Roger Ailes’ secrets command a heavy price. Last week, the New York Times reported that Fox News had reached an out-of-court settlement with Brian Lewis, the former Ailes aide who was abruptly fired in late July. A Fox News executive with knowledge of the negotiations told Gawker that Lewis was paid approximately $8 million in hush money.
“The big talk at work, especially today, is the settlement number,” the executive said on Friday, explaining that the exact figure had been filtering through the channel’s rank-and-file since early November.
The settlement came after an extraordinary, months-long confrontation during which Fox News accused Ailes’ former right-hand man of vague “financial irregularities,” and Lewis’ attorney angrily responded that the Fox News president had a lot to lose if Lewis ever spilled the beans on their 17-year-long partnership at the right-wing network.
It became apparent to Fox News employees that discussions had ended, the executive said, on November 5, a Tuesday. On that day, “they cleaned out [Lewis’s] office after not touching it for three months. It was becoming a museum.” Shortly after news of Lewis’s firing surfaced, Politico’s Mike Allen reported that Lewis had been exiled, in July 2012, to the 22nd floor of News Corporation’s Midtown headquarters after losing his boss’s favor.
This roughly matches the timeline of Gawker’s correspondence with Lewis, which began on August 27, when his attorney, Judd Burstein, issued a remarkable statement abrading “Roger Ailes and his toadies” for “telling lies” about Lewis, and explicitly threatening to go public with damaging information about how Ailes operates:
First, Brian Lewis no longer has any confidentiality obligation to Newscorp or Roger Ailes because of the false and malicious statements made by Fox to date. Second, Roger Ailes and Newscorp have a lot more to fear from Brian Lewis telling the truth about them than Brian Lewis has to fear from Roger Ailes and his toadies telling lies about Brian Lewis.
In an email dated October 16, Lewis confirmed to Gawker that, while he and his former employer were “in talks” together, “there is no agreement between me and FOX.” But two weeks later, on November 1, Burstein responded to another inquiry concerning Lewis with an email reading, in full, “I have been advised to refer you to Dianne Brandi,” Fox News’s vice president of legal affairs. When reached by phone on December 6, Burstein hung up after telling Gawker, “I can’t talk to you.”
The Fox News executive, while acknowledging that $8 million is a hefty severance, said he believes the figure would have been much higher if Lewis actually had seriously damaging information to disseminate about his former boss. He also supplied new details of Lewis’s firing.
“That whole financial impropriety thing was complete bullshit,” explained the executive, corroborating the accounts of several other Fox sources. “Everything was about Gabe Sherman.” Sherman, the New York magazine writer, is scheduled to publish his long-anticipated (and unauthorized) biography of Roger Ailes in January; Ailes designated Lewis as Sherman’s point of contact at the network.
The executive further explained that, up until the day of Lewis’s dismissal, the channel’s public relations division, which Lewis oversaw, had suffered from heated internal disagreements about how to properly handle Sherman’s book.
The turmoil, which the executive compared to the conservative movement’s internecine struggle between the insurgent Tea Party and establishment Republicans, eventually split the press shop into two equally distinct camps. The first camp maintained that total radio silence was the best policy; the second, led by Lewis, argued that the network should try to engage Sherman.
“People in the first camp would say things like, ‘Mention the words Gabe and Sherman and you’re fired,’ while people in the second camp were more like, ‘Let’s talk with him,’” the executive contended. “The day the first camp won Roger over was the day Brian became an enormous liability.”
The Fox News president’s change of heart is especially notable given that Ailes, a former media consultant for three Republican presidents, originally hired Lewis based on his research concerning the strategic advantages, and disadvantages, of engaging the media.
That research culminated in a 1995 master’s thesis, titled The News Media: The Modern Day Electoral College, for which Lewis interviewed Ailes at length about his experience dealing with the media during presidential campaigns. (Gawker recently obtained a copy from the library of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.)
In those days Ailes favored working with the press. “I’ve always felt that if the media were busy shooting at me, they wouldn’t be shooting at my guy,” he told Lewis.
Fox News and Brian Lewis declined to comment on the record.
[Image credit: Fox News]