This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The death of Roger Ailes takes from us one of the towering figures in American news — just when we needed him most. He built in Fox News one of the great engines of our democracy, helping move our debate toward the center against the leftward flood of the establishment press. He understood, he redeemed the truth of Colonel McCormick’s famed adage — that the real bastion of a free press is the thirty percent profit margin, and thousands of great journalists were emboldened as a result.
We didn’t know Ailes well. But, during the years when the Sun was being issued in print, we had two memorable lunches with him. The first arose because word had come back to us that one day he had gathered his staff at Fox and said, “Do you want to know how to get scoops?” Then he’d held up a copy of the Sun, with our broadsheet front page facing his staff, and said: “This is how you get scoops.” So we sent him a letter asking if we could return the compliment in person over lunch.
In the event, the lunch was in one of his private dining rooms on Sixth Avenue. We wanted to talk about the Sun and the possibility of a business partnership with News Corp. He was not interested in that, but he did want to talk about the issues of the day, which he did with zest, brilliance, and insight. With joy, even. He did agree to a second lunch, this time with the investors in the Sun. And the same thing happened. The truth is that — insofar as we encountered Ailes — he was just on fire about the news.
This, in our view, was the key to his astounding success at Fox — along with his ability to spot and inspire great talent, with which Fox was abundantly blessed under his leadership. We understand all the controversies about the populist tone of Fox (his broadsheet and network detractors, though, have plunged down the same path). We read, like everyone else, of his alleged misbehavior with staff (he maintained his innocence). Either way, historians are likely — net, net — to record him far less for any flaws than his achievements.
America could have used Ailes at the helm of a news network right now. It’s not that he understood, and was a friend, of Donald Trump (John Podhoretz has an illuminating discussion of that question at Commentary magazine’s latest podcast). It’s rather that Ailes understood and empathized with the plight of the people who elected Donald Trump president. He understood the scale of Hillary Clinton’s error with her remark about the basket of deplorables. When he was on his game he had few, if any, peers.