ATHENS, Ohio — Fox News Channel’s chairman and CEO Roger Ailes lambasted his critics, praised his competitors and preached his principles Monday evening at Ohio University.
Ailes, the head of the top-rated cable news network a decade running, spoke to students as part of the George Washington Forum. His visit to the college town drew fire before he even showed up.
In the days and hours ahead of the event, left-leaning writers including Eric Boehlert at Media Matters for America and Robert Greenwald, the liberal filmmaker behind an anti-Fox News documentary, bashed the university, the forum speaker program, its donors and the faculty member who organized the program.
Ailes joked about the furor over his visit as soon as he took the stage. The top dog at Fox News graduated from the southern Ohio school decades ago, and early in his speech he described for the packed room the scene when noted socialist Norman Thomas came to town in the 1960s.
“Norman Thomas came to the campus and there was a lot of buzz,” Ailes said. “Now, I’m not sure if he was here making a presentation or whether he was here for a meeting or what. But, as you know, he was the premiere socialist, probably, of the 20th century. That was pretty frightening to people 50 years ago that a real open socialist would show up on campus — sort of the same reaction you get when a conservative shows up today.”
“He came, and OU lived through it,” Ailes observed.
“I have one wish for OU, that it continues to be a place for open debate where people from different points of view with various opinions can meet and discuss these things openly. Because there will be no progress, and America will not survive, if we don’t allow that open debate.”
Ailes walked students from his alma mater through how he built the nation’s number-one news network from nothing. In 1996, he said, he was racing against the clock and his competitors.
CNN “had a 17-year head start, was fully funded and was a worldwide brand” and General Electric and Microsoft, “the number one and number two companies in America” with “unlimited resources” were set to soon launch MSNBC, he said.
“It was my belief that we couldn’t wait until 1997 to launch Fox, so I had to work with what I had. What I had were no studios, no talent, no programs, no newsgathering, no offices and no control rooms. Nothing. I had an empty room. Today, that asset of that empty room is $13 billion.
“So, in 15 years, we transformed that situation. It was difficult. It took us six years to pass the competition, to build up to the point where, for the last 10 years, we’ve been the number one cable news network in America.”
Despite his detractors’ public criticisms, Ailes said the secret to success in the news business is creating a product that the American people overwhelmingly choose to watch. It’s “not because of some trick or political ideology or anything else,” he insisted.
“It goes out to people in their homes and they have a right to choose it or not choose it. We just don’t have enough staff to go around putting guns to people’s heads,” Ailes joked.