Mourning the Terrible Legacy of Roger Ailes

As a person of faith, I do not celebrate death.

Death can be peaceful; death can be a necessary end to an imminent threat; it can sometimes even be a welcome end to suffering. But in any case, it is a weighty thing–mysterious, and as sacred as life itself. As the Psalmist says “such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” There are certain things that our mortal imaginations can’t grasp, around which our human ways of processing the world should tread lightly.

Which is to say, I will not be dancing upon the grave of Roger Ailes today, because I don’t do that. He was, I’m sure, beloved by someone. I recognize his full humanity as a child of God.

But pardon me if I’m not over here crying into my coffee. While I do not revel in his demise, I certainly don’t grieve him.

There is, however, a tremendous grief to be named today. It is the entire legacy of his life and work–a damage that cannot be undone as swiftly as his life ended.

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First as a political operative and then as the head of a media empire, Ailes crafted a toxic narrative of American conservatism whose full effects, I fear, we are only beginning to live into. Not that conservatism, at its core, is inherently evil. What is evil is the way of manipulation–that was the way of Fox News Network under Ailes’ reign, and continues to be their M.O. today, years after he was fired for systemic and pathological sexual harassment.

Which, not for nothing, says something tremendous about the ethos of the conservative news juggernaut itself.

Despite claims to be “fair and consistent,” Fox instead became a mouthpiece for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly. Their rhetoric, and that of their cohorts, is perhaps the one thing ‘consistent’ about the network: voices consistent and subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) racism; scapegoating of the poor; a bias against LGBT people; misinformation about Islam; and the systemic denigration of women. (Ergo: the man at the helm who actively and aggressively hated women in his own way.)

Fox has also contributed to a cultural avalanche of anti-intellectualism, subversion of scientific fact, and swirling conspiracy theories about the realities climate change. In essence, the network is the waking dream of capitalism.

Of course, neither Ailes nor Fox News can be credited with inventing these biases. But they caught the zeitgeist of existing prejudice and fear of other– so long an undercurrent of America–and rode that wave all the way to the top of the ratings charts. They gave that prejudice a voice in the mainstream media, they attached themselves to an entire wing of our two-party system of government, and they effectively created the “Two Americas” problem that we are witnessing right now.

That, more than anything, is what I grieve today. Not just the reality of race, gender and economic privilege inherent in our culture–but the deep divides between what we accept as basic truth these days. The love of click bait and sensationalism that may or may not resemble actual fact; and the ease with which a President, or any other leader for that matter, can designate the free press as “liars” and “fake,” holding up this one network as gospel. This chilling dynamic threatens the heart of democracy.

Furthermore, it damages our relationships. Divergent worldviews make us mistrustful of people with whom we’ve had lifelong relationships. Parents, grandparents, siblings, and childhood friends. We make funny memes about having to endure hours of Fox News when we go home for Christmas… Then we look askance at real actual people we love. We wonder how in the world they can read what they read, hear what they hear, and believe what they believe? How can we have a conversation with them, if they really believe that garbage??

And they look right back at us and wonder the same thing.

It’s the heartbreaking reality, not of the free press, but of media marketing machines. Fox is certainly not the only network to capitalize on existing biases; but its intentionally vitriolic and confrontational tone has shaped the spirit of our current political discourse. That tone was entirely the lovechild of Roger Aisles and the GOP establishment; and it leaves us, as a body politic, utterly dysfunctional, trapped in a quagmire of seething resentment.

But for all that–I love Jesus, so I do not celebrate death. Instead, I look for resurrection. In all things. While we may not mourn Aisles himself, we can grieve the low level dialogue and deep-seated mistrust he’s left us in his will. Through the veil of that grief, maybe our resurrection story can be one of learning to bridge the great divides he fostered in life. Maybe in “honor” of his terrible legacy, we learn to reach across aisles; to extend grace instead of scorn; and to listen, not for the explicit biases we hear in our neighbor’s worldview, but for the implicit fear that underlies all prejudice.

It is, at the heart, a fear of being fully human; a fear of our own frailty and eventual death. If we can hear that beneath the noise, then maybe there’s some salvation to be found on earth, after all.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine said this morning that Roger Aisles is rotting in hell. But I don’t know… I kind of think he’s in heaven. Where he’s been assigned to sit, for all eternity, between Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriett Tubman.

Because God is good…but karma’s a bitch, y’all.

About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...