CLEVELAND — One of the ubiquitous topics of conversation at the Republican National Convention concerns the fate of a man who isn’t running for office but may be as important to the party as Donald Trump.
That would be Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel, who could soon end up the former chairman and CEO of a network that has been a kingmaker of Republicans since it was launched 20 years ago.
At the moment, Ailes, 76, is fighting to save his career. He’s not just facing a sexual-harassment lawsuit from Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News host, but a far more dangerous boardroom backlash. The suit appears to be a pretext for Lachlan and James Murdoch – the sons who are inheriting leadership of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire – to maneuver to oust Ailes, with whom they reportedly have a chilly relationship.
New York magazine sent a shudder through the GOP faithful and the massed armies of the news media here on Monday with a report saying the Murdochs have resolved to fire Ailes just as soon as a law firm that is investigating his conduct completes its work. “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,” the magazine’s Gabriel Sherman reported.
Well, not so fast. Representatives of 21st Century Fox, the company that owns Fox News and is headed by James Murdoch, 43, quickly issued a statement saying that nothing has been determined and that the investigation of Ailes is ongoing. The company gave no indication of when it will wrap up the review; Fox News has had no comment.
Which, of course, did nothing to stop people at the convention from gossiping about the potential end of Ailes, the man usually credited with turning Fox into a megaphone for conservative causes and grievances. Ailes, a former Republican operative and the co-founder of Fox, hired many Republican politicians – Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin among them – as Fox commentators, elevating their profiles between elections. The network also gave regular airtime to Trump in the years before he declared his candidacy.
So Ailes leaving Fox would be a seismic development for people who pay attention to the nexis between politics and the media.
“Shock. Surprise,” said Carl Cannon, executive editor of the Real Clear Politics news site, of the possible end of the Ailes era. “Didn’t he start this thing?”
Yes, and he built it into a ratings juggernaut – No. 1 in cable news for more than a decade – that has become one of the most consistently lucrative parts of Murdoch Inc. Fox made more than $1 billion in profit last year, according to Pew Research Center.
“Fox has dominated not just conservative viewers but has shaped the modern Republican Party,” said Donna Brazile, a CNN commentator and Democratic Party strategist, outside the convention hall. “Ailes has played an outsized role in making sure conservative views and viewpoints got into the mainstream. That’s his legacy.”
But the end of Ailes wouldn’t mean the end of what Ailes created, she said. “I don’t think you change the brand. Many Americans view it as the conservative station. It will stay the voice, the face and the heart of the conservative movement.”
Two of Fox News’ veteran personalities, the otherwise opinionated Tucker Carlson and Alan Colmes, declined comment when asked about Ailes on Monday.
David Folkenflik, an NPR correspondent and the author of “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires,” noted that Ailes may be brought low by the very kind of allegation that Fox would play up against a disfavored political figure. “And yet it represents an almost inescapable metaphor for the intergenerational tensions and fissures that divide the outlook of Fox News” from the younger, somewhat more progressive outlook of the Murdoch brothers, he said.
The odd thing, he added, is that the nominal docket against Ailes – a sexual-harassment lawsuit – didn’t dent Ailes’s biggest star, Bill O’Reilly, when he was hit by harassment allegations. The suit, brought by a Fox News producer who alleged that O’Reilly had harassed her in phone conversations, was settled on undisclosed terms in 2004. “The O’Reilly Factor” rolled on.
The wild card in all this appears to be Rupert Murdoch, Folkenflik said. He’s caught between his loyalty to Ailes – who has managed Fox brilliantly for two decades – and to his sons, who are gradually assuming power and authority and appear eager to give dad’s empire an updated, 21st-century face.
Murdoch has promised to share power with them, Folkenflik said. “This is going to be a great test of that …You sense the tectonic plates shifting but it’s not clear where how this will all play out.”
Whatever the outcome, Cannon, like Brazile, isn’t betting on change at a post-Ailes Fox. “Fox News will be Fox News,” he said. “I think we’ll find that Fox is bigger than Roger Ailes.”