By Mining a Divided America, Roger Ailes Upended the News Media

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Before Donald Trump rode the anger of forgotten (white) America to an “America First” presidency, before Breitbart News became a “platform for the alt-right” and before there were “alternative facts” and dueling versions of reality, Roger Ailes saw a divided country but an undivided news media. And he set out to change it.

Empowered by Rupert Murdoch, who was intent on upending the traditional news media, Mr. Ailes built a network, the Fox News Channel, that would speak to and for those Americans he said were being ignored and disrespected. They were the people who went to Friendly’s for milkshakes, flew the American flag on their car antennas and didn’t see much point in trying to “understand” America’s enemies.

His network would load its prime-time slots with opinionated talk-radio-style personalities while presenting news with an approach he called “fair and balanced,” an indictment of the rest of the news media as excessively liberal. He implicitly injected the news with politics — and set Fox to the right of its rivals — even as he professed to be doing the opposite.

When Mr. Ailes was done, his network was in first place (for 15 years running), the mainstream news media was divided and weakened and Fox News was arguably a more powerful force in American politics than either the Republican or Democratic parties.

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The Man Who Wrecked Conservatism

But that’s not what Fox News became. There are real journalists at the network, and serious programs, and regular contributors who add value to the intellectual life of the country. Nobody would mistake them for the heart of Fox.

Nor does the network have any fixed set of ideas that it seeks to champion or disseminate, other than an ostentatious patriotism that has the distinct feel of a marketing campaign.

What Fox is mainly in the business of doing is hating the left. In the manner of Ailes himself, its convictions stem from its resentments — and shift accordingly. It is sympathetic to military intervention when the left is against it (Iraq) and hostile when the left is for it (Libya); anti-Russia when President Obama was reaching out to Russia, pro-Russia when Obama started getting tough on the Kremlin.

More recently it has discovered the virtues of economic nationalism and the evils of “globalism” in the service of the Trump electorate.

All this makes for a terrific business model — a matter of being attuned to the changing tastes and inclinations of your core audience. But it also means that the network Ailes built was never a vehicle for conservative views.

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