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The Rise, Fall And Lasting Influence Of Roger Ailes

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to spend a few minutes talking about a towering figure in American media. Roger Ailes created Fox News and ran it for two decades until he was forced to step down this week after allegations of sexual harassment became too big for Fox's owner, Rupert Murdoch, to ignore.

We're turning now to biographer Gabriel Sherman to hear more about why Ailes is such an important figure and what his departure could mean, both to politics and television. He's the author of the unauthorized Ailes biography, "The Loudest Voice In The Room," and a writer for New York Magazine. And he's with us now from Cleveland. Gabe Sherman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GABRIEL SHERMAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, obviously you wrote a whole book about this, but could you just give me the broad outlines of Roger Ailes' biography? How did he become such a pivotal figure?

SHERMAN: Roger Ailes revolutionized American politics and media and became the most influential Republican in American life over the last 40 years by figuring out that television and politics were going to become one and the same thing. He got in on the ground floor of "The Mike Douglas Show," a pioneering daytime TV show. And from those early days, he learned the techniques of show business and communication as an effective tool of political messaging.

And in 1968, he was hired by Richard Nixon as a 27 year old to be his chief television adviser. And he scripted and packaged Nixon, who had a famously dour and unappealing television image, and he reintroduced Richard Nixon to America as the new Nixon. And from that moment on, Republicans all over America flocked to him to craft and rebrand themselves.

You know, it seems inevitable that Donald Trump has become the Republican nominee as a reality television star because he is the conclusion of all of the work that Roger Ailes has done injecting right-wing populism through moving images on television.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you in a minute about what Roger Ailes' relationship with Donald Trump has been. But before we get to that - so was it Ailes' intention to use the network as a tool for influencing Republican politics and specifically bringing conservatives to power?

SHERMAN: Without question, as I document in my book. You know, Roger Ailes is a charismatic, towering figure. He runs Fox News - or he ran, I should say - as a cult of personality. And he believes deep in his heart, as he said to people many times, that he needs to save America, that Fox News was his megaphone to change and save America and preserve the republic.

What Roger Ailes did when he created Fox News was to create a television news network that was anti-journalism. And so what he did with Fox News was to create it as a political campaign that would run against the American media, that would convince millions of Americans not to trust the mainstream - so-called mainstream media, and that Fox News would be the only place on television where you could find the truth.

It was a brilliant marketing and political message that created a loyal core of viewers. And so the impact that it's had on American life over the last 20 years is almost impossible to overstate.

MARTIN: Why is Roger Ailes' departure coming now? There are other - there have been other incidents at Fox over the years. This didn't just happen overnight, so why now?

SHERMAN: Principally, what's different now is that Rupert Murdoch's two adult children, James and Lachlan Murdoch, have been elevated into co-leadership positions atop the corporate parent that owns Fox News. And both Murdoch children have had their tangles with Roger Ailes in the past. Both children have been seeking a way to move him aside, and this lawsuit that Gretchen Carlson filed - it really gave them a powerful cudgel.

And since then, Fox newswomen, including their biggest star Megyn Kelly, have come forward to say that Roger Ailes made unwanted sexual advances towards them. So this gave the Murdoch children enough leverage with their father to say, it's time for Roger Ailes to be removed from the company.

MARTIN: What is Roger Ailes' relationship with Donald Trump? I mean, you have argued that Donald Trump is, in fact, the culmination of what Roger Ailes has built.

SHERMAN: I think it's a very close relationship. The two men have known each other for decades. They travel in similar circles. Roger Ailes really created Donald Trump as a political figure. While "The Apprentice" on NBC made him a celebrity, Roger Ailes gave him access to Fox News. He gave him a weekly segment to call in to the morning show and spout off on politics. And he really got the ball rolling with Republican voters that Donald Trump could be a presidential candidate.

In the wake of Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit, Donald Trump was advising Roger Ailes on how to navigate the sexual harassment scandal. And there is a lot of speculation here in Cleveland that with his exit from Fox News, Roger Ailes could, in fact, land as Donald Trump's media adviser and try to rekindle his role that started his political career in 1968 by helping Donald Trump get elected president.

MARTIN: And, finally, how will this affect Republican politics, since, in your description, he has been such a key political player both overtly and behind the scenes?

SHERMAN: The future of Fox News is in many ways a metaphor for the future of the Republican Party. If Trump wins, the party will become rebranded as the Fox News party. But if he loses - you know, the Republican Party is going through soul searching, and the same is going to happen for Fox News.

Fox News is going through the same competition that the mainstream networks went through when Ailes launched the network. There are now multiple conservative media outlets on the right. There is Newsmax Television, which is a conservative media company run out of Florida that is now broadcasting into people's homes. Glenn Beck has started his own television and digital media company to compete with Fox. So we're seeing a fracturing of the conservative audience in the same way we saw a fracturing of the mainstream audience when there were just three broadcast networks way back when.

And the Murdoch family is going to have to reassess, is this style of programming a profitable business strategy going forward? And my sense from talking to people inside the company - that all bets are off, that they are looking far and wide at ways that they might reposition the channel as less overtly partisan and populist and try to relate to a different audience. And I think that's what we're going to see playing out in the months ahead.

MARTIN: Gabriel Sherman is a writer for New York Magazine and author of the unauthorized Roger Ailes biography, "The Loudest Voice In The Room." We were able to catch him in Cleveland just before he packed up to move on to his next assignment. Gabe, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.