After PR powerhouse (and member-by-marriage of the Murdoch clan) Matthew Freud publicly lashed out at Fox News chief Roger Ailes in the New York Times this weekend, at least two journalists have taken it as a sign that Ailes is inevitably going to be forced out at the powerful cable-news network. It’s a pretty significant theory, if it carries weight. First, Michael Wolff (who claimed to be a major unnamed source who helped steer the Times story) claimed that Ailes “may think he’s going to be the kingmaker in the next election, except he’s just been toppled.” His logic was that Freud would have consulted with the rest of Murdoch’s children before making his attack on Ailes, and he must have been representing their feelings as a whole when he said he was “ashamed and sickened” by Ailes’s “horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to.”
Now that Murdoch’s beloved children are against Ailes, Wolff thinks the end is near. “The process of losing your job at News Corp. takes about a year,” he explained in a column this morning. “They talk about you, and isolate you, and then you understand that you’ve been exiled from the tribe.”
Wolff isn’t alone in making this observation. Not nine hours beforehand, Lloyd Grove reported on the Daily Beast that several “veteran” (that means former) Fox News execs told him that “Ailes’s days at News Corporation may be numbered.” Said one:
“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.
Compare that with Wolff’s imaginary account of what happened when Murdoch read the Times story:
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.”
Grove and Wolff’s points are almost identical: The Murdoch kids have turned against Ailes, and if they can play upon Rupert’s insecurities, it’ll be curtains for the Fox News mastermind. It’s a sort of compelling case, but a News Corp rep tells us, “these stories are totally absurd.” And it’s true — they don’t really pass the smell test. The Times did say that Fox News was “the profit engine of the News Corporation,” but it didn’t quite paint the rest of the company as a “sagging empire.” And it’s not as though Rupert Murdoch was going to learn how much he was paying Roger Ailes from reading the Times.
Let’s look at some of the other News Corporation properties. Some are doing fine, like publishing house HarperCollins, which floundered in the fiscal year 2009 but started off the next quarters with tidy profits. Some are doing quite well, but depend on occasional major successes, like 20th Century Fox, whose Avatar may become the highest-earning movie ever (and will likely move the entire corporation’s bottom line). Fox Broadcasting Company struck a victory of unknown proportions when it got Time Warner to pay for its over-the-air programming, which will likely be a game-changer moving forward. Of course, there are Murdoch’s newspaper interests, which are doing generally dismally with the downturn in advertising. And MySpace, for which critics say he vastly overpaid, started losing out to Facebook as early as last winter.
Out of those (which are just some of News Corp.’s many holdings), Fox News under Ailes is a rock. It may have just had its best year ever, but it’s also been growing dependably for years. In 2008, Murdoch felt strongly enough about Ailes to give him a five-year contract, probably the one that put his compensation above Murdoch’s own. Even if the other components of News Corp. continue to recover with the global economy, it’s not going to be lost on Murdoch that at a certain point last year, without Fox News, his company would have been in “deep crisis,” as the Times put it.
Despite the obvious familial conflicts, signs point to a healthy future for Roger Ailes at News Corp. Whether these repeated attempts to insert himself into this particular story line will help Michael Wolff’s book sales, however, remains to be seen.