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After first 15 years, Fox News Channel chief proves tough as Ailes
NEW YORK — As the most powerful man in the universe, or one of them anyway, Roger Ailes can look back on the first 15 years of his crowning achievement, Fox News Channel, with satisfaction. And he does.
It was way back in February 1996 that, at the behest of News Corp. chieftain Rupert Murdoch, Mr. Ailes began creating from scratch an all-news network to challenge the venerable CNN as well as upstart MSNBC, which was set to launch that July.
“It was a risky move,” Mr. Ailes recalls, and not just for News Corp., whose $900 million or so would bankroll the venture. Fox News Channel was also risky for Mr. Ailes himself, who, then 55, was a communications guru of legendary savvy — a Republican media strategist, TV producer and then, until his abrupt resignation in January 1996, the head of CNBC and creator of another cable network, America’s Talking, that was being sacrificed to free up room for MSNBC.
“I realized at my age that if I screwed up, or it didn’t work, I’d probably never work again,” says Mr. Ailes. “You just don’t go out when you’re over 55 years of age, have a colossal failure and expect to find work in your field again.
“That was on my mind,” he confides, then pauses half a beat. “For a half-hour. Then I said, ‘I’ll make it work.’ “
He made it work. Fifteen years ago this Friday — on Oct. 7, 1996 — Fox News Channel signed on, as scheduled.
And little more than five years later, it eclipsed that epic initial feat with another, by topping rival CNN in viewership for a full month.
Allowing himself to gloat for a moment, Mr. Ailes savors the ill-advised prediction from a top executive at CNN parent Turner Broadcasting Co., who in May 2001 was quoted saying that, within a year, CNN’s new management team would vault CNN “well ahead of Fox.”
Since 2002, Fox News has sealed the deal as ratings leader, dominating cable news competition (and tying them in knots) in daytime, as well as in prime time with a murderers’ row of hosts led by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. The past year, Fox News Channel drew an average 1.1 million viewers more than CNN and MSNBC combined.
Propelled by Mr. Ailes‘ “fair and balanced” branding, it successfully has targeted viewers who believe the other cable news networks, and maybe the media overall, display a liberal tilt from which Fox News delivers them with unvarnished truth. Preaching its fairer-than-thou gospel, Fox News leveraged the public’s distrust for the media while positioning itself as the anti-media alternative for news.
Or so it seems to Fox News’ detractors, who launch nonstop salvos against a network they decry as a conservative soap box, even a mouthpiece for the Republican Party shaping public opinion on the GOP’s behalf. These critics came to include Media Matters, a nonprofit group that polices Fox News as part of its larger stated mission to “correct conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” and filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who in 2004 released the scathing documentary “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.”
From the start, Mr. Ailes has steadfastly denied any such political bias or agenda on the part of his network. “I hired Sarah Palin because she was hot and got ratings,” he declares.
From the get-go, he meant for his network to counteract the sins he saw others committing: “I really believed there was no fairness or balance” elsewhere on the journalism landscape.
And they struck back.
“Everybody who’s getting their ass beat vilifies the opponent,” he says, speaking of the networks Fox News is beating handily. “This is the first rule of fighting.”
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