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It was James Murdoch’s cold calculation that ended the hand-wringing debate: Whither Fox News and its $1.2 billion in annual profits without Roger Ailes, no small concern of his older brother Lachlan and their father, Rupert? “Ailes is 76 and unhealthy, so how much longer could he last anyway?” the younger Murdoch is said to have asked, and to have argued: Since they would lose Ailes soon enough anyway, why not turn lemons into lemonade and get credit for kicking him out for being a sexist pig?
Among the things his father, hardly an advocate for women in the workplace (to the question, a few years ago, of why there were no women on the board of his company, he replied, “because they talk too much”), took particular pride in was resisting outside pressure, particularly liberal media pressure. But since former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson leveled her charges of sexual harassment against Ailes two weeks ago, Rupert has been under more and more of it every day, surrounded by people who wanted to give in to it, and with so much of it fueled by leaks coming from his own company. (Another point of longtime pride: Other media companies leaked, his did not.) And then, he was proud of Fox News. Taking on the establishment, achieving vast political influence, being able to stand up to anybody, and making a big pile of dough while doing it all — that’s what media, his kind of media, was about. For this, Murdoch, not much of a television watcher, freely gave the credit to Ailes, who had led the network from start-up two decades ago to 15 years of cable and political dominance.
Indeed, the ouster of Ailes, a sorry PR capitulation in Murdoch’s view, is not just an abrupt end to Ailes’ career at 21st Century Fox, but, in a way that’s hard to miss, rather a Murdoch coda.
For his sons, James and Lachlan, who became the co-operators of the $53 billion company a year ago (reporting only to their father), getting rid of Ailes is their first transformative management step, one quite unimaginable under their father or under their predecessor, Chase Carey, who, while often annoyed with Ailes, would never have taken the responsibility for imperiling the future of Fox News, the company’s golden goose.
It is, though, in James and Lachlan’s view, their money and their future. (In fact, in Ailes‘ view, it is he who makes their money, and they who spend it.) And the company they want to lead will be a different one, with different values — in James’ words, a different “profile” — than their father’s company. For a long time now the symbol of that difference has been Ailes — and now his defenestration.
This is hardly the first time they’ve gunned for him. In 2005, Lachlan — at 33 then the heir apparent, brought back from running the Australia operation to be by his father’s side — got embroiled in conflict after conflict with his father’s executives, notably Ailes and then-COO Peter Chernin. Pushed by his son to make a choice, the elder Murdoch chose his executives. Lachlan quit in a huff and returned to Australia. Lachlan and James, who was then running the company’s BSkyB operation in London, hardly natural allies, found themselves united here in their enmity toward their father’s men. Indeed, Lachlan’s revolt was one of the first instances where the brothers used the outside press, to their father’s incomprehension and fury, to strike back at him and the company, detailing in an unsourced article for New York magazine their anger and dissatisfactions.
Then, in 2008, the Murdoch children persuaded their father to support Barack Obama for president, a position which, confronted by Ailes, he reversed, causing not only an interfamily brush war, but an active campaign by the Murdoch children of leaking against Ailes (including one story that I wrote of their father setting up Ailes for a dressing down by Obama himself).
In 2010, then-Murdoch son-in-law Matthew Freud — at the instigation of his wife, Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth, and brother-in-law James (all three then living in London) — was quoted in The New York Times saying, “I am by no means alone within the family or the company being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’ horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standard.”
This was a declaration of open war between the Murdoch children and Ailes, which cost Rupert a large raise to placate the irreplaceable Ailes.
Getting Ailes, after that, became a kind of symbol for the Murdoch children for when they would come into their own — and out from under what they had long considered their father’s heavy hand. Indeed, particularly for James, the mission became getting rid of all of his father’s closest executives. In this, interrupted only by his own disgrace and brief exile during the hacking scandal in 2011, he largely succeeded, with Chernin leaving, as well as the praetorian guard of lawyers and finance and communications people that surrounded his father. All except Ailes, who was immovable.
Still, Ailes, who could hardly believe his luck when James was tarred and sidelined in the hacking scandal, nevertheless understood that it was Murdoch’s singular purpose to leave his company to his children and that, when it happened, and when Murdoch’s influence was finally superceded, “I’ll be toast too.”
In fact, when James and Lachlan were elevated to co-operating heads a year ago, replacing Carey, there was an immediate skirmish about whom Ailes reported to — with Rupert assuring Ailes he reported to him and also assuring his sons Ailes reported to them (with never a real resolution).
That dynamic wouldn’t change. Rupert has remained stuck between trying to keep both sides happy. In fact, Lachlan, tending to side with his father rather than his brother, has worked to mollify and befriend Ailes. James, however, has remained openly contemptuous of Ailes — and Ailes of him. In this, James represents everything about the new, foreign culture that is gradually enveloping Murdoch Land: technocratic, coolly rationalist (James is said to reduce all issues to abstract arguments), Powerpoint-driven. (A media joke that has gone around: James is the son of Jeff Bewkes rather than Rupert Murdoch.) And Ailes represents the old Murdoch culture: opaque, insular, retro, resistant to corporate hegemony and wholly audience-driven.
As the political year progressed, while Ailes was said to observe that Trump, and the profits he was creating for Fox, would guarantee his job for another year, James was telling friends that Trump was weakening Ailes, that Ailes was the old politics.
And then Gretchen Carlson and the surprise harassment and discrimination suit she filed on July 6. In fact, hers was hardly the first such suit in Murdoch Land. In the company, there tends to be a particular sort of humor about such claims and pride that the company resists the HRization of the business world (settlements are the cost of the kind of newsroom culture that, in Murdoch’s view, distinguishes his company from others).
Nobody thought this was anything different — except for the media and James. The early media response, quite an extraordinary outpouring, is said to have hardened Murdoch in his support of Ailes, and to have emboldened James, who began to talk, in non-Murdoch fashion, about corporate responsibility and backed an independent investigation — quite a foreign notion in a Murdoch company.
The elements were in place, needing only a little helpful encouragement, for a coup. The leaking from inside the company began in earnest. Lachlan and his father, furious about the leaks, remained on one side of the debate, James patiently on the other. James’ argument became larger than the harassment claims, expanding to the future of the network, one that inevitably would not include Ailes. If it had to happen, now was as good a time as any. And why not use the opportunity to send a message. It was not, despite the current campaign, a Donald Trump world or a Roger Ailes world anymore. Nor — though it was left unsaid — a Rupert Murdoch world.
Indeed, Murdoch is quite the lonely figure here, still caught between his sons and Ailes.
Ailes himself has gone to war — for money, for a clean bill of health, resisting any admission of wrongdoing, and for the ability to stay in the game, avoiding any meaningful noncompete prohibitions. Indeed, now begins Ailes’ war against the Murdochs.
Still, as of this morning, with Ailes nearly as much a subject in Cleveland at the Republican convention among political professionals as Trump himself (the rumor of Ailes replacing Paul Manafort as campaign manager is an active one, with a further rumor putting Trump in favor of this and his children against it), the negotiation continues. It has been reportedly slowed not just by Ailes’ war-like posture, but because Rupert Murdoch is in the middle of it, full of angst and ambivalence and regret, changing the terms of the negotiation on an hourly basis. In real ways, Roger’s end is his.
Michael Wolff, a Hollywood Reporter contributor, is the author of a biography of Rupert Murdoch.
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