In April 1970 Roger Ailes was sent on a secret military transport to Hawaii. As President Richard Nixon's television coordinator, Ailes was dispatched to construct for the cameras what was expected to be a tragic homecoming for the astronauts of the ill-fated Apollo 13.
“I was advised that they would probably die,” Ailes recalls. “So I had to set up a funeral service in a hangar while I was setting up the welcome-home ceremony on the tarmac.”
The Apollo 13 astronauts survived their harrowing journey back to earth. But for Ailes, the event had a different meaning.
“When you're coordinating coverage of Apollo 13 returning,” he says, “you're in the news business. I took that job very seriously. I thought informing the public was important.”
Ailes has been in the news business ever since, whether creating it or covering it. He created the new, more telegenic Richard Nixon for the 1968 campaign. He was also the media architect of the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, as well as several senatorial and congressional races. Ailes' credo that it's not just what you say but how you say it–your tone, body language, facial expressions–revolutionized the way politicians communicate on television.
His political work, in turn, informed his TV news acumen. So when News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch tapped him in 1996 to launch a new cable news network to challenge CNN, Ailes was ready.
“We literally had people writing our obituary every single day,” says Fox Report anchor Shepard Smith, who joined the network at its inception.
But less than five years later, in January 2002, Fox News overtook CNN in all dayparts to become the most-watched cable news network. Today the channel is available in over 90 million homes and is among the top 10 most-watched basic cable networks on television.
Ailes serves as Chairman and CEO of Fox News as well as Chairman of Fox Television Group. He's also a senior adviser to Murdoch. Last year, he launched the Fox Business Network, challenging another established market leader, CNBC, where Ailes was president from 1993-1996.
He has the populist gumption and nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic of his Rust Belt roots. He grew up in Warren, Ohio, the son of a factory worker and a homemaker, and worked his way through Ohio University laying sewer pipe.
After graduating in 1962, Ailes landed a job as a prop boy on The Mike Douglas Show, at that time produced in Cleveland. By 1965, he was a producer. Two years later he was the executive producer.
Later, Ailes went to New York, where he produced plays and won multiple Obie Awards. But, he says, “You didn't make any money [in theater]. In television they actually give you a paycheck.”
His early television career was eclectic, including documentaries on Fellini and wildlife in Africa. Ailes' television genius, however, lies in his uncanny ability to give viewers what they want.
“My interest has always been in audiences,” he says. “You really don't package programs. You package audiences. When people watch Fox & Friends, they want to be informed, but they don't want somebody sitting there looking like their dog just got run over.
“I think the audience is more comfortable with you when they see you have a full range of emotions and humanity,” he adds.
This philosophy of authenticity has made him keenly skilled at picking talent, from Maria Bartiromo at CNBC to Bill O'Reilly at Fox News.
Smith refers to Ailes as “the chairman” in conversation. But he considers him a father figure. The anchor and the chairman have been known to take in a Yankees game together.
“We get a lot of nothing done there,” laughs Smith. “A lot of building each other up and talking about world events and economics and news, all of the things that we deal with day in and day out.”
Ailes' competitiveness is legendary. He can also be combative, but people who know him also know his compassionate side.
“If anything is going on in my family or my life, he knows it before anyone else does and he is either helping you solve the problem or giving you time off to solve it yourself,” Smith says.
Barbara Walters met Ailes in the late '60s, when she was on NBC's Today and Ailes was producing The Mike Douglas Show. “Roger was the first one who paid outside notice of me,” says Walters. “I always remember how kind he was to me.”
He asked her to be a guest on the show. “I think he had me doing gymnastics on the program, and NBC News was not thrilled,” she recalls.
If Ailes has become a media iconoclast, it is by design. The political fault lines of cable news are rather obvious in the brawl and bluster of the networks' respective pundits: Bill O'Reilly, Lou Dobbs, Keith Olbermann. Ailes likes to cite a 2004 Pew survey that proved what he knew all along: The media elite are a bunch of liberals.
But he recognizes and appreciates those—on either side of the ideological divide—who ply their craft objectively, citing Fox News Washington anchors Brit Hume and Chris Wallace, as well as the late Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw of NBC.
“Everybody knew Russert was a liberal Democrat,” he says. “And everybody knows Brokaw is a liberal Democrat. But they didn't let that get in the way of their questions, their reporting. They didn't get their ego out in front of the story. I have enormous respect for people who do that.
“Freedom depends entirely on fairness of the press,” Ailes continues. “So I will fight for fairness no matter what they call me. The day we all start doing the same thing and running over the same cliff like all those cows in a Roy Rogers movie, it's over. So as long as the cows are heading in one direction, you'll see me standing in the doorway saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, over here.'”