Michael Wolff: Roger Ailes' Next Moves May Determine the Future of Fox News

Roger Ailes - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Roger Ailes - Getty - H 2016

The game has changed, but it is surely still on. What does Ailes do, who does he do it with, how does he reassert his indomitableness and how does he do it to cost the Murdochs — who last week barred him from the Fox News building — as much as possible?

What would you do if you were Roger Ailes? Much of your life has been built on a relentless willingness to go on the attack. It’s a life that has, to great gain, been cleanly divided between friends and enemies, those with you and those against. This has made Ailes personally fearsome and professionally without peer, conflict being the greatest asset to cable television news. And now, likely compounding his inclination to go into battle, instead of, at 76, being a lion in winter looking toward a proud retirement, he’s a wounded beast.

I once asked Rupert Murdoch if he thought there was room in the market for another conservative news channel. He said of course there was but that there was only one Roger Ailes. “He’s not like other people,” said Murdoch. “He’s crazy.”

“Crazy crazy? Or crazy brilliant?” I pressed.

Following a deep Murdoch sigh and growl, meant to express both satisfaction and wariness, he said, “Crazy crazy brilliant.”

The details of Ailes' separation from Fox are not public, and, other than what the Murdochs might advantageously leak, the full picture will not be. Some form of non-compete agreement can be assumed, but the reach of it (television news only, or other delivery?) and the length of it (possibly as little as a year or, at most, to the end of his current contract in 2018), are crucial. Ailes has almost always entertained alternatives to Fox News, and, over the past 15 years of his outsized success, he has toyed with a succession of offers and proposals to fund a new conservative news outlet, never so often as around contract renewal time. This has been part of the game he has played with Murdoch, designed to get as much money as possible (estimates of his net worth run in excess of $100 million) and to secure maximum independence. According to Ailes, Murdoch, in nearly 20 years, never once interfered with his programming decisions — or even made any real suggestions. (Ailes has said he had an iron-clad contract provision against any interference, and, to boot, Murdoch, focused on his newspapers, has never had much interest in the details of television news.)

The game has changed, but it is surely still on. What does Ailes do, who does he do it with, how does he reassert his indomitableness and how does he do it to cost the Murdochs — who last week barred him from the Fox News building — as much as possible?

It’s a striking math. Fox made $1.2 billion in 2014 in profits (and this is before the big Trump bump). CNN made $327 million, MSNBC $206 million. Both CNN and MSNBC are successful businesses run by adept and experienced cable news professionals. They represent the kind of top-of-the-industry talent that will shortly come to run Fox News. The difference between these managers and Ailes is not just his appetite for conflict, his long history of personal involvement with the very subject whose voice Fox has become  American conservatism  and his unique connection to his audience (Ailes is principally part of that audience, while other media managers are principally media managers), but his extraordinary and unique independence. Nobody, in 20 years at Fox, has ever second-guessed him. And that’s why his network, protected by its profits and his unyielding nature, is, to everyone but its audience, appalling, dangerous and lacking all sense of journalistic propriety. It’s an operation whose rogue-like nature and constant courtship of controversy no conventional major corporation would ever have tolerated. It came to exist, and to prosper unfettered and ever-more contentiously, only because of the unique meeting of the minds between Ailes and Murdoch.

James Murdoch, who with his brother, Lachlan, became the co-chief operator of their father’s company a year ago, has wanted Ailes gone not just because Ailes has repeatedly (and joyfully, and for many years) dissed the Murdoch children and the brothers are busily centralizing their control, but because Fox News embarrasses them. “I won’t pretend it hasn’t been difficult at times,” James told me several years ago in an interview speaking of Fox News, his sourness clear. Now he speaks to colleagues and friends of maintaining a conservative-leaning network, but one that is more responsible and nuanced.

His eager desire to reposition the network may be one reason his father, in the continuing push-pull of his relationship with his sons, is said to have withheld the chairmanship and interim-CEO job at Fox News from James and taken it for himself. (Also, James’ abrasiveness and imperiousness seem ill-advised in a situation where, by some estimates, a dozen or more significant contracts have key-man clauses tied to Ailes' position at the top of the network, making some of the biggest-money talent in cable news free agents able to renegotiate their contracts at will.)

Even with Rupert himself as titular head, the leadership issue won’t go away. The politics of a new leader at Fox News — representing 20 percent of 21st Century Fox’s earnings — will now be about whose person is in the job. A James person? A Lachlan person? A compromise person between the two? Or their father’s person, who will become their person (at least loyal to one of them) or who they will undermine? In other words, whatever happens, Fox News will necessarily be run by someone reporting in to the top brass, doing their bidding, which of course involves not making trouble for the company. That’s no different from how CNN and MSNBC operate. And that’s the problematic math: Fox News' unique independence, and its ungovernable operator, have made a billion-dollar difference between it and its competitors.

And now, in addition, that margin of difference is also likely to be compromised by the moves Ailes will make. For Ailes, revenge is a deep and abiding motivation.

The Murdoch boys not only failed to stick up for him (Ailes’ absolute position is that no sexual harassment occurred, despite the claims of former anchor Gretchen Carlson and others), but, in the sneakiest way, set out to cast him in the dirtiest light possible with their “independent investigation.” When you hire an outside law firm to find dirt, they find it. And then, the investigation’s findings were systematically leaked — and, turning the knife, leaked to a reporter at New York magazine, Gabriel Sherman, who, in Ailes’ view, has thrived as a one-man anti-Ailes PR machine. Even in the end, when Ailes referred to himself with the meaningless designation of “consultant” (many termination agreements with payout provisions specify an ongoing arrangement often referred to as “gentle consulting,” which is understood to be a role without duties), that was publicly corrected to “adviser.” It is only possible to try to imagine what a crazy, crazy brilliant man will do in his quest for satisfaction and vindication.

Analysts have so far predicted that the Fox News talent lineup (even if there is a big rise in contract costs), the strength of its brand and its long-term distribution deals will protect its revenue stream for the foreseeable future.

And yet, the red meat conservative audience is as up for grabs as it’s ever been, especially as it’s become more raw and angry in its Trumpian skin — more raw and angry yet if Trump wins or if he loses.

A responsible, kinder-gentler, less-intuitive, more corporate Fox News Channel might be expected to lose, on a schedule of gradual accretion, a good part of this audience anyway. If there’s a competitor, particularly a Roger Ailes-run competitor, that could happen overnight.