Ailes’s death was announced on Thursday, less than a year after his ouster from Fox News during a wave of accusations of sexual harassment from more than 20 women, thereby ensuring that Ailes will be remembered primarily as an alleged sexual predator. There are those who will no doubt worry that the legacy of his unrepentant lechery will crowd out other important aspects of his career, such as the way he replaced the goose-stepping severity of previous authoritarian propaganda with endless cheesecake and eye-bleedingly loud graphic design. But to my mind, there can be no better encapsulation of Ailes’s legacy than the struggle over the way he treated women.
Ailes’ whole career was built around one desire: to preserve and advance the dominance of affluent white men over everyone else. The obsession with tax cuts and the endless jingoistic flag-waving were important aspects of Fox News’ strategy to colonize the minds of its aging baby boomer audience. But the day-in, day-out red meat dished out to the Fox audience was an endless stream of arguments that the world is simply a better place when grumpy white men are allowed to treat everyone else however they want, and the rest of us simply have to take it.
To his credit, Ailes was a man who lived out his values. On the air, Fox News churned out a steady diet of segments that demonized modern women for believing they are full human beings who deserve equality: There were attacks on contraception, celebrations of street harassment and allegations that closing the gender pay gap would lead to the destruction of society. Behind the scenes, according to an extensive article by Gabriel Sherman published last fall in New York magazine, Ailes was treating his female employees in ways that would have made the ad-industry lordlings on “Mad Men” take offense.
Some of the details of Sherman’s exposé were unforgettable. A makeup artist said she had to do women’s makeup before meetings with Ailes and that afterward, in one person’s case, “the makeup on her nose and chin was gone.” One employee claimed that Ailes paid her to have sex with him and, when she got a little older, used her to to lure younger employees into private meetings with him that were just groping opportunities. Multiple women reported that Ailes openly made quid pro quo offers to trade sex for jobs.
It’s hard to deny that Ailes treated the ability of top male executives to sexually harass without consequences as a major priority. This spring The New York Times revealed that the company paid out at least $13 million in settlements just to women suing host Bill O’Reilly for harassment. There seems to have been no real limit, under Ailes, to how much cash Fox News was willing to dish out so supposedly important white men could treat women like contemptible objects to be used and thrown away.
But this is a story that has — dare I even say this? — a happy ending. Despite Ailes’s awe-inspiring and dedicated efforts to create a world where men can exploit women at will, in the end, he lost. The feminist arguments against sexual harassment — and just the argument of basic decency — were so compelling that even the management at Fox News and its parent corporation ultimately caved. Even as sexual harassment was praised on air as an important freedom that was about “letting men be men,” behind the scenes, Fox News’ owners told Ailes that his behavior toward women was not acceptable and he had to go. O’Reilly was pushed out shortly thereafter, for the same reason.
For the pessimists out there, there’s plenty of reason to despair. Both Ailes and O’Reilly were released with golden parachutes that are exponentially bigger than the legal payouts their victims can expect. Ailes’ pal Donald Trump was elected president after being caught bragging on tape about grabbing women by their genitals without consent. It’s clear that millions of Americans are perfectly fine with Ailes’ vision of a world where sexual exploitation is acceptable and even celebrated.
Yet it’s hard to deny that, in the end, the collective memory of Roger Ailes will be as a gross old lech, a troglodyte from a dying generation and the kind of man no man should want to be. He may be a hero to a declining and embittered group of core fans, but to most Americans he’s a villain, and his death is not mourned.
Feminists are winning — slowly, painfully and with lots of setbacks, yet feminists are winning. Getting Fox News to admit that sexual harassment is wrong was a small step, but a pretty big symbolic victory. With enough of those victories, one day — far from now, but one day — the misogyny Ailes that spent his life championing will be defeated.
Author: Amanda Marcotte