Fox News' Roger Ailes Responds to Rupert Murdoch-Donald Trump Flap

Donald Trump Thumbs Up - H 2015
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Donald Trump Thumbs Up - H 2015

"My relationship with Rupert has never been better — I talked to him three times today, and none of the conversations involved Donald Trump or The New York Times," Ailes tells THR of the media coverage highlighting a feud between his boss and the Republican presidential contender.

A flurry of recent stories about Fox News suggests its hosts are obsessed with Donald Trump, but the nation’s top cable news outlet actually has focused less of its attention on the Republican candidate for president than has its competitors.

In the five-day period ending late Tuesday, FNC mentioned Trump 496 times compared with 547 for CNN and 620 for MSNBC, according to the media research firm TVEyes.

FNC’s coverage of Trump is a hot topic because of a series of negative tweets issued by Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of FNC’s parent company, 21st Century Fox. The Murdoch family also controls News Corp, parent of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, both of which have been critical of Trump.

After The New York Times dissected Murdoch’s “feud” with Trump in a front-page story Wednesday, other outlets reported that Murdoch is displeased with FNC’s positive coverage of Trump and has asked FNC chairman and CEO Roger Ailes to dial it back, though observers say such a request is very unlikely given that Murdoch rarely weighs in on editorial decisions at FNC.

Ailes himself dismisses the reports.

“My relationship with Rupert has never been better — I talked to him three times today, and none of the conversations involved Donald Trump or The New York Times,” Ailes tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Trump’s antics have been the subject of extensive cable news coverage since he declared his candidacy for president June 16 and, in doing so, suggested that illegal immigrants from Mexico are “rapists.” His most recent controversy involves his assertion that current senator, former GOP presidential nominee and Vietnam veteran John McCain “is not a war hero” despite years of torture and depravation as a POW.

Shortly after Trump disparaged McCain, Murdoch tweeted: “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” The next day the cover of the Post declared, “Trump is toast” and an editorial in the Journal excoriated Trump and “the conservative media who applaud him,” though without identifying specific outlets.

Trump’s response to all this came by way of tweets: “Look how small the pages have become @WSJ. Looks like a tabloid — saving money I assume!” Then, amplifying a tweet from one of his fans, Trump tweeted: “@foxandfriends @foxnation tell your owner Murdoch we are turning Fox off if he keeps belittling @realDonaldTrump. No Fox!”

As of Wednesday night, Trump had appeared on FNC 28 times since announcing his candidacy, which detractors of Trump and FNC deem excessive. The network, though it has given Trump a big platform, doesn’t appear to be playing particular favorites, given that nearly all of the GOP candidates have been frequent guests since their announcements: Rand Paul has appeared 31 times; Rick Perry 21 and Carly Fiorina 18, for example. (An outlier is Jeb Bush, with only three appearances, though insiders say he routinely declines invitations).

The progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America also is encouraging scrutiny of FNC’s coverage of Trump, asking reporters nationwide to highlight the positive coverage he has received on the network. On Wednesday, Media Matters senior fellow Eric Boehlert said on MSNBC that Trump “is the Fox News id, without a doubt.” He also advanced the meme of “a mini Civil War” between Murdoch and Ailes over Trump.

Many observers, though, point out that FNC’s coverage of Trump, while largely positive, is likely more diverse than it is at rivals MSNBC and CNN, each of which are overwhelmingly critical of his candidacy. FNC contributors George Will and Charles Krauthammer routinely bash Trump, and his remarks about McCain earned him rebukes on FNC from Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, Greg Gutfeld and others.

Positive or negative, coverage of Trump will continue at all three cable networks and to a lesser extent on broadcast, says pollster Frank Luntz,

“Whatever Trump says attracts attention, but that’s different from long-term support,” says Luntz, a regular guest on FNC.

Most polls showing Trump as the leading GOP contender were taken prior to the McCain kerfuffle, but Luntz predicts he’ll continue to show strong in upcoming polls, therefore giving the networks an excuse to keep their focus on him.

“Republicans want a candidate who won’t be censored — who says what he means and means what he says. That’s Trump 24/7,” says Luntz. “But it's easy to say you’re for Trump 15 months before an election. Voting for him on election day is another matter.”