Roger Ailes played the part as Rupert Murdoch's political apparatchik — transforming Fox News into the Republican Party id to suit his corporate master's political interests. But recent events suggest Murdoch's no longer in control of the beast he created.
In the endlessly entertaining corporate tea-leaving that is divining the corporate motivations and agendas behind News Corp., today's popular theory is that Ailes is out. That's what the Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove and irksome Rupert Murdoch-chronicler Michael Wolff think, based on the rather extraordinary attack leveled by Murdoch's son-in-law Matthew Freud at the Fox News chief over the weekend.
The New York Times profiled Ailes on Sunday, laying out the (not at all new) case that he is a paranoid mad genius whose successful merger of political white rage and flawless tabloid instincts into the Fox News Channel is about the only thing keeping News Corp. in the black these days. It was essentially a chance for Ailes to piss on the floor outside his office and officially receive the title of "the most successful news executive of the last 10 years."
But the profile featured, seemingly out of nowhere, a bald indictment of Ailes and Fox News from no less authoritative a source than Murdoch's own son-in-law Matthew Freud:
"I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes's horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to," said Matthew Freud, who is married to [Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elizabeth] Murdoch and whom PR Week magazine says is the most influential public relations executive in London.
The chances that a statement like Freud's-"ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes's horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards"-so purposely composed and obviously written, was issued without agreement, plan, and orchestration, are nil.
When Tim Arango, the New York Times reporter who got the statement from Freud, called and said he was doing a story on Ailes' rising power, Freud would have consulted with the rest of the family. James Murdoch would have said to his father something along the lines of, "this is untenable, this idea that Roger is the center of the company."
Murdoch, who protects nothing so much as his own primacy at News Corp., and who always likes somebody else to do his dirty work, would likely have said, in his particular patois, "umm…goddamn…grump…son-of-a-bitch…they're gonna say that? Who put ‘em up to it? Okay, okay, do what you want to do." By which he would have meant: "Blow a rocket up his ass."
When the Murdoch family wheels begin to turn against you, Wolff says, they don't stop turning until you're out the door. Grove picked up the phone to find out what News Corp. insiders thought of Freud's assault, and got the same answer, couched in terms of the damage Ailes' crowing about his own success has done to Rupert's considerable ego:
"Rupert picked up his Times at the breakfast table, saw the story above the fold with the big photo of Roger, and probably choked on his coffee," one insider told me today, noting that the 78-year-old media mogul reflexively bridles when the hired help outshines him. In (literally) the money shot, the Times reported that Fox News earns $700 million in annual profit, the brightest star in the News Corp. firmament, and that Ailes is paid even more than the boss.
And there is the rub. $700 million is a lot of money, even for a man like Murdoch. And while it's difficult to imagine Murdoch countenancing an corporate usurper — just look at how he's shuttled his own children into and out of the family business — the signs that his hands are tied when it comes to Ailes' antics have been piling up. Ailes successfully thwarted Murdoch's instincts to cozy up to Barack Obama, which has paid off in terms of mouth-breathing viewers but left him on the outs with political power, where Murdoch never likes to be.
The Murdoch brand of conservatism has always been more a convenient editorial pose than a matter of principle, which explains why he supported Tony Blair in England, Hillary Clinton in her Senate bid, and was on the verge of instructing the New York Post to endorse Barack Obama for president before Ailes convinced him not to, according to the Times piece. Any newfound dissatisfaction with Ailes could stem from the fact that Murdoch suddenly finds himself the owner of a fractured and racist populist movement and zero leverage with the people who occupy the White House.
So if Murdoch is about to bounce Ailes, it would be after coming to terms with an excruciating Hobson's choice. What does he love more: Power, himself, or money?
He's confronted similar choices before, and Ailes and money have come out on top. Murdoch exiled his own son Lachlan to Australia after Lachlan launched a power struggle with Ailes. Just two months ago, he parted ways with Gary Ginsberg, his chief flack and primary liaison to Democratic establishment, in a move that at the time Wolff was hyping as a sign of Ailes' ascendancy. And most of the ostensibly embarrassing details in the Times piece about the extent to which Ailes is carrying the company were reported months ago—the fact that Ailes makes more money than Rupert, for instance, is four months old, as is the fact that without Fox News, News Corp. wouldn't be making any money. And Murdoch himself as doubled down on Ailes' brand of reactionary ethnic populism, personally declaring that Glenn Beck is not a racist and Barack Obama is.