By any measure, 2012 is shaping up to be a phenomenal year for Roger Ailes: Fox News is on track to make a $1 billion profit, the network has been in the driver's seat during the fractious Republican primary, and it still dominates its cable news rivals in the ratings race. Even Fox Business, which has been a ratings frustration, performed well enough for Ailes to earn his $3 million bonus months ahead of schedule.
And yet this week, something weird happened at Fox News: The network lost control over a story it cares about the most — itself.
It started on Tuesday, when Gawker unveiled the Fox Mole. More than anything, the Mole went viral not because of any tectonic revelations, but because of the way Gawker brazenly taunted Ailes's eternal rule against internal leaks. The image of Fox executives on a manhunt for a rogue producer had an irresistible quality to it. As a bit of theater, Gawker's positioning of the story was something Ailes could surely appreciate: After all, the White House's public feud with Fox in 2009 resulted in a ratings bonanza for the network. In politics, it's known as punching up.
Fox's PR shop prides itself on enforcement of message discipline. And so, the Mole was hunted down. Within 24 hours, Fox executives had successfully identified the Mole as Joe Muto, an associate producer who'd bounced around the network for the past eight years.
But just as the Mole storyline was under control, a new front opened up when Fox found itself feuding with its stable of former pundits turned presidential candidates. During a private meeting with tea-party activists in Delaware, Newt Gingrich unloaded on Fox. "I think Fox has been for Romney all the way through," Gingrich said. “In our experience, Callista and I both believe CNN is less biased than Fox this year. We are more likely to get neutral coverage out of CNN than we are of Fox, and we’re more likely to get distortion out of Fox. That’s just a fact."
Gingrich's criticism wasn't the first time Republican candidates have taken swipes at Fox this primary season. In March , Rick Santorum said on the radio that Fox was "shilling for Romney." A few hours after Santorum got out of the race on Tuesday — news that had been broken on Fox — the New York Times ran an item quoting an anonymous source saying Santorum wouldn't be welcome back on the network (the item included the embarrassing detail that Santorum's Fox contract had only been "five-figures per year and not the higher six-figure amounts that had been widely reported," a leak surely intended to hurt his future contract negotiations with a rival network).
On one level, it makes sense that losing candidates would blame the media. But in Republican politics, the blame has been historically directed at the "lamestream media," to borrow a Sarah Palin coinage. To the Republicans, Fox was supposed to be the home team. But having played such a critical role in covering this primary, Fox has opened itself up to criticism.
What made this past week so interesting is that it coincided with a pair of high-profile public appearances by Roger Ailes. On Wednesday evening, he showed up to the Hollywood Reporter party at the Four Seasons, where he attacked Gawker. "What is Gawker?"he said. "Is that that pornographic website? I don't care if they have a mole because we're not doing anything wrong, so it doesn't matter ... they hate me because I make money and I do it legitimately and they don't like my politics, and that's America."
Yesterday, I went to North Carolina to see Ailes deliver a speech to the UNC Journalism School. Ailes, wearing a dark suit and striking blue tie, took to the stage shortly after 5:30 in front of several hundred people. Ailes's speech opened with his often-told anecdote about how he met Richard Nixon on the set of the Mike Douglas Show in 1967. It was a poignant moment, but the conflict from earlier in the week informed many of his comments. About his critics, Ailes said: "Some are pathetic people who think every kid should get a trophy." He defended Fox's prime-time politics and said it would be dangerous if Fox's point of view wasn't heard. “Remember, the last time all of us got lined up together, we were lined up by two guys — Hitler and Stalin. If there’s an alternative point of view, don’t wet your pants.”
During the Q&A with two student journalists following his remarks, Ailes took on Gingrich head on. He said Newt was simply angling for a job at CNN. And he attacked the notion that he had hired any of the GOP politicians to help their political prospects, coming as close as he's ever gotten to confirming my earlier reporting that he believed Palin was "an idiot. "Sarah Palin had no chance to be President," Ailes said. "The one I didn't hire was Romney. I thought he had a chance [to win] ... I hired people I thought would get ratings."
It makes sense Ailes would feud with former contributors. But Palin is still on the payroll through next year. Today, she fired back at Ailes. "I wonder if he is aware that the same thing was said about me when I ran for city council, mayor, and eventually governor. No doubt many people who are told they can’t do something will work that much harder, and they succeed."
All in all, it was a messy week. But Ailes has faced messy weeks before. His brilliance is in steering Fox for the long-term. He successfully sold the idea of a "course correction" in 2010. Last year, he made Fox's coverage of the GOP primary a dominant storyline. Ailes now faces another transitional moment. The contest between Obama and Romney has just commenced. If history is a guide, this current turbulence may soon pass.
Update: Ailes has been forced to walk back his "Palin will never be President" comment:
“When I hired most of the Republican contributors, none of them had any immediate prospects of becoming President —I wasn’t referring to any of their long-term prospects, including Governor Palin. I hired all of them because they made for good television at the time. Sarah Palin is young and nobody can predict the future.”