Roger Ailes’s death comes at a time of turmoil in conservative journalism — turmoil caused in no small part by Ailes’s own success in making Fox News into a media-political juggernaut.
Charles Krauthammer, one of Fox’s commentators, jokes that Ailes saw the opportunity to serve a niche market of half the country. The point of the quip is that the major networks had a liberal outlook and millions of Americans wanted something else.
But Ailes also saw that what these Americans wanted wasn’t only or even primarily ideological conservatism, whether of the free-market or traditional-religious varieties. What they wanted was nationalism. National Review columnist and Fox commentator Jonah Goldberg made the point well in a 2004 column. During World War II, Ernie Pyle won the Pulitzer Prize while wearing a military uniform and writing from an unabashedly pro-American point of view. Decades later, distinguished journalists were debating whether it would be ethical to warn American troops about an impending attack. A lot of Americans preferred the older attitude, and a network where anchors saw no problem with wearing a flag pin was for them.
Fox was nationalist before it was conservative, and in that sense it was Trumpist before Trump. In retrospect, what’s amazing is not that the network eventually threw in behind Trump wholeheartedly. It’s that it agonized over it as long as it did.
Ailes stepped down last year amid scandal: He was accused of sexually harassing and abusing many women. Reports of a toxic sexual culture at the network had a certain credibility given the way it presented women on camera. Fox News prefers smart women, but the disparity between how attractive it wants them to be and how attractive it wants its men to be is even more pronounced than it is at other networks. In this respect, too, Ailes knew his audience.
But scandal is not the only problem Fox is now facing. It is slipping in the ratings among the 25- to 54-year-olds advertisers want to reach. Joe Scarborough, who hosts a show on MSNBC, which is gaining in those same ratings, has a plausible two-part theory for why the ranking is changing: Conservatives have gotten less interested in politics and liberals more so since Trump took office; and Fox is hardly covering the controversies surrounding the president.
Earlier this week The Washington Post reported that President Trump may have pressured former FBI Director James Comey to go easy in his investigation of former Trump aide Michael Flynn. CNN and MSNBC went all-in on the story that day. Fox News found the time to run a segment about the Clinton Foundation.
It’s not a bad thing to have one network making different coverage decisions from the others. Fox was built to wrest control of the news agenda from CBS, The New York Times and other outlets that reflected more liberal priorities. Coverage of Comey at other places has sometimes been breathless. But there is a line between exercising editorial judgment and trying to create an alternative reality.
Fox is under a lot of pressure to fall on the wrong side of that line. We have a president who is fairly unpopular with the public at large but very popular with the network’s core audience. It can try to defend him or attack his critics.
But it’s not surprising that Fox is tempted to respond to its situation by just not covering the news.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.