Rachel Sklar is a writer, entrepreneur, and feminist based in New York. She is the co-founder of Change The Ratio, which increases visibility and opportunity for women in tech & new media, and TheLi.st, a network and media platform for awesome women. All opinions are her own.
This is not an obituary. An obituary is about a life lived; misty remembrances of narratives solidified by a lifetime of telling your story. Obituaries are meant to praise the dead and comfort the living. Roger Ailes has died, and this is not an obituary.
If Roger Ailes had only created Fox News — a conservative-leaning network that regularly veers into propaganda and as a matter of institutional policy covers stories selectively, and with an eye to preferred conservative narratives and outcomes — he would still be difficult to recall kindly in May 2017 in light of his boosterism of Donald Trump and how terrible this presidency has already been for so many. Never mind the emphasis on white-centered narratives, which is the kindest way to allege institutional bigotry without getting sued. But for the last 11 months, Roger Ailes has also been known as a serial sexual harrasser who engaged in blatant employee discrimination and unfair workplace practices, including gross abuses of his power. He ran an unsafe workplace for many of his female employees for many years. He enabled other serial sexual harassers, like Bill O'Reilly. He ruined careers and lives.
Apparently he had a hardscrabble childhood. Apparently he had lifelong health problems. Apparently he loved his country. In this way, he is no different from millions and millions of people who were misinformed and misled by him; who have been and will be severely disadvantaged by policies from a man his network put a thumb on the scale for. People who were smeared, disparaged, defamed and vilified on his airwaves.
He left behind a cloud over Fox News, an ongoing Federal investigation, and an admittedly blazing trail of achievements. Had the one-two punch of him and Bill O'Reilly being forced out for serial sexual harassment not happened, the Fox News that he built might even have remained his legacy, blithely carrying on with half-truths and sackloads of money.
But the world that Roger Ailes created is sort of imploding right now. O'Reilly is out. Ailes is dead. Trump is flailing. And ratings are dropping, because "Trump is flailing" is the number-one story in the country, and Fox isn't covering it.
Where does Fox News go now?
Back in August 2016, at an event here at Refinery29, author Rebecca Traister warned about the "death throes" of patriarchy, and that those death throes would be violent and ugly, and that things would get uglier before they got better: "This is the dying of the white male light." At the time it sounded darkly alarmist after a cartoonish GOP convention and a soaringly hopeful Democratic one — in which Hillary Clinton, clad in a white pantsuit as though embodying the brightness of the future, officially became the first female nominee for her party. I have thought of Rebecca's prediction many times since that day, and it came back to me this morning when my friend and fellow former media writer Glynnis MacNicol texted me, wondering if this really was "the last hurrah of the terrible old white man."
Obligatory disclaiming of #NotAllOldWhiteMen aside, I am holding my breath and hoping that it is. Ailes is gone, and with him the substantial power and influence he still wielded as an extremely wealthy man with the ear of the president and decades of off-the-record stories that likely more than a few political or media people were hoping he'd keep to himself.
21st Century Fox top dog Rupert Murdoch remains, but his sons Lachlan and James have been driving the Fox train with an eye toward the future, including pushing out O'Reilly and longtime Fox exec Bill Shine. Megyn Kelly went to NBC, Greta Van Susteren went to MSNBC, and Sean Hannity is clinging to Trumpism while tweeting conspiracy theories and denying he's leaving the network, even as rumors swirl that he's leaving the network. Tucker Carlson is contorting himself to avoid addressing the Trump-Comey-Russia imbroglio. Meanwhile, ratings for Rachel Maddow (and MSNBC) are going gangbusters. We are all spinning to keep pace with the news these days, and there's no time to wait and catch up. Like a shark, cable news has to keep swimming to survive, and the current has shifted.
Roger Ailes was once the Fox North Star, and it was sure and guiding for many years, but things are blurrier now without him. And, today, about him: Even as the network honored him on-air with heartfelt remembrances from anchors who were quick to thank him for the opportunities he gave them, the elephant was in the room and couldn't be denied. Fox media critic Howard Kurtz acknowledged the "tangle of sexual harassment allegations" that are "part of his record that can't be expunged." While Kurtz noted that Ailes had denied the claims, he did not mention that Fox had paid $20 million to Ailes accuser Gretchen Carlson to settle her lawsuit, and $40 million to get Ailes out the door. Anchor Sandra Smith deftly walked the line, saying of Ailes, "He will be remembered by all of us in many different ways."
On Twitter, the assessments were more blunt. "Roger Ailes has died. Let all his victims now be ungagged for the true, full reckoning of his life. And give them back their jobs," wrote lawyer Lisa Bloom, who represented numerous Fox sexual harassment claimants. "Sending deep and heartfelt condolences to everyone who was abused, harassed, exploited, and unjustly fired by him," wrote author and professor Marc Lamont Hill. Rebecca Traister tweeted that Ailes had built the network "on harassment/exploitation of women" and "pushed further vilification/disempowerment of women [people of color] & poor people." Comedian Josh Gondelman tweeted, "Another proud Confederate monument taken down this week." The unsympathetic response to his death is a good indication of how history will view him.
It turns out that a lot of people don't like bigots, misogynists and harassers, and corporations don't, either — or, at least they stop when lawsuits start rolling in. The lawsuits rolled at Fox, and so did the heads, and the network has been held up for scorn, condemnation, and an abject example of how not to treat women. That is now a big part of Roger Ailes' legacy.
"Legacy. What is a legacy? It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see," said Alexander Hamilton in that musical that was mean to Mike Pence. Roger Ailes grew one hell of a garden, thick and lush, true, but with lots of thorns. Now he is gone, but the garden remains, and how it will grow depends on how it is watered and tended. (Never mind that it already has plenty of mulch!) Rupert Murdoch is still around but he won't be forever, and Lachlan and James have made clear that they are less about pushing conservative ideology than successfully moving forward. And oh yeah, the Democratic base is engaged with an urgency not seen in years. (Who remembers that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote?) And the Trump administration seems poised for a long, slow topple (prayer hands emoji). So maybe all this is the death throes of the patriarchy — and maybe it's even the mulch.
Roger Ailes is dead. But his legacy lives on. And maybe in a few years, we'll look at Fox News and things will be different, and we'll say, oh right. Those were seeds.