Michael Wolff: Is Roger Ailes Finished at Fox? Murdochs, Not the Media, Will Decide

Carlson_Ailes_Scales_Comp - H 2016
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Carlson_Ailes_Scales_Comp - H 2016

Is Fox News sexist? As female employees past and present argue that point in the press, the fate of its money-minting maestro lies with the family, not the breathless media hoping to kill him off.

Some years ago, at a star-studded luncheon sponsored by New York magazine in the Four Seasons Restaurant pool room, I found myself in an unlikely seat between Fox News anchor Paula Zahn, then in the headlines for a public dustup with her boss, Roger Ailes, and the then-Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton. Indeed, we were talking about Ailes, who had greeted Zahn's just-announced move to CNN with a swirl of brutal and profane denunciations. Ailes happened to be lunching in another part of the restaurant. Suddenly there he was — with the kind of everywhere presence that can strike fear into his staff — slowly, in his pained gait, coming across the room toward us. He paid his respects to Senator Clinton, introduced himself to me, pulled up a chair and sat down, making convivial conservation as he pitilessly shut down, ignored and dramatically blanked Zahn, who, in empathetic social panic, I observed shattering to many pieces on the Four Seasons floor.

I tell this story to add to the lore of Ailes' ferocity, cruelty and pure enjoyment of conflict ("a dead raccoon," he famously said, could have generated Zahn's ratings). But also to suggest that these are some of the control-freak, terror-like, more-maestro-than-bureaucrat attributes that have for 20 years kept Fox News so successfully on its sui generis course — and that also create misery, as well a dream of revenge, for anybody at Fox who is perceived to no longer serve Ailes' ratings and message mission.

It is also to suggest the operatic attention given to a July 6 charge of sexual harassment by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson is not strictly about he-said/she-said or about, as The New York Times wishfully described it, the "gale force" of liberal values sweeping the workplace, but about the perennial desire on the part of non-Fox media to kill the all-powerful beast, using any weapon available (including, since the suit was filed, anonymous or decades-old stories of sexual advances — "explosive allegations," in Politico's breathless description — from an era in which the TV industry took for granted, and even celebrated, its everyday loucheness). The further dimension here is that Ailes, over the years, has seemed to invite such king-killing efforts, reveling in their failure and in the kind of us-against-them conflict that inspires his network.

But at 76, sooner rather than later, he will go down — he must, mustn't he? — hence another effort begins to do him in. Indeed, the Times, in its front-page story on the lawsuit, cited, as though germane to the charges, all the ways it perceived of late an incremental weakening of Ailes' great power.

The lawsuit would appear, beyond a mere bid to recover on alleged damages, to be a carefully executed king-slayer strategy — with all the popular support that might bring. It arrived without warning, not preceded by any demands or claims that might have prompted a settlement (or sent the beast into immediate counterattack), and hence owned the news cycle. By suing Ailes personally, rather than the deeper-pocketed company (as most harassment plaintiffs do), it seeks, as though guilelessly, to avoid the arbitration clause in Fox News contracts, which would keep it a confidential rather than public issue. It's a suit designed to play in the media not the court — and, indeed, is likely to be bounced back to arbitration. (The New Jersey law firm representing Carlson has itself managed to get laudatory press for how it has masterminded this legal-PR push.)

During the months leading up to the end of her contract, no new negotiation had begun with Fox, meaning Carlson would have known her time with the network was ending. But she is said to have fired her agent, Sharon Chang, during this time, and not to have hired a new one. In this, she likely sought to eliminate someone with divided loyalties in her camp — Chang represents a number of other Fox on-air talents — and as well decided not to pursue other jobs, which might have hampered her ability to wage so public a campaign against a former boss.

While there are issues of fact here on which a litigation or arbitration will ultimately hinge — Did Ailes proposition her last September? Was she demoted for not agreeing to have sex with her boss rather than for disappointing ratings? — the larger question on trial in the media involves the culture of Fox News and whether or not it is a throwback, retro, sexist place. To which, the rejoinder must be, "Is the pope Catholic?"

The Fox recipe, for two decades utterly incomprehensible to most liberals and other ever-trying-to-be-cooler media, is to stubbornly hew to how the world might have seemed two generations ago. That is both its programming strategy and, with Ailes as the scorpion, its nature. The certain bargain you make when you work at Fox News is to be part of this worldview. Gretchen Carlson, a Stanford graduate as well as a former Miss America, played the Fox Girl role well enough to have been ridiculed for it by Jon Stewart. (She also wrote a book that offers a fulsome, treacly, brown-nosing paean to Ailes.) Now that role turns out, she says, to have been a painful one. The argument made by a high-minded and ingenuous media is that she should not have had to play it. But that conveniently means that Fox News, despite its high ratings (or because of them), should not exist or should be something other than it is.

Given, however, that it is what it is, year after year playing in perfect character its particular cultural and media role, everybody else plays their part too. The media takes delight in exposing Fox for what it doesn't hide. Carlson, only ever garnering a limited profile at Fox, turns against it and receives the kind of publicity that only a star many levels above her achievement could dream of. (While the Times characterizes her as "a prominent Fox News personality," the more general response when the suit was filed was, "Who?") And a new generation of virtuous media writers goes ape over the possibility of destroying the beast.

And so once again the question hangs giddily in the air: Is Roger done?

That he might be done soon, or might be done at least someday, currently hinges on the media belief or hope that Rupert Murdoch's sons, Lachlan and James, now the company's penultimate management layer, are somehow more modern and sensitive than their troglodyte father, who has always stubbornly defended Ailes (when news of the suit broke, he called Ailes from the Sun Valley media moguls conference to say that he stood with him, and Ailes had a lot of supporters among the heavies there). 21st Century Fox announced it would conduct an internal investigation, spurring hopeful liberal media speculation that this somehow indicated a sea change in the company's view of Ailes. Indeed, in the Fox political cauldron, the charges might provide the brothers with new power against Ailes, who runs a rival fiefdom. In this, CEO James Murdoch is particularly viewed as ever-insistently trying to centralize power and control (and, as well, to affirm a reformed Murdoch politics). On the other hand, his executive chairman brother is now said to be quite close to Ailes — although Ailes had a hand in pushing him out of the company 12 years ago — and, more importantly, is his father's son, supporting more of his father's positions. Like his father, and most everyone else, he is unable to imagine a Fox News (that is, a money-machine Fox News) without Ailes. Indeed, whoever does successfully move against Ailes, if it is not Rupert Murdoch himself, will certainly inherit the responsibility for any reduction in its more than $1 billion in annual free cash flow.

I should disclose that, since our meeting at the Four Seasons, I have continued my acquaintance with Ailes. We have lunch once a year or so, where I get my taste of Ailes' mean, scabrous, trenchant, paranoid, brilliant, gossipy, perceptive, funny and almost poetically incorrect view of the world, and, in spite of my liberal self, I relish it very much.

As the Four Seasons closes this summer, its space to be rehabbed into a slicker, more contemporary and surely more anodyne version, Fox News, considering life without Ailes, faces a similar future.

Michael Wolff, a Hollywood Reporter contributor, writes frequently about the media and is the author of several books, including a biography of Rupert Murdoch.

This story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.