News this morning that Fox News fired Roger Ailes’s longtime PR chief Brian Lewis represents a massive shake-up at the network. Although Ailes’s recent programming moves — shuffling Shep Smith and Megyn Kelly to prime time — have generated headlines, Lewis’s departure is far more consequential to the long-term direction of the channel.
While little known outside the clubby cable news industry, Lewis was one of the most powerful executives at Fox News — and a moderating influence on Ailes. Lewis was one of the few senior executives who would vocally challenge Ailes (although he was smart enough to do it privately). A frequent joke around Fox was that while everyone is scared of Roger Ailes, the only person Roger Ailes is scared of is Brian Lewis.
Lewis knows many of Ailes’s secrets. A longtime loyalist, Lewis met Ailes in the mid-nineties. Ailes was then running CNBC and a fledgling cable channel called America’s Talking. Lewis was CNBC’s ambitious PR representative. When Ailes launched Fox News in 1996, Lewis was one of the 80-plus employees who jumped ship to join him.
At Fox, Lewis presided over a ruthless PR operation famed for its ability to control leaks. Lewis’s grip on power was such that many Fox producers and anchors worked in a papable state of fear of being monitored.
Over the years, Lewis’s brief expanded far beyond mere public relations. He became Ailes’s strategic-communications guru, tasked with handling strategy for some of Fox’s most sensitive matters. He kept a lid on potentially disastrous scandals, such as the 2004 sexual-harassment lawsuit filed against Bill O’Reilly.
Though Lewis demonstrated his immense value to Ailes’s operation, cracks in their relationship developed a decade ago. Lewis came close to walking away once before during a thorny contract dispute around 2004.
The terms of Lewis’s departure remain murky, with talk of vague “financial issues.” But signs of tension have been evident in recent months. Ailes, for whatever reason, had begun to rely less on Lewis’s strategic advice, instead consulting others such as his personal lawyer Peter Johnson Jr. and Fox contributor Jim Pinkerton, both of whom, sources said, were more likely to indulge Ailes rather than challenge him.
In April 2012, I bumped into Lewis in North Carolina at a cocktail reception before Ailes delivered a speech to UNC Journalism students. Ailes had traveled down to Chapel Hill on News Corp.’s private jet with his handpicked biographer, Zev Chafets, and Lewis. It was a few days after the Fox mole story broke on Gawker.
“So, we’re gonna sue Gawker, and we might try and have him arrested,” Lewis said, referring to Joe Muto, the mole.
“Why are you guys making such a big deal about this?” I said. “You’re a television network valued at $14 billion. Isn’t this punching down?”
“Dude, I know. I was overruled,” Lewis said. “I told them, but I was told that legal would be handling this from here forward. I’m like, Okay.”
As Lewis saw it, tracking down Muto and firing him were the important things. Muto’s leaks, embarrassing as they were, were inconsequential.
“So he puts up a picture of O’Reilly posing with a naked girl? O’Reilly deserves to get whacked for that. Chucklehead,” Lewis said. “And he writes that Sean Hannity has trouble with TelePrompTers and coddles Republicans? Geesh, really?”
Ailes made his way toward the auditorium to deliver his speech.
“I gotta go,” Lewis said.
Lewis’s departure means Ailes is more isolated than ever before. Lewis did not respond to calls for comment.