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A Roger Ailes mid-election ouster from Fox News is a huge deal

The Washington Post's Paul Farhi explains what's next for Fox News and the Murdoch family, now that Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes has left the network. (Video: Peter Stevenson, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Update: Fox announced Thursday that Roger Ailes had resigned as chairman and CEO "effective immediately," with Rupert Murdoch assuming the role of chairman and acting CEO.

Roger Ailes is out as chief executive of Fox News — a monumental development at any time that looms even larger in an election year. In two decades of leadership, Ailes built the cable news channel into the popular and polarizing media behemoth it is today. The former Republican operative created a go-to forum for conservative perspective, in addition to straight news, that resonated with viewers who see a liberal slant in the rest of the mainstream media.

In many ways, Ailes is Fox News.

So the fact that he was sacked at the height of a captivating presidential election is even more earth-shaking. Fox News is enjoying the best ratings year in its history.

But as Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, Nielsen numbers weren't going to be enough to save his subject — not after recently-fired anchor Gretchen Carlson alleged sexual harassment in a lawsuit, and six other women came forward with similar stories.

Rupert Murdoch and sons Lachlan and James — co-chairmen and CEO, respectively, of parent company 21st Century Fox — have settled on removing the 76-year-old executive, say two sources briefed on a sexual-harassment investigation of Ailes being conducted by New York law firm Paul, Weiss. 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. Lachlan is more aligned with their father, who thinks that no action should be taken until after the GOP convention this week. Another source confirms that all three are in agreement that Ailes needs to go.

A spokesman for 21st Century Fox initially declined to comment on Sherman's report in New York mag. The company then issued the following statement: "This matter is not yet resolved, and the review is not concluded."

On Thursday, the company's announcement of Alies's departure included a statement from Rupert Murdoch:

“Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country. Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years.
It is always difficult to create a channel or a publication from the ground up and against seemingly entrenched monopolies. To lead a flourishing news channel, and to build Fox Business, Roger has defied the odds.
His grasp of policy and his ability to make profoundly important issues accessible to a broader audience stand in stark contrast to the self-serving elitism that characterizes far too much of the media.
To ensure continuity of all that is best about Fox News and what it stands for, I will take over as Chairman and acting CEO, with the support of our existing management team under Bill Shine, Jay Wallace and Mark Kranz.”

A change at the top immediately raised questions about the role of Fox News throughout the remainder of the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — and beyond. While journalists such as Chris Wallace and Bret Baier strive for neutrality, many of the network's prominent personalities are icons on the right, which has created the expectation among some viewers — politicians, included — that Fox will function as a cheerleader for GOP candidates and causes. Could that change — and fast?

During much of the Republican primary, Trump seemed more frustrated with Fox News than with any other media outlet, seemingly because he anticipated friendlier treatment than he received. He waged a nasty rhetorical war against host Megyn Kelly, refused to participate in two of Fox's debates and briefly boycotted all of its programs.

Trump's biggest challenger, Ted Cruz, is still upset about his own coverage. Politico's Glenn Thrush reported this on Monday:

It's no secret that Cruz's team and his allies have a beef with Fox News for what they believe to be pro-Trump bias (one person in Cruz's orbit said he's so disgusted with Fox he hasn't watched the network since he dropped out in May).

Meanwhile, Clinton has mostly steered clear of Fox News, despite its unmatched audience size. But she did call in to Bill O'Reilly's program last Thursday.

The younger Murdochs, James and Lachlan, had reportedly clashed with Ailes in the past — sometimes over personal matters and sometimes over political coverage. They and their father have now face a hiring decision that will establish Fox News's vision for the future.

Ailes's age alone suggested such a decision would be necessary some time in the relatively near future, but as recently as two weeks ago it seemed inconceivable that it would arrive before Election Day.

This story has been updated.