As long as Ailes is around, Fox News is likely to grow ever more isolated from the country beyond its “Nation.” If it is actuarially possible, its median viewer age will keep creeping upward. (It rose by two years over the course of 2013.) The network’s chauvinistic Christianity, whatever Santa’s race, is hardly an inducement to a younger America that is eschewing religious affiliation in numbers larger than any in the history of Pew polling. Fox News’s unreconstructed knee-jerk homophobia, most recently dramatized by its almost unanimous defense of the Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s likening of gay sex to bestiality, drives away viewers of all ages but especially the young. O’Reilly’s latest moralistic crusade (“Is America Going to Pot?”)—best encapsulated by a scare piece about a 2-year-old in Colorado eating “a marijuana-laced cookie”—seems almost calculated to alienate conservatives who subscribe to Rand Paul’s ever-more-popular style of libertarianism.
Many have mined Sherman’s Loudest Voice in the Room for its portrait of Ailes’s grim childhood and its account of the adult Ailes’s paranoia, his bitchy remarks about his own stars, and his alleged anti-Semitic verbal assault on a once-prized executive. Ailes was driven so berserk by the mere fact of a thorough book on his life and career that he gave exclusive interviews to another, hagiographic biography intended to preempt it and countenanced a reported $8 million settlement to a recently discharged Fox News flack who might have gone public with his own inner-office tales. But the more damning aspects of Sherman’s portrait are not what Ailes apparently most feared: the scandalous personal anecdotes, the incidents of bigotry and sexism, or even the full accounting of his darkest partisan activities. It’s through far more mundane details that the portrait of Ailes’s decline and Fox News’s obsolescence emerges.
More than in any political credo, Ailes believes most of all in the power of television, the medium he grew up in and mastered as a political tool well before many of his competitors. But as his viewers were gobsmacked by the reelection of Obama, so he has been blindsided by the fading of television as the dominant news medium. About new media Ailes knows very little and has never wanted to learn much. When MSNBC emerged in 1996, he mocked it not because of its political identity (it hadn’t chosen one yet) but because of its connection to Microsoft; he wisecracked that Fox News was not in business to “tell people to turn off their television set and go to their computer to get more information.” He failed to invest in new technology in the years that followed, and by his own account he doesn’t “do a lot of web at Fox News.” As the McCain and Romney campaigns were successively confounded by the Obama forces’ technological prowess, so Ailes has been repeatedly ambushed and frustrated by new media, from Gawker, which tortured him with gossipy revelations from a “Fox Mole,” to Google, which earned his ire by refusing to accede to his demand that it rejigger its search algorithms to smite an anti-Ailes blog. Even the success of a one-man website challenging the local newspaper Ailes owns near his home in Putnam County has taken him by surprise and brought him to apoplectic fury. He doesn’t have a clue that his great cable-news innovation at Fox, The Crawl, is aging as fast in the day of Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr as ticker tape did with the advent of computer terminals. He is so tech-phobic that when Glenn Beck left Fox to start his own empire online, he pronounced him “crazy” because “no one walks away from television.”
But even as Ailes is aging out of the media business, he is making no plans for succession. Ever more isolated from other Murdoch executives and the younger generation of Murdochs—if still protected by Rupert—he may not care that much if the ship goes down with him. His irreplaceability will only add to his legend. “Roger is Fox News,” the editor-in-chief of the right-wing website Newsmax, Christopher Ruddy, told Sherman. “Without him you don’t have it.”
Without Ailes and his Fox News to kick around anymore, the left may feel a bit disoriented—much as the right most certainly will once its unifying bête noire (literal and figurative), Obama, is gone from the White House. But while the right remains obsessed with fighting its unending war against a nearly lame-duck president, it behooves liberals to move on and start transitioning out of their Fox fixation. Paradoxically enough, the most powerful right-wing movement in the country, the insurgency in the Republican grassroots, loathes the Boehner-Christie-Rove-centric Fox News nearly as much as the left does. The more liberals keep fighting the last war against the more and more irrelevant Ailes, the less prepared they’ll be for the political war to come.