Bret Stephens
Bret Stephens

Friends and colleagues who knew Roger Ailes better than I did attest that he was a nicer and more considerate man than most liberal obituarists will ever give him credit for. They add (and the same obituarists concede) that the creator of Fox News understood the art of political messaging better than just about anybody in the last 50 years.

And they claim, without contradiction, that nobody did more than Ailes to broaden the reach of conservative ideas among the American public, at least nobody since Ronald Reagan.

Except in this respect: If Ailes broadened, he also debased. The man who did so much to engineer the ascendancy of conservative media paved the way to its moral and intellectual decline — much as his own accumulation of vast corporate power created openings for his abuse of it.

Many are the milestones along this long and winding road. One that stands out for me came in November 2015, in a revealing exchange between Washington Post columnist George Will, the scholarly senior statesman of conservative punditry, and Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’ lord of hosts.

Will had written a column about O’Reilly’s best-selling tome “Killing Reagan.” He called the book a work of “nonsensical history and execrable citizenship,” which, he added mordantly, “should come with a warning: ‘Caution — you are about to enter a no-facts zone.’ ”

An affronted O’Reilly summoned Will, a Fox News contributor at the time, for an on-air excoriation. “You are not telling the truth!” he yelled. “You are actively misleading the American people! You are lying!” The tirade concluded with O’Reilly calling Will “a hack.”

This was dismaying for all the obvious reasons: the absence of grace, the pettiness of grievance, the livid pomposity and bullying manner and simple foolhardiness of trying to challenge the verbally adept Will to a contest of wits.

Then again, it was unsurprising: Under Ailes, Fox News became the anything goes, no guardrails network. What the world subsequently discovered about O’Reilly’s alleged offscreen behavior was, in hindsight, just a reflection of what Ailes allowed him to get away with, onscreen, for years.

“A culture that doesn’t want to see” was how a prominent network personality once described the management style he observed at Fox. So long as the money rolled in, it didn’t need to — at least until the sexual harassment suits started rolling in, too.

The shame is that it didn’t have to be that way. The need for a network that takes conservative ideas seriously is as great today as it was when the network was founded in 1996.

In moments of candor, Ailes would admit that his network’s real motto, as he saw it, was to be “fair and balancing.” It was a worthy goal, particularly if you think the core task of journalism is something more than a liberal piety about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

But that’s not what Fox News became. There are real journalists at the network, and serious programs, and regular contributors who add value to the intellectual life of the country. Nobody would mistake them for the heart of Fox.

Nor does the network have any fixed set of ideas that it seeks to champion or disseminate, other than an ostentatious patriotism that has the distinct feel of a marketing campaign.

What Fox is mainly in the business of doing is hating the left. In the manner of Ailes himself, its convictions stem from its resentments — and shift accordingly. It is sympathetic to military intervention when the left is against it (Iraq) and hostile when the left is for it (Libya); anti-Russia when President Obama was reaching out to Russia, pro-Russia when Obama started getting tough on the Kremlin.

More recently it has discovered the virtues of economic nationalism and the evils of “globalism” in the service of the Trump electorate.

All this makes for a terrific business model — a matter of being attuned to the changing tastes and inclinations of your core audience. But it also means that the network Ailes built was never a vehicle for conservative views.

It was a danger to those views. Populism is not conservatism, which by definition entails resistance to public whims. Conservatives who seek to use populism for their own ends inevitably make a Faustian bargain.

We are now living with the consequences of that bargain in the form of Donald Trump’s presidency. No network has put itself so wholly in the service of a political candidate and the resentments he espouses as Fox.

No president has done more to harm the integrity and reputation of conservative ideas as this one. This, too, is Ailes’s legacy, unintended but fateful.