The death of Fox News founder Roger Ailes Wednesday has produced, largely, two strains of obituary, neither very positive. Some focus on his years of alleged sexual harassment, which finally led to his removal as CEO of the network he founded. Others look back, with a mix of wonder and disdain, at how his cut-throat conservative politics and instincts as a producer made Fox News into a cultural juggernaut. But few have remarked on Ailes’s impact on what he would dismiss as the “liberal media,” which is in some ways as significant as his own network’s output.
When I began as an associate editor at The Huffington Post (now just HuffPost) back in 2010, the country was firmly in the grip of the Tea Party movement. Barack Obama’s election two years prior sparked a backlash by dormant (mostly white) conservatives across the nation, who were called to arms by then Fox host Glenn Beck. The network had been dominant for over a decade, carrying water for the Republican Party throughout the Bush administration, and liberals were still trying to figure out how to handle its monster influence.
HuffPost was founded as an outpost for liberals and, as we’d often say, sane people. We hated everything Fox stood for, but we also grudgingly admired its discipline, influence, ability to shift debates, and penchant for inciting insane controversies. While people often cited the Drudge Report as our bizarro rival, that poorly designed conspiracy theory mill was more of an obsession for people in the Beltway; when HuffPost Live built a video studio midway through 2011, it was clear that Fox was both the model and the target. After all, founder Arianna Huffington was a former conservative, who spent lots of time on Fox News in the ‘90s before her political conversion.
We weren’t the only ones trying to re-create that model. MSNBC was leading the charge on TV, and as the Bush-era wore on, it became, for a time, a safe haven on cable. And a few years later, when HuffPost editors posted clips of Keith Olbermann’s nightly assault on the GOP, or Rachel Maddow’s brainy policy explanations, the idea was to magnify the message, just as right-wing sites did for Fox videos. To be clear, we believed we were posting objective and accurate news, but Olbermann’s acid gave it an edge that made the truth cut deep.
“I think Fox’s bombast, its slickness, its packaging of news as sport and entertainment, certainly had an impact on its broadcast rivals, who continually struggled to match it,” Jack Mirkinson, the former HuffPost media editor, whose time at the site overlapped with mine, told me via email today. “If you look at anything from Keith Olbermann to Piers Morgan, you have these people who could easily be on Fox if their politics had been slightly different. And there was definitely an unspoken symbiotic relationship between the network and digital media. Both sides have needed each other for a long time, and that can’t help but shape how they view themselves and how they approach their work.”
As Jack notes, we weren’t just trying to fortify and amplify our side of the aisle; HuffPost was laser-focused on generating traffic, and the things that Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the rest of the crew at Fox threw out was like red meat for our audience. I was the entertainment editor, and I seized upon any remarks by conservatives about Hollywood — and there were lots of them — and Jack scooped up much of the rest. I’m still a bit jealous of his guaranteed stream of visitors.
“It was a huge portion of both our output and our traffic,” he says. “Fox News was that priceless combination: something you could feel legitimate disgust toward and also knew could reliably bring in readers. Of course, this cycle could sometimes feel a bit synthetic, but it was the rare day when we didn’t go after them over one thing or another.”
It’s unclear what Fox will do now that Ailes and O’Reilly are gone, and the Republican Party is crumbling under the weight of the Trump administration’s scandals. As Jack, who is now an editor at Fusion, said to me, “We’re in a period of such turmoil that it’s impossible to predict exactly what comes out of all this for any outlet, let alone Fox.” Ironically, MSNBC is surging as Trump’s foibles continue to compound, and it has Fox’s model to thank: Being in the opposition drives ratings, and no network was as good at speaking for the opposition — even when its preferred party was in power — than Ailes’s Fox News.