In September 2008, Sarah Palin secretly met with Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes during her campaign tour through New York, a stop which included a friendly chit-chat with Henry Kissinger and a not-so-friendly chit-chat with Katie Couric. The private sit-down was a chance for Ailes and Palin to get to know each other. Ailes, who has said, “I never did focus groups on any talent I put on the air. It was all done out of my gut,” spotted something early in the former Alaska Governor. “Say what you will, she hit a home run,” he told Fox News executives after her electrifying convention speech at the Xcel Energy Center. In those early days, he was protective enough of Palin that he had Shushannah Walshe, a young Fox News reporter who was covering Palin’s campaign, banished from on-air interviews after she criticized Palin on Fox News. “It’s not fair-and-balanced coverage,” the reporter was told by a senior Fox executive. Walshe left the network soon after.
A little over a year later, Palin was working for Ailes as the highest paid contributor at the network, earning $1 million a year. But her time in Ailes’s army proved almost as tumultuous as her stormy run as John McCain’s VP pick. And this afternoon both sides decided to walk away.
Scott Conroy, who co-wrote a book with Walshe about Palin, broke the news of her departure, citing a source close to Palin. It appeared Palin’s camp got a jump on the news, and Fox issued a statement afterwards to the New York Times. So far, both camps are treading carefully.
“We have thoroughly enjoyed our association with Governor Palin. We wish her the best in her future endeavors,” Fox executive vice president Bill Shine told the Times.
So what was behind the split? A source close to Palin told me that money “was the major thing” and that Palin did not want Fox anymore. Although it seems like a stretch, the source said Palin is happy being out of the spotlight. “She’s enjoying what she’s doing. Enjoying a slowed down existence,” the source explained. “She’s been off the stage, she kind of likes it.”
If money was the issue, then clearly Fox was not working hard to keep her. Fox’s willingness to let her walk is a testament to a relationship that has been troubled from its early days. Palin was the rarest of Fox News pundits, one who refused to march in lockstep with the network’s orders. From her erratic Facebook posts to her rogue interviews with non-Fox media, Palin was a polarizing presence and a management challenge for Roger Ailes.
She was also a political challenge: Her Tea Party message attracted the ire of establishment poobahs like Karl Rove. Before the 2010 midterms, Rove complained to Ailes that Palin was damaging the GOP brand and getting too much airtime. Some producers found her difficult to handle. In the winter of 2010, Palin clashed with senior Fox producer Nancy Duffy over a prime-time special Palin was scheduled to host. Palin told her advisers she didn’t want her name in the title. At a time when she still harbored presidential ambitions, she thought the title made her seem like a cheesy talk show host.
Palin’s standing at Fox took a decisive turn for the worse after her controversial response to the Tuscon shooting massacre in January 2011. Palin was outraged that critics were citing her incendiary rhetoric when discussing the tragedy; she wanted to go on Fox News and respond. Ailes told her to “lie low” but she ignored the Fox chief’s advice, never a good idea. When Ailes saw her homemade “blood libel” video, he was not pleased. “Why did you call me for advice?” he wondered out loud to colleagues.
In May 2011, I reported in a cover story that Ailes was disappointed with Palin and doubted her political instincts. “He thinks Palin is an idiot. He thinks she’s stupid,” a Republican close to Ailes told me. Fox fired back in a statement to the New York Times, but interestingly, it was Bill Shine, and not Ailes, who made a public defense of Palin. “I know for a fact that Roger Ailes admires and respects Sarah Palin and thinks she is smart,” Shine said. “He also believes many members of the left-wing media are extremely terrified and threatened by her.” He ended his statement with a warning. “As for the ‘Republican close to Ailes’ for which the incorrect Palin quote is attributed, when Roger figures out who that is, I guarantee you he or she will no longer be ‘close to Ailes.’”
The relationship between Palin and Fox continued to be troubled. At times, things got so bad, according to sources, that much communication between Palinland and the network was conducted via her husband, Todd. Palin ratcheted up tensions even more last October when she snubbed Fox News and went on Mark Levin’s radio show to announce she was not running for President. She did it in part because she was angry that Fox News was giving a platform to Karl Rove, one of her biggest critics on the right. “She isn’t happy with Karl,” one Palin adviser told me then. “From day one, he hasn’t been very nice.”
After she gave her exclusive to Levin, Ailes wasn’t happy with Palin. “I paid her for two years to make this announcement on my network,” he told Bill Shine. Shine placed a call to Palin’s rep Bob Barnett and warned him she was at risk of being “benched.”
In April 2012, Ailes said in a speech to journalism school students at UNC Chapel Hill that Palin had “no chance” to be President. “Did anybody think she had a chance to be President?” he added. “Anybody in here?” Palin shot back in an interview with Breitbart, and Fox clarified Ailes’s remarks, telling Mediaite: “Sarah Palin is young and nobody can predict the future.”
But having taken herself out of the presidential sweepstakes, her value to the network plummeted. Palin’s million-dollar appeal was always amplified by her flirtation with a presidential run. Ailes has said he hired her because she was “hot and got ratings.” But by the end, she was not hot and not rating, and had to fight for airtime. At the Republican National Convention in August, she was bumped from a prime-time interview slot and in Palin fashion, she took to Facebook to complain about it, once again breaching Fox protocol.
At the time, I wrote about the growing likelihood that Palin and Fox would split when her contract was up this month. Fox News spokesperson Brian Lewis told me then that “we look forward to having a long and beneficial relationship with the Governor.”
In the end, four more months proved long enough.