The Introspective Roger Ailes: Fox News’ Chief on Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Brian Williams’ Future (“I’d Put Him Back”) and His Own
Ailes, 74, arguably the most powerful person of the next election, opens up about Rupert Murdoch, his dislikes (Elisabeth Murdoch's "creepy" ex-husband Matthew Freud), that MLK photo in his office and lesbian friends ("People don't know me"), and the new field of candidates as he grows his $15 billion empire.
This story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Roger Ailes greets me in the doorway of his second-floor office at the Fox News headquarters on Avenue of the Americas. The 74-year-old is dressed in a crisp slate gray suit with lavender necktie and pocket square combination. The suit looks new, and he holds his arms out in the universal gesture for: “What do you think?” Ailes recently has lost 30 pounds, he says, by cutting down on hamburgers and eating more roughage. On his desk is a plate of fruit and pastries, untouched, the same offerings that can be found in the network’s greenrooms.
At one point, he offers me some fruit. I explain that I’ve already had my morning ration, mango actually. He looks up, a grin spreading across his face. “Mango,” he says, “liberal fruit.”
Why, I wonder, does he consider mango liberal fruit? Because it’s from South America? He nods: “All those commies live down there.”
We talk for nearly two hours about everything from Hillary Clinton (“Do you believe that the stuff on 30,000 emails that were destroyed after the prosecutor told [her] to keep it had things on it about yoga? I don’t”), the 2016 presidential field in general (“I haven’t heard anybody in election campaigns say things that would make me run out and vote for them yet”), exiled NBC News anchor Brian Williams (“I’d put Brian back, but I’d do it the right way”), fatherhood (“It made me a coward”) and his legacy (“I don’t give a rat’s ass what the world thinks”).
As I sit across from Ailes on this Wednesday morning in early April, his eyes dart reflexively to the wall of six televisions to the left of his desk; his networks, Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, and the competition, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Bloomberg. My eyes repeatedly wander to a framed photo on a shelf over his left shoulder. It is an iconic black-and-white photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. escorting children into their newly integrated school in Grenada, Miss., in 1966.
The picture is signed by Dr. Bernice King and Dr. Alveda King, King’s daughter and niece, respectively, who attended in November the graduation ceremony for the Ailes Apprenticeship Program, a diversity education program he founded in 2004. In point of fact, though, Ailes actually knew Dr. King back in the 1960s — the two crossed paths occasionally when Ailes was a local TV producer in Philadelphia. It’s a nugget of Ailes‘ ‘biography that some might find surprising.
“They certainly don’t know me,” says Ailes.
Ailes has spent his entire career “stand[ing] in the doorway,” as he puts it, a rare “dissenting voice” amid liberal media orthodoxy and coastal elitism, the only backstop against political correctness (some would say) run amok. Combative and brutally funny, he seems to enjoy stoking the popular caricature of the liberals’ bogeyman.
“I think liberals have a lot of good ideas actually,” he says. “But I’ve been pigeonholed and I’m quite comfortable with it.”
Since creating Fox News in 1996 after leaving NBC in frustration, he has become the most powerful executive in TV news, with an ability to influence — his detractors say degrade — the national discourse that remains unrivaled. His network and its dissentious stars provide endless fodder for progressive foes including Jon Stewart. (“We’re the only reason he’s a success,” says Ailes.)
Along the way, Ailes has built a brand valued by Wall Street analysts at $15 billion for Rupert Murdoch‘s 21st Century Fox empire; Fox News Channel contributed 18 percent of 21st Century profits in 2014. The company has notched 70 consecutive quarters of profit growth. And SNL Kagan projects that Ailes‘ network will generate $2.18 billion this year from advertising dollars and affiliate revenue. Fox News isn’t merely the most watched cable news channel (since 2002, when it surpassed CNN); in February, it was the most watched primetime network on all of cable and finished the first quarter in fourth place overall in primetime behind only ESPN, TBS (which had March Madness) and USA. It commands some of the richest fees in cable at more than $1 per subscriber per month (CNN, by comparison, gets 61 cents and MSNBC gets about 30 cents). And in the next few years, those fees will jump to $1.50 as new carriage deals kick in — including one with Dish Network finalized in January after a contentious monthlong blackout.
As the country enters a presidential campaign season with dynastic implications, Ailes has a dilemma: How much oxygen does he give the fringe GOP candidates who could torment likely frontrunner Jeb Bush and potentially aid Hillary Clinton in the process. It’s not a question he answers directly. “I just don’t think I should weigh in on it, even in the press because people will think, ‘Well, that’s the way he’s making the network go.’ But it looks like Hillary is going to do whatever she wants,” he says, “and the press is going to vote for her.”
Asked if he thinks Ted Cruz, the intransigent Texas tea party candidate, has a chance of securing the GOP nomination, Ailes deflects: “Listen, we elected Warren G. Harding. Anybody has a chance. You don’t know who you’re going to be running against. If the other guy falls on his rear end, you could win.”
Meanwhile, there is another succession playing out, that of his 84-year-old boss Rupert Murdoch. Talk has intensified since Murdoch’s eldest son, Lachlan, 43, returned to the family fold — and the succession race — as the nonexecutive co-chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. Meanwhile, James Murdoch, 42, now has the title of co-chief operating officer of 21st Century Fox, one he shares with Chase Carey, Rupert’s reliable No. 2 and a close colleague of Ailes‘.
Ailes remains in regular communication with Rupert; they talk three or four times a week. “If he’s in town, the door may open and he’ll walk in and plop down. He just hangs out for an hour, wrecks my schedule,” laughs Ailes. “He’s terribly polite. He says, ‘Oh, sorry, I’ve ruined your schedule.’ I say, ‘Hey, you own the company, what the hell am I going to do?’ So we have a very good, direct, joking relationship. He likes Fox News, so I don’t have a lot of business discussions with him.” (Murdoch declined to be interviewed but through a representative sent a statement: “He has built an enormously successful news business that dwarfs by almost any measure the establishment players we were ridiculed for taking on years ago. Roger is simply second to none.”)
Photographs by Wesley Mann
Ailes‘ relationship with Murdoch’s sons, whose political views are known to diverge with those of their father, is less close. He characterizes them as “smart” and “capable” but adds: “I don’t know them very well. I don’t interact with them on a daily or even weekly basis.” And he admits he only sees Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth, 46, about once a year at the Fox Christmas party. “Her ex-husband despises me, of course,” says Ailes, referring to PR executive Matthew Freud. “That creepy guy.” Asked what happens when Rupert Murdoch retires, Ailes replies: “Nobody knows. Rupert says he’s never going to [retire].”
Meanwhile, Ailes‘ contract comes up for renewal in 15 months, just a few months before the 2016 election. I ask Ailes, who turns 75 on May 15, if he’s going to sign an extension. “They haven’t asked me to.” Granted, it might be a bit early to be having those discussions. But when I ask him if he’s envisioned his life after Fox News, he’s quick to reply: “No, no. What would I do?”
Politics? I suggest. “Too late,” he says quickly. “If I had gone in 20 years ago. … But I hated the political life. Every night is a fundraiser. It’s sort of empty. If you’re in the Senate and in the minority, you just get to give speeches and run around and raise money. If you’re in the majority, you’re under attack from the press every day.”
He could make a comfortable living on the speaker circuit, I suggest. “I have a lot of offers for speeches now,” he says. “But you really don’t affect anything. It seems a little narcissist and empty.”
Perhaps the better question is, what would Fox News be without Ailes?
“It’s his creation. He built it,” says CBS News president David Rhodes, who got his start as a production assistant at Fox News in 1996. “I’m not sure anyone else can run it.”
Ailes always has been in the trenches, and that hasn’t changed. He’s known to call the control room if he sees his anchors straying into territory over which he objects. “I say, ‘Tell them to cut this shit out, but don’t tell them I called because that will raise the level too high.’ ” He participates in the 8 a.m. executive meeting (usually by phone), makes all programming decisions and sometimes even negotiates directly with talent (Megyn Kelly, who is a lawyer, negotiates her own contracts directly with Ailes).
“I tell him he needs to work less,” says anchor Shepard Smith. “Go be with his kid and take time off. That’s not Roger’s way. I don’t know what else he can accomplish. He’s done everything there is to do. He’s got this place pretty damn well-built. It’s not as if there will be problems. But like no other place I’ve ever worked, it’s all about him. Everything you see and feel about, it is from him. The truth is, he loves this place.”
Bill O’Reilly won’t even speculate on Fox News without Ailes. “I have no idea how the network would shake out if he wasn’t here.”
The 2008 election gave rise to the tea party, Sarah Palin (who joined Fox as a contributor after the election) and Glenn Beck, who had a brief and volatile run as FNC’s 5 p.m. host. After the Republican loss in the 2012 election — spectacularly crystallized by Kelly’s election night run-in with Karl Rove, who probably still hasn’t accepted that Mitt Romney lost Ohio — the Republican National Committee released a bracingly candid postmortem. “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with … those who do not agree with us.” The party, concluded the report, “needs to stop talking to itself.”
Asked whether he thinks the RNC report was aimed at Fox News, Ailes becomes animated. “The dumb bastards ought to turn it off if they don’t like it,” he says. “They shouldn’t try to get on and get interviewed if they don’t like it.” Then he softens slightly. “What I admire about them is the Republicans at least admit it. The Democrats [will] never say, ‘We’re ideologically driven.’ They never say that. Everything is for a higher purpose.”
Still, there have been changes at the network since the 2012 election, with Ailes clearly wooing a younger brand of conservative. (The network’s median age — over 65 — is the oldest of the news networks, though Fox News still outrates the competition among the advertiser-coveted 25-to-54 demographic.) In 2013, he moved Kelly into the 9 p.m. slot occupied for more than a decade by conservative firebrand Sean Hannity. And he built Smith — an empathic reporter often suspected of being liberal — a $7 million studio and made him the network’s on-call anchor throughout the evening.
“Nobody else has this — it’s very expensive,” says Smith of his show’s News Deck, which is staffed by dozens of producers who monitor news feeds and social media for what amounts to a perpetual news factory. “We’re paying a lot of people in case something happens. It’s an enormous commitment, and nobody else is making it. But those things don’t get talked about. What gets talked about is O’Reilly bloviating about something.”
Fox News has 19 liberals on the payroll, though they’re often dismissed as straw men. When I put this to Juan Williams, a veteran commentator who wrote a well-regarded biography of Thurgood Marshall, he laughs. “Can you get a witness? I’m a witness.
“Clearly the audience likes the kind of tilt that exists [at Fox News],” he says. “But they’re not stupid. They want to hear a real, honest conversation. I am allowed to make substantial, critical arguments. And that never gets stepped on.”
Williams, in fact, has known Ailes since 1984, when Williams was covering the White House for the Washington Post and Ailes was a campaign advisor for Ronald Reagan.
“Part of the struggle of being a skinny black kid with an afro covering the Reagan White House is that a lot of people [there] basically thought I was the enemy. Ailes‘ response to me was, ‘You’re an underdog in this situation, aren’t you? I got your back; I’m going to help you.’ And he became a key source for me.”
Interestingly, while Fox News is the go-to channel for conservatives, about 37 percent of its audience holds “mixed” views, according to a 2014 Pew study, while 14 percent are “liberal” and 4 percent are “consistently liberal.” But Ailes doesn’t appear to be all that interested in bringing more of these people to his network. “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” he says, breaking out his favorite rodent reference. “My job is to cover the news and do it accurately and fair. And we do. And voila! We have the largest number of independents watching television of any channel. Why is that? Not because we suck around and try to talk these people into watching our programming. We do programming that appeals to them, and so they tune to us. That’s how you get them. You can’t be chasing these little balkanized groups of people around. It’s just nuts. Do your programming. It should be American. We’re Americans. It’s a culture. We should defend that culture, and we should reinforce that culture.”
Ailes didn’t start out aspiring to be the godfather of conservative news. He grew up in Warren, Ohio, a dingy Rust Belt city, and studied radio and television at Ohio University in Athens, where he also acted in a handful of stage productions. After he graduated, he landed a job as a gofer on the Philadelphia-based The Mike Douglas Show. He had, by all accounts, an intuitive grasp of what people wanted to see on television. When he was just 25, he had risen to executive producer. (He put Barbara Walters, then a Today girl, on the show, asking her to don a warm-up suit and perform with a Swedish tumbling team.) It was there, in the Douglas greenroom, that Ailes met Martin Luther King Jr. And also there, in 1967, where he had his first encounter with Richard Nixon, who once had dismissed television as a “gimmick.” Ailes advised him to take the medium seriously; Nixon hired him as an adviser on his 1968 presidential campaign.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Ailes pursued intertwining interests in politics and entertainment. He produced theater, including a 1972 environmentally themed musical called Mother Earth and, the following year, the award-winning play Hot L Baltimore, about the denizens of a condemned hotel including prostitutes, a gay couple and an illegal immigrant. He also produced several TV projects including a documentary about Federico Fellini and a Caesars Palace-set TV special for Liberace. To this day, he maintains an interest in Hollywood, and he says he has friends there (but won’t name them). He attended the Oscars this year with his wife, Beth, a former CNBC executive (Ailes got the tickets as an anniversary gift; the couple married on Valentine’s Day 1998).
By the time Ailes went to work at GE-owned NBC in the early ‘90s, he had established himself as a television savant with canny political instincts. The president of both CNBC and its sister network, America’s Talking, Ailes also hosted an interview program called Straight Forward and made appearances on NBC’s flagship morning show Today for political debates. In an email, then-Today co-host Bryant Gumbel notes that he “never had the feeling that Roger was parroting GOP talking points, quite the contrary; in those days he often was at odds with the wackos of the far right.”
Today, Ailes‘ friends continue to be establishment figures; Ron Prosor, the Israeli diplomat and chair of the United Nations Human Rights Committee; Bob Kimmitt, deputy secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. “People, of course, don’t think I have any friends,” says Ailes, laughing. He also has been known to get along well with at least a handful of his ideological foes. He wrote a blurb for Rachel Maddow‘s 2012 book Drift, and the two were spotted having breakfast at The Carlyle last year. Ellen Ratner (a Fox News contributor since 1997 and the sister of New York City developer Bruce Ratner) and her partner, Cholene Espinoza, a retired Air Force pilot, have been to Ailes‘ home for dinner.
“I had to buy a goddamn goat for her,” laughs Ailes, referring to Ratner’s Goats for the Old Goat initiative, which provides she-goats to the people of South Sudan.
“She has promoted gay rights on our air. She’s a sweet woman, and her partner is a f—ing bomber pilot. So I don’t care. It’s not my business how people live. I don’t try to tell them what to do. I’ve hired and promoted gays all my life. I just don’t get involved. It’s not my business. And it’s not their business what I like.”
Ailes‘ laissez-faire attitude extends to his workers, sometimes in seemingly willful ways. After Williams was dumped by NPR in 2010 for admitting (on Fox News) that he viewed Muslims with some trepidation when he boarded an airplane, Ailes promoted him. And he stood by weekend anchor Gregg Jarrett throughout a very public battle with alcoholism (Jarrett appeared on the network slurring his words). “I like talent and think they’re vulnerable,” says Ailes. “They get out there in front of the public and take all the criticism. They do a lot of hard work. So one of my jobs is to protect them.”
O’Reilly, for one, appreciates the support. When Mother Jones magazine in February published an article questioning O’Reilly’s statements about his experience covering the Falklands War as a CBS News correspondent, Fox News immediately rushed to his defense. “Roger is very constructive with his criticism,” notes O’Reilly. “It’s not like, ‘You screwed up, you idiot.’ It’s ‘You screwed up and here’s how.’ To me, that’s really important because I’m looking for criticism that is specific so I can improve. And in my career that’s very rare. Most executives [are] bureaucrats running television operations. They’re not people who have performed.”
Adds Kelly, “You don’t feel that your neck is on some chopping block and if you have a weak period in the ratings or if you say something stupid you’re going to get fired. You’re not going to get fired. It would have to be really, really egregious. The people who get fired at Fox, it’s never really a firing, it’s usually, ‘Well, it didn’t work out so let me help you move on and I won’t publicly humiliate you.’ With one notable exception.” (That would be Paula Zahn, who defected to CNN in 2001 before her Fox News deal was up.)
In fact, Ailes‘ sympathy for anchors in trouble goes beyond his own troops; when NBC’s Brian Williams got suspended for embellishing his own war reporting, Ailes sent word to his shows to lay off. “He said to us, ‘OK, we covered it, I don’t think we need to kill the guy,’ ” recalls O’Reilly. Ailes, in fact, believes Williams should get his job back. “I think Brian’s a talent who made a dumb-ass error,” he says. “When you spend your life around CEOs and generals and presidents, you can start to feel less than, particularly if you don’t have a college education, you never joined the service. And so you get tempted to do something stupid. So I think he can admit that and say, ‘I screwed up.’ And most people are willing to forgive. I’m a great believer in giving people a chance. If you haven’t actually killed someone or done something that’s irreparable, then it’s a matter of going on a little journey and never ever doing anything like that again.”
Ailes likes to tell a story about when he was 17 and laying sewer pipe for tuition money. He was having trouble mastering the jackhammer. So the foreman ordered him to turn the jackhammer on himself, right in the belly. “It knocked me down, cracked a rib,” he recalls. “I was lying in the gutter, and I looked up at the guy and said, ‘What the hell did you do that for?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I ain’t your mother, boy.’ And he walked away. And I thought, ‘Well, all right, life’s going to be a little tougher than I thought.’ “
It is unlikely that Ailes‘ 15-year-old son, Zac — there’s a picture of him in Ailes‘ office, a tall handsome boy with thick brown hair — ever will have to touch a jackhammer. But Ailes tries to keep him engaged with the realities of the world in other ways. When Zac was in elementary school, Ailes began taking him to volunteer at a local food pantry. Once a year, he takes him to West Point — their home, a 9,000-square-foot mansion, overlooks the military academy — for historical exhibitions.
When I ask Ailes if he thinks about his legacy, he shakes his head. “No, I’m going to leave that to other people. The only reason I’m working on a [memoir] right now for HarperCollins [a subsidiary of News Corp] is because I don’t want my son to have to collect a bunch of New York Times articles to see what I was like. He knows me around the house. But you read The New York Times, you think, ‘Gee, my dad was a monster.'”
Does the criticism bother him?
“Only for Zac,” he says. “Not for the world. I did what I did. I went against the grain. And I understood that I would be criticized. Those were all choices. I really can’t bitch about it. They are choices I’d make again. At this age, when you’ve got a wife, you’ve got a kid, you’ve got a family, you think, ‘I could have made a lot more money, I could have had a lot bigger house …’ “
When I point out that he has a pretty big house, Ailes smiles: “I actually have a big house. But I wanted a castle.”
Ailes Mouths Off On…
Why Jon Stewart never will be hired by Fox News
“Under the guise of comedy, he can do anything. He’s figured out a way to win. But you don’t invite a guy like that in-house to pick his ammunition and shoot you with it.”
Skipping this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner
“[In 2009] Obama said, ‘I know you all voted for me except you guys over there at the Fox table.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I finally did something right.’ The media is cheering. I’m the only guy in the room saying, ‘Hold on a minute.’ “
The return of NBC News chairman Andy Lack
“Andy is a smart guy. He’s going to work on several problems at the same time. That in and of itself will make a difference. He’s got to make the right call on Brian Williams. I’d put Brian back.”
Why he doesn’t watch the hit Fox drama Empire
“It isn’t that I would not watch — I would. But I don’t watch much TV other than the news. I think African-Americans have been hoping for a show that they felt comfortable with, but there must be a bigger audience for it than that because it’s doing so well.”
The Daily Show‘s new host, Trevor Noah, and his controversial tweets
“He had a rocky start, and he’s probably learned the first lesson of comedy: Not everything you say is funny.”
The problem with Rachel Maddow and MSNBC
“They have to decide what they are. I don’t think they even view it as television. They view it as a place to express their views, which happen to be all the same view. And so you’ve got one topic and 12 people [with the same opinion], and it’s just boring.”
April 20, 11:10 a.m. An earlier version of this story erroneously indicated that Ailes opposed having Stewart appear on Fox News. He was instead asked and responded to a question about whether he’d hire Stewart.
April 20, 12:06 p.m. An earlier version of this story featured the wrong year for Nixon’s presidential campaign.