Fox News loves anniversaries, and this fall marks a big one. In October, it’ll be 20 years since boss Roger Ailes and visionary media mogul Rupert Murdoch launched their stab at giving the rest of America a voice on the cable airwaves. Occasions such as this one are generally marked by splashy feature stories in various publications, complete with exclusive photo ops and quotes — all of it aggressively facilitated by the network’s PR shop.
This year, however, a fresh face appears poised to barge in on the proceedings. Her name tag reads, “Accountability.”
On Monday, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, a veteran chronicler of all things Ailes, reported that Rupert Murdoch and sons Lachlan and James Murdoch — who all run Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox — have decided to oust the grizzled television genius, something that seemed unfathomable before July 6. That’s the date that former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a stunning sexual harassment/retaliation lawsuit specifically against Ailes. In one jaw-dropping line after another, Carlson alleges that Ailes propositioned her, asked to see her “posterior,” objectified her and diminished her professional standing after she complained about it all.
The vaunted Fox News topper responded like a paranoid, hypocritical and cowardly media executive, insisting in a filing that Carlson had violated the clause in her contract that pushed her toward arbitration. That’s the subject of much legal wrangling at the moment. The bigger threat to Ailes, however, was the independent review of his work that 21st Century Fox commissioned under the auspices of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. These folks have apparently been working fast. “After reviewing the initial findings of the probe, James Murdoch is said to be arguing that Ailes should be presented with a choice this week to resign or face being fired,” reports Sherman.
21st Century Fox isn’t denying the report. “This matter is not yet resolved and the review is not concluded,” said the company in a statement.
Those are 12 significant words. The 76-year-old Ailes, after all, is the fellow who built Fox News into a cultural force. Who through his brilliance with audience development and editorial decision-making created a network that a couple of years ago accounted for nearly 20 percent of 21st Century Fox’s profits with less than eight percent of the employees. Who snared an estimated $1.5 billion in profits in 2015. Who was untouchable.
And who generally gets unqualified support from his bosses, not official statements that lend credence to the reporting of Gabriel Sherman.
The unaccountable Ailes is history now, just like the birther movement and Benghazi are history. Even if Ailes somehow manages to hold onto his position — and that appears to be a stretch — the terms of employment have changed irrevocably. Where Ailes once maintained a broadcasting Monroe Doctrine, he now invites scrutiny and the shameful reality of his handpicked stars talking to outside lawyers about their mentor.
For more than 19 of Fox News’s nearly 20 years, sending in outside investigators to second-guess Ailes’s management approach was an unthinkable proposition. Under Ailes’s leadership, after all, Fox News vaulted to the top of the cable news rankings within five years of its launch, and it has never relinquished that spot. That’s a decade and a half of sheer dominance. This feat it accomplished with some of the stupidest fare on all of television. Consider the three-hour morning show “Fox & Friends,” the scene of serial crimes against journalism — including an offensive remark about women, a bogus statistics slamming President Obama, a false story about President Obama funding a Muslim museum, and so, so, so many more.
At one point we wondered why on earth Ailes didn’t put a stop to this garbage on “Fox & Friends.” If anyone had plenipotentiary power over a large news organization, after all, it was Ailes. He could remove the producers and hosts with an edict at the morning meeting — and if anyone had a problem with it, well, they could fight it out with the arbitrator! Why not just pull the plug?
Because success. Or, “success.” “Fox & Friends” reliably wallops its competitors in the ratings. Stupidity and inanity work. Fox News star Megyn Kelly once stood up for the program by noting that it had “triple” the audience of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Such ratings have formed a moat around Fox News’s Manhattan headquarters. So long as Ailes could deliver the viewers, the mother ship could live with the occasional journalistic embarrassments.
Those embarrassments have tended to arise from the network’s personality-driven stuff — shows like “Fox & Friends,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Outnumbered” and “Hannity.” The way Ailes set things up, these are supposed to be the “opinion pages” vis-a-vis the “news pages,” to borrow from a newspapering tradition. At Fox News, however, the “opinion” designation functions as a license to run amok. Consider the trouble that O’Reilly encountered last year for his history of embellishing or lying or telling many falsehoods about his long-ago reportorial exploits in various danger zones. Or his sly, soft-glove promotion of his friend of three decades, Donald Trump. Or the recent revelation that host Sean Hannity flew Newt Gingrich to Indiana to meet with Donald Trump. The consequences for such misdeeds? None that we’ve been able to ascertain. All fine with Ailes, all fine with corporate.
That is what’s double-newsworthy about Sherman’s revelations: It’s not just that Ailes is in trouble; it’s that he’s in trouble not ostensibly for the scandalous content and journalistic miscarriages that he has encouraged for two decades. Yet Ailes’s alleged internal behavior and the product beamed to viewers are connected in their own way. Look at the narrative uncorked in the Carlson complaint. Sexist abuse came her way while she worked on the idiotic “Fox & Friends,” as co-host Steve Doocy allegedly belittled her and mocked her and even grabbed her in an on-air effort to “shush” her. Once she complained about it, Ailes instructed her to “get along with the boys,” claims the complaint. Carlson was eventually removed from the show, which she considered a demotion.
Is it any wonder that the most cynical and trashy of Ailes’s creations may also accomplish his undoing?
Fox News Kremlinologists have long noted that the younger Murdochs have fought with Ailes in part over revulsion with the guy’s work product. Speaking of James Murdoch, NPR’s David Folkenflik once assessed, “He finds Fox’s politics and its demeanor and its bombastic nature and relentlessness to be embarrassing.” Maybe, then, the Carlson complaint and resulting investigation provide a pretext to jettison the programming sensibilities along with the alleged internal misconduct with a single personnel change. If so, great — viewers and Fox News employees will be better off. And we’ll perhaps see more pantsuits on the network’s sets.