, but also counseled political leaders with names like Nixon and Bush.

The tragedy of Roger Ailes isn’t his death or his forced resignation from Fox. The tragedy is the impact he had on political campaigns, the democratic process and the nation.

His design to drive media viewership in part shaped today’s divisive political climate that not only allows, but often pushes politicians to make charges against their opponents if they want coverage.

This public bashing creates personal political divisions that become more important than policy differences and make it almost impossible for difficult, consensus-based decisions to be made.

This is the Ailes’ legacy: a divisive formula of confrontation.

President Trump recognized and used the Ailes formula

The ascendancy of Donald Trump can be traced to his recognition of the Ailes formula. He provided compelling images (his hair, his wife, his airplane, his grand entrances). He made outrageous charges about immigrants, his opponents, and other subjects of his derision, capitalized on opponents’ mistakes, and milked the poll numbers to his advantage. Cable news responded by talking about him all day long.

How much would President Trump have been covered if he hadn’t followed the Ailes formula? Would the media have made him the subject of so many stories? Three potential candidates, maybe more, might have had a greater chance to win if their views had been given more coverage.

How would Bernie Sanders have fared if he had been covered earlier in his campaign (or used the Ailes formula)? To this day, Sen. Sanders talks primarily about issues and his proposed solutions. Only when masses of people began to follow him did the media give him significant coverage, even though he is a respected U.S. senator.

What about John Kasich, who consistently presented himself as an adult, refusing to make outrageous charges? What would his fate have been if the media had covered Gov. Kasich and his issues to the same degree they covered Mr. Trump’s allegations? Where was the media’s restraint in ignoring Mr. Trump’s observation about how Mr. Kasich eats (and the video of him eating) given its irrelevance, particularly since he is the governor of a large U.S. state?

One more example: The Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, joined by William Weld for vice president, were barely acknowledged, despite both being former governors and on the ballot in all 50 states. In their hour-long CNN interview on June 22, 2016, they solely focused on issues, despite being baited to do otherwise.

Follow-up coverage was slim because the Libertarian candidates didn’t make outrageous charges, haven’t been charged with making many mistakes themselves, and haven’t been party to irrelevant visual images, either positive or negative.

Regarding polls, what viewers heard about these candidates was that unless they received 15 percent support, they wouldn’t be allowed in the debates.  How could they have achieved 15 percent if they didn't have significant name recognition because they weren't covered?

For this climate of personal, destructive and counter-productive behavior, we can blame the media; we can blame the politicians; we can blame the public's willingness to follow the negativity; or we can blame the legacy of Roger Ailes. However, blame and charges are the name of the game being played. To play a different game, all of us -- media, politicians and citizens -- must reject the Ailes formula and change what we think is important to cover, say, listen to, read and watch.

Image credit: Flickr/Ninian Reed

Carl Nettleton headshot

Carl Nettleton is an acclaimed award-winning writer, speaker and analyst. He heads Nettleton Strategies, a public policy firm specializing in oceans, water, energy, climate, and U.S. Mexico border issues. Carl also founded OpenOceans Global, an NGO solving ocean crises by unifying and empowering global communities. Carl serves on the national and California advisory councils for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national, nonpartisan group of business owners, investors and others who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. He is co-chair of the San Diego Water Conservation Action Committee (CAC) and a member of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lambda Alpha, South County Economic Development Council, Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce and U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership.

Read more stories by Carl Nettleton