Fox News' First Day Without Roger Ailes: Rupert Murdoch's Meeting, Employee Morale Issues

Rupert Murdoch Serious - H 2016
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Rupert Murdoch Serious - H 2016

Murdoch, the new CEO of the news channel, has worked to comfort distraught staffers in the wake of Ailes' resignation amid sexual harassment allegations.

The first day of the post-Roger Ailes era at Fox News unfolded Friday with its new leader Rupert Murdoch taking part in the channel’s 9:30 a.m. editorial meeting. The 85-year-old patriarch of 21st Century Fox, who on Thursday assumed the title of interim CEO as he searches for a new leader of the cable news powerhouse, is said to have led the meeting but deferred to the staff that until yesterday worked closely will Ailes.

Murdoch is spending the coming weeks getting familiar with the day-to-day operations of his company's news unit. Rupert's sons Lachlan and James, who are executive chairman and CEO of 21st Century Fox, respectively, also will be heavily involved in transitioning someone to a permanent CEO. Lachlan was at his father’s side on Thursday when he addressed the Fox News newsroom in the wake of Ailes’ resignation amid an internal review of former anchor Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment allegations.

“They’re keeping the trains running — whatever they end up changing will be a slow process,” says one Fox News insider.

Certainly Rupert Murdoch is no stranger to the business of Fox News, which is among the portfolio’s most valuable assets and contributes nearly 25 percent to the company’s bottom line. But his multiple weekly conversations with Ailes were about big-picture topics, not day-to-day operations. And so Murdoch’s task ahead is familiarizing himself with the running of the channel. In this effort, he is said to be leaning heavily on current Fox News executives including Jay Wallace, who in April was promoted to executive vp news and editorial; CFO Mark Kranz; and especially Bill Shine, a longtime Fox News executive who runs primetime programming and also oversees Fox Business Network. Shine is said to be in the running for the permanent CEO job.

In addition, Fox News communications chief Irena Briganti will remain as executive vp of corporate communications of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, a move that might surprise some journalists because of her years of hard-charging allegiance to Ailes. A spokesperson for 21st Century Fox confirmed that Briganti will stay on and she was at work on Friday.

Ailes’ resignation on Thursday was expected amid a mushrooming internal review, but many within the tight-knit group of Fox News employees remain loyal to the fiery executive. For them, the news of his departure has been difficult to process. Many at the network are said to be still in a state of shock. And Murdoch, in addressing staffers on Thursday, acknowledged that the company is weathering a difficult and painful time. Many employees openly expressed sadness over Ailes' departure. 

Brit Hume, a longtime Fox News anchor, characterized the news as "heartbreaking." And Chris Wallace, another veteran on-air journalist, told the New York Times on Thursday: "There are people in tears. I shed mine a couple of days ago."

But just as many staffers are taken aback by the allegations that have come to light in the internal review, which includes stories of unwanted sexual advances from at least 10 more women, including Megyn Kelly, who resisted an Ailes-led effort to get his employees to speak out publicly in support of him. Kelly has not said anything publicly about the matter, but she clearly has been put in an extremely difficult position since her statements to investigators conducting the review were leaked. 

Certainly, the network's wall-to-wall coverage of the Republican National Convention (and next week's Democratic National Convention) has been a welcome distraction. The Murdochs' main focus now, in addition to running the network, is retaining top talent. Several of its anchors including Bill O’Reilly, Greta van Susteren, Sean Hannity, Bret Baier and Kelly have clauses in their contracts that allow them to leave with Ailes. Kelly is said to be negotiating a new deal to stay. And none of the other anchors has signaled publicly or privately that they plan to leave. So far, sources say the Murdochs have not personally reached out to key talent to reassure them. But such communication is expected soon. 

Many expect — and hope — that the Murdochs will tap an internal candidate. And there also is much curiosity about how significant James and Lachlan's involvement will be going forward. But employees are said to have been reassured by Rupert's stewardship through the crisis. It signals to them that the channel's core brand will remain intact through the executive transition. 

"The fact that Rupert Murdoch himself has taken charge at Fox News is a sign of how much the company values what Roger Ailes built," Hume wrote on Twitter.