Fox (I refuse to call it Fox News) has always been a rather curious outfit. We have often seen authoritarian political parties utilize propaganda outfits comparable to Fox, but I do not believe we have ever had a situation where the propaganda outfit has come to dominate the party. New York Magazine has an article on the founding of Fox and events there, including the removal of Glenn Beck.
The full article is well worth reading. The article, like many I have read about Fox, shows that Roger Ailes as opposed to Rupert Murdoch (who considered endorsing Obama over McCain) is the bigger problem there:
Even Rupert Murdoch, sensing the shifting tectonic plates, contemplated a move to the middle. In the summer of 2008, Ailes confronted Murdoch after he learned Murdoch was thinking of endorsing Obama in the New York Post; Ailes threatened to quit. It was a politically vulnerable time for Ailes. Murdoch’s children were agitating for a greater role in the company. Ailes surely understood that their politics, along with those of then–News Corp. president Peter Chernin and communications adviser Gary Ginsberg, differed greatly from Murdoch’s. The tensions surrounding Ailes played out in the publication of Michael Wolff’s Murdoch biography. Matthew Freud, husband of Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and a London-based PR executive, encouraged Wolff to portray Fox as a pariah wing of the News Corp. empire. Ailes was furious with Wolff’s account, which was critical of Fox, and Rupert, seeking to quell the turmoil, offered Ailes a new contract. This corporate victory, not to mention Fox’s profits, ensured that Ailes remained unscathed by the succession games playing out among the Murdoch children.
By October 2008, Ailes recognized that Obama was likely to beat McCain. He needed to give his audience a reason to stay in the stands and watch his team. And so he went on a hiring spree. By the time Obama defeated McCain, Ailes had hired former Bush aide Karl Rove and Mike Huckabee and went on to assemble a whole lineup of prospective 2012 contenders: Palin, Gingrich, Santorum, and John Bolton.
It was, more than anything, a business decision. “It would be easy to look at Fox and think it’s conservative because Rupert and Roger are conservative and they program it the way they like. And to a degree, that’s true. But it’s also a business,” a person close to Ailes explained. “And the way the business works is, they control conservative commentary the way ESPN controls the market for sports rights.
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration was great for Fox, which pandered to paranoia about a liberal black president. It was not good if Fox desired to be seen as a legitimate news outlet:
Fox’s record ratings during the beginning of Obama’s presidency quickly put an end to Ailes’s fears that he would be bad for business. The network’s audience hit stratospheric levels as the tea-party rebellion provided a powerful story line that ran through Fox’s coverage. Sometimes Fox personalities took an active role in building the movement, something that Ailes was careful to check if it became too overt. In April 2010, Fox barred Hannity from broadcasting his show at a Cincinnati tea-party rally. “There would not have been a tea party without Fox,” Sal Russo, a former Reagan gubernatorial aide and the founder of the national Tea Party Express tour, told me.
But as Fox was helping to inflate the tea party’s balloon, some of the network’s journalistic ballast was disappearing. Starting in July 2008, a series of high-level departures began when Brit Hume, Ailes’s longtime Washington anchor, announced his retirement inside Fox. Then, three weeks after the election, David Rhodes, Fox’s vice-president for news, quit to work for Bloomberg. Rhodes had started at Fox as a 22-year-old production assistant and risen through the ranks to become No. 2 in charge of news. His brother was a senior foreign-policy aide to Obama, and Rhodes told staffers that Ailes had expressed concern about this closeness to the White House. Rhodes privately told people he was uncomfortable with where Fox was going in the Obama era.
Fox managed to move even further to the right with the addition of Bill Sammon:
Meanwhile, Hume’s replacement, Bill Sammon, a former Washington Times correspondent, angered Fox’s political reporters, who saw him pushing coverage further to the right than they were comfortable with. Days after Obama’s inauguration, an ice storm caused major damage throughout the Midwest. At an editorial meeting in the D.C. bureau, Sammon told producers that Fox should compare Obama’s response to Bush’s handling of Katrina. “Bush got grief for Katrina,” Sammon said.
“It’s too early; give him some time to respond,” a producer shot back. “This ice storm isn’t Katrina.”
While the major bad guys of the article are Roger Ailes and Bill Sammon, another villain emerged: Hillary Clinton. During the primary campaign I had often noted how Hillary Clinton began to resemble a creature of the right wing far more than a liberal. The article confirmed what we had suspected about her:
There was bad blood left over from the campaign. In the bitter primary fight for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton’s advisers, led by Howard Wolfson, courted Fox and fed them negative research about Obama and John Edwards. “She made some kind of compact with Murdoch,” Obama’s former media adviser Anita Dunn told me.
As Fox continued to promote false right wing narratives, the White House attempted without much success to respond. Beyond the public response, David Axelrod attempted to utilize more quiet diplomacy, but found that this was futile:
While Dunn and others publicly engaged Fox, David Axelrod worked back-channel diplomacy as the good cop. About a week before Dunn’s CNN appearance, Axelrod secretly sat down with Ailes at the Palm in midtown. They met before the restaurant opened to avoid drawing attention. Axelrod told Ailes they should try to defuse things and work together.
Going back to the 2008 campaign, Axelrod had maintained an off-the-record dialogue with Ailes. He had faced off against Ailes in a U.S. Senate campaign in the early eighties and respected him as a fellow political warrior and shaper of narrative. But early on, Axelrod learned he couldn’t change Ailes’s outlook on Obama. In one meeting in 2008, Ailes told Axelrod that he was concerned that Obama wanted to create a national police force.
“You can’t be serious,” Axelrod replied. “What makes you think that?”
Ailes responded by e-mailing Axelrod a YouTube clip from a campaign speech Obama had given on national service, in which he called for the creation of a new civilian corps to work alongside the military on projects overseas.
Later, Axelrod related in a conversation that the exchange was the moment he realized Ailes truly believed what he was broadcasting.
News Corp will ultimately be controlled by younger, less conservative, members of the Murdoch family, and Ailes will not remain forever at Fox. There is question as to what will happen to Fox after Ailes retires, and of his legacy:
In the halls of Fox News, people do not want to be caught talking about what will happen to Fox News after the Ailes era. The network continues to be Ailes’s singular vision, and he’s so far declined to name a successor. One possibility in the event Ailes departs when his contract is up in 2013 is that Bill Shine could continue to oversee prime time and Michael Clemente would run the news division. But more than one person described fearing Lord of the Flies–type chaos in the wake of Ailes’s departure, so firm has his grip on power been.
This spring, the announcement by News Corp. that James Murdoch was being promoted to deputy chief operating officer triggered another round of speculation that the accession of the next generation would be problematic for Ailes. So far, James has had little interaction with Ailes. The last time the pair worked closely together was in the late nineties, when James was overseeing News Corp.’s dot-com properties and was briefly in charge of Fox’s website.
James likely witnessed his older brother Lachlan’s frustration over clashing with Ailes (one of the factors that caused Lachlan to leave the company). James has smartly avoided any major interactions with Ailes. Last year, when Matthew Freud criticized Ailes in a Times article, James immediately e-mailed Ailes to say that Freud wasn’t speaking for him. At a budget meeting with Ailes and Rupert a couple of weeks ago, James, who clearly hopes to run the company some day, praised Ailes for his outsize profits. But the future could be different. Rupert’s wife, Wendi, recently agreed to host an Obama fund-raiser with Russell Simmons. “She’s a big fan,” Simmons told me.
Last week, Ailes turned 71. He’s spending considerable time thinking about his legacy. It bothers him that he’s still regarded as an outsider. “He doesn’t want to be hated,” a GOPer who knows Ailes well said. “It really bothers him. You can’t gross a billion a year and retain an outlaw sensibility forever.”