When news broke this morning that Fox News founder Roger Ailes had died, his critics cast about for the appropriate emotion. “Whatever your thoughts about him, Roger Ailes deserves credit for dying,” journalist Virginia Heffernan tweeted. “Skirts at Fox News today will be lowered to half-mast,” quipped Washington Post humor writer Alexandra Petri. Ailes spent the last year of his life making news as a serial sexual harasser instead of producing it as the head of a cable news station. Even before his reputation crumbled and his career collapsed, for those who lament the racist and misogynist apologism Fox News helped usher into the mainstream, it was hard to find anything nice to say about the guy.
Ailes will be remembered as both the creator of one of the world’s most effective propaganda machines and the sovereign of a certain kind of oppressive workplace that is gradually meeting its end. Thanks in large part to the dogged reporting of New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, we know that for decades Ailes wielded his power over women in his workforce to gain their sexual compliance. Those who resisted were punished or shunned. Women at Fox News were told that dealing with Ailes’ advances was a condition of their employment; men were either roped into Ailes’ scheme as procurers of his sexual partners or given free reign to grope, proposition, and demean their female co-workers as they wished. He created his dream workplace as a magnified model of society as he wanted it to be. As the supreme ruler of Fox News, he made man and woman as unequal beings whose prescribed roles served his own desires. His marriage to Elizabeth Tilson, a former television producer who’d worked under him before he started Fox News, was a footnote, rarely mentioned, in reports of his predatory behavior. Ailes’ sexual misdeeds were so ghastly and manifold, adultery seemed normal by comparison.
Had he died just one year earlier, his legacy might have been that of an extraordinarily successful businessman and communicator who was something of a creep. Women have been accusing him of sexual harassment for years, but the allegations didn’t clear the threshold for public furor until last summer, when a major lawsuit from Gretchen Carlson preceded a series of damning stories from current and former Fox News employees. Because of those women, history will remember Ailes not as a brilliant manipulator of mistruths, but as a sad, insecure predator who built a business on the subjugation of women’s bodies. Because of them, the “post-Ailes era,” in which women’s stories of sexual harassment can conceivably cause the downfall of a world-famous millionaire, began before the man even died.
The occasion of Ailes’ death bears some similarities to February 13, 2016, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died. Both men advanced worldviews that placed women under men, doing measurable harm to women in the United States and elsewhere. Advocates for gender equity and women’s dignity were glad to see both of them go. But Scalia was still in a position of power when he died. Ailes was already fading into the background, invoked in recent months only in comparison to his lackey Bill O’Reilly, whose ouster marked another chapter in the slow but steady purging of Ailes’ brand of sexual predation from the modern workplace. One wonders whether the emotional impact of watching his sins catch up with him accelerated Ailes’ physical demise.
Then again, with the election of Donald Trump, Ailes may have seen his life’s work as complete. He probably never imagined, as few Americans did, that a lewd sexual assailant like Trump, who openly encouraged white nationalists and demonized the free press, could ever make it to the White House. Still, that’s the world Ailes and his minions fantasized about and worked toward for 20 years. When Ailes died, America was living through the Fox News endgame. He deserved far less, but just before he died, the self-aggrandizing abuser at the head of the country’s most popular distributor of hateful lies got exactly what he wanted.