If a major political party weren’t holding a four-day pageant to nominate an ersatz billionaire and former reality TV host as its presidential candidate, the biggest political story of the week would undoubtedly be the apparent downfall of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. It’s been less than two weeks since former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit against Ailes, alleging that she’d been the recipient of unwelcome sexual advances by Ailes and discriminatory treatment. Just yesterday, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman broke news that Ailes’ bosses at News Corp., Rupert Murdoch and his two sons, have decided that, one way or another, Ailes is done.
“James Murdoch is said to be arguing that Ailes should be presented with a choice this week to resign or face being fired,” Sherman writes. “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.” The obvious temptation among Fox News defenders and Ailes acolytes would be to brush this off as anonymously sourced speculation, but 21st Century Fox responded to the report with a nothingburger of a comment that pointedly made no denial of Ailes’ precarious position. Deadline then confirmed that the Murdoch’s are working up plans to “sideline” the Fox News chief.
Assuming this is true, it would represent a massive upheaval within one of the power centers of conservative and Republican politics. Ailes transformed Fox News into a media giant and a political force, and in the process turned it into a fiefdom that he controlled absolutely. As Tim Dickinson’s 2011 profile of Ailes sketched out, he runs the network like a dictator, using it as a vehicle to promote his own brand of paranoid conservative politics and dividing staffers into two categories: those who are fiercely loyal to Ailes, and the rest who are simply too scared of his power to cross him.
That sort of management style is obviously going to foster some bad behaviors and create a lot of bad blood, but Ailes was protected from repercussions by the network’s financial success. Carlson’s lawsuit – filed after she was fired from Fox News and no longer had reason to fear punitive action from Ailes – has apparently inspired other victims of Ailes’ sexual harassment to come forward, and seems to have done him some real damage.
If the reports are accurate and Ailes is on his way out, Fox News will necessarily have to change as well. All of the network’s simmering right-wing paranoia and thinly veiled appeals to white resentment reportedly emanate from Ailes, who also has a talent for figuring out creating programming that appeals to the channel’s core audience of aged white conservatives. And, as noted above, the network is populated with Ailes loyalists whose futures could be uncertain if he is removed from the CEO’s chair. A number of those loyalists – people like Neil Cavuto, Geraldo Rivera – have vocally defended Ailes against Carlson’s allegations, alongside several other Fox News personalities who have attacked their former colleague’s credibility. What happens to them if the internal review commissioned by News Corp. finds merit to Carlson’s claims? One Fox source told Sherman that the Ailes faithful within Fox News are “scared to death” over news that he could soon be forced out.
Changes at the top at Fox would also necessarily impact Republican politics, given that the network essentially operates as a freelance communications shop for the GOP. Editorial decisions made by Ailes and his lieutenants have identifiable ripples within the Republican Party – Megyn Kelly’s puffball interview with Donald Trump a couple of months ago was widely viewed as a sign that Ailes and the rest of the network had accepted Trump as the GOP’s nominee. The network plays a critical role in maintaining the alternative world of conservative, right-wing politics. It’s a place for conservatives to go to escape the evil biases of the mainstream media and have telegenic fake news people repeat back to them the things they already believe. The network provides a safe space for Republican politicians to blurt out talking points and obvious nonsense with no threat of being challenged on their accuracy. Republican officials who find themselves caught in scandals rush to have Sean Hannity help clean up their mess.
Fox News arrived at this position of political influence because of Ailes, who now might be forced out because his destructive behaviors have eclipsed his financial and political heft. What happens to the network after he’s gone is anyone’s guess, but it’s nice to think of a world in which a dirtbag like Roger Ailes is no longer a dominant force in political media.