By John Huey, former editor of Fortune Magazine and editor-in-chief of Time Inc.
So now it’s official. Roger Ailes is gone from Fox News, the operation he started 20 years ago at the behest of Rupert Murdoch, and built into America’s most watched, most openly partisan, most profitable cable news television network. At 76, he showed no signs of letting up when his contract was set to expire at year’s end. And why would he?
One of the few executives in the news media business who actually wielded genuine personal power, Ailes was an unparalleled kingmaker—in both television and the Republican Party. Any aspiring GOP pol knew they must court his favor and fear his wrath. Any promising Democrat knew they must guard at all times against the Ailes assault. Directing his legions—O’Reilly, Hannity, once Beck—he hit hard and often below the belt.
There was another group, though—long talked about in the industry—who feared Ailes and for whom courting a certain kind of favor with him was allegedly required: women at Fox News. At least some women have made strong, legal claims to that effect, and they are who finally toppled him. It was a classic “if you’re going to shoot the king, you must kill the king” situation.
First came the lawsuit against Ailes by fired “Fox and Friends” host Gretchen Carlson alleging crude sexual harassment, including overt solicitation of sex for career advancement. Carlson launched this legal missile strategically, enlisting serious plaintiffs’ lawyers from New Jersey, guys known for throwing high and hard and getting their man out. From the start, there were signs that the Murdochs (specifically Rupert’s sons James and Lachlan) might not be backing their guy all the way, that they might, in fact, see this as the opportunity to move on from Ailes.
But if there was daylight between the Murdochs and Ailes, there was none between him and Fox News. It is difficult to separate the two anyway, but in this case it gave the term “Fox and Friends” new meaning. Numerous women at Fox News, including Greta Van Susteren and Maria Bartiromo, averred that nothing of the sort had ever occurred to their knowledge; Bill O’Reilly chimed in that he backed his boss Ailes 100%—a bold stroke to make just before his own contract was coming due.
Carlson was predictably pilloried in the usual places, and Murdoch’s New York Post at first all but ignored the charges, even trying to drum up a diversionary scandal involving “Today Show” host Natalie Morales’s move to the West Coast—a feeble attempt that failed to push Ailes off anyone else’s pages. A more subtle kind of PR also found its way into the financial pages, and not just of the Post. These stories went like this: Ailes is a genius. Fox News makes a billion dollars a year. If he leaves it’s all over. Therefore, Rupert will never let him go.
That, of course, is a story line that men of a certain age and accomplishment actually come to believe about themselves, but it is a ridiculous notion, that a 76-year-old founder of a business must be kept on regardless of his behavior because he, in effect, “is the business.” By that theory, the Walt Disney Company would no longer exist, and Apple Computer and Walmart should be gone.
What’s next for Fox News?
Ailes’s departure will create problems at Fox News—major talent will depart for competitors, leaving lesser talent to sink in their own ratings, and—depending on what he signed off on as a non-compete for his reported $40 million settlement fee—Ailes could also resurface in some rogue operation. But Fox News will eventually find its legs and will then do fine, maybe even better. Life goes on.
When the scandal broke a month ago, many media watchers doubted Carlson could actually topple Ailes, even when 21st Century Corp. hired a fancy law firm to conduct an internal investigation of the charges. Until this past Tuesday. That was when it came to light that Megyn Kelly, whose stone cold silence had sparked intrigue, allegedly told the investigators that she had experienced sexual harassment from Ailes earlier in her career. Game. Set. Match. Kelly, Fox’s single most exciting star of the future, and also one of its most credible after her fierce sparring with Donald Trump in the first debate of this election, is the one Fox News star who the network needs more for its future than she needs the network. And her contract is soon up.
Predictably, the fall of Ailes has triggered much relief, and considerable schadenfreude—first among the aggrieved women, but really across all the media industry. However guilty Roger Ailes may be of reprehensible behavior toward women, to many it is still not the worst part of his legacy as a human being. Bully? Misogynist? Broker of sexual favors? The sad truth is that all of these traits were once quite common in the upper echelons of the news media, and to be found guilty of them back in the day didn’t even qualify as minor disgrace. Long insulated by his power, Ailes was a living throwback to the “Mad Men” era—when television, and advertising, and misogyny all romped hand in hand together in the plush corridors of power along New York’s 6th avenue.
The arbiter of who got to shine in the GOP
What really set Ailes apart was his genius—brilliant or evil depending on your perspective—at a new kind of television production that mixed demagogic showmanship with hardcore tactics of the street-fighting pol, and a ruthlessness previously unseen in the medium. It is a polarizing, toxic mix that first defined Fox News but that has now engulfed our entire political process. If you contemplate this bizarre election in which we are now mired, it’s easy to argue that Roger Ailes set the plate for it, first with his architecture for the early Republican debates, and more significantly with a tone, adopted by several of the candidates, straight out of the Fox News playbook. Sure, he gave Trump a hard time for a while—probably producing the best debate of all, that first one—but only until Trump saw the light of how the game really works. Today, Trump is quick to tweet to the effect that his followers should stick to Fox, the only honest network.
As a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, I was there in Atlanta on the Sunday afternoon of June 1, 1980, when Ted Turner—with much fanfare—pulled the launch switch on CNN, the beginning of the 24-hour cable news era. At the time, we journalists were mostly handicapping the chances of cable news working. Few of us considered the effect that all this nonstop chatter could have on society and our ability to process the meaning of “news”—much less how it might redefine our national conversation, even our civic values.
In its early years, CNN did some good and little harm, and its global reach eventually proved a significant if underrated factor in the fall of the Iron Curtain. But it wasn’t until 16 years after CNN’s launch—when Ailes started Fox News— that the idea of cable news fell into the hands of someone with wicked television skills and a specific political agenda. “Make America Great Again” is a spiritual heir to “Fair and Balanced.” Neither mean what they say, yet everyone knows what they really mean. In the case of the latter, Ailes’s slogan had the profound effect of pushing his competitors into more neutral reportage—a sort of “he said/she said” approach to avoid charges of bias that might affect advertisers. A worthy result, you could argue, except that Fox News completely ignored the slogan itself, laughing all the way to the right—and the bank. In the process, Ailes became the arbiter of who got to shine in the GOP, and played a major role in creating the kind of polarized feeling and rhetoric that is derailing not just our civility as a nation, but his very own political party. All this punching power from a cable network whose audience (while leading the other cable networks) is still tiny relative to big broadcast news shows like the evening broadcasts or Sunday shows or “60 Minutes.”
The 28-year-old sorcerer
In the Roger Ailes biopic (pray not!), the key moment of alchemy would occur in 1968, when the 28-year-old sorcerer, a radio and television major from the University of Ohio now working as a producer on the Mike Douglas talk show in Philadelphia, has the temerity to tell presidential candidate Richard Nixon that he’s not very good at TV, but that he—Ailes—could make him better.
Nixon hired him, and from that moment on, Ailes managed to weave his way through the worlds of presidential politics and television like no other figure before or since. As a consultant, he helped elect his clients (Reagan, the first Bush to name two). As a broadcaster, he made a large fortune for his owners and a small one for himself. He cast a shadow of fear and awe wherever he went. For all this, we media elite will remember him.
But most Fox News viewers probably had little idea who Roger Ailes was or how profoundly he changed their country. If they remember him at all, it will probably be as the gnarly old man who tried to have sex with people they do know—Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly—and finally got sent home for misbehaving.
So what comes next for Fox News, whose temporary head will be … Rupert Murdoch? Here I rely on industry scuttlebutt, which is worth what you pay for it. Top rated Bill O’Reilly will leave when his contract soon expires, probably to form his own Glenn Beck style show or network. Megyn Kelly will go to a broadcast network, with ABC said to be in the lead. Shepard Smith, who is widely respected in the “mainstream” news media, could land at NBC or CNN. Without these lead-ins, the lesser personalities at Fox News will sink like stones, forcing the next genius to seek new talent and new ideas.
And what of Ailes? My favorite speculation is that—separation agreement permitting—he teams with losing presidential candidate Donald Trump to launch the Trump News Network. In an era in which truth wildly exceeds fiction, why not?
John Huey is a longtime journalist, who worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, editor of Fortune Magazine, and editor-in-chief of Time Inc.