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The Elephant in the Green Room

The circus Roger Ailes created at Fox News made his network $900 million last year. But it may have lost him something more important: the next election.

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Photo-illustration by Darrow  

On Monday afternoon, March 28, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes summoned Glenn Beck to a meeting in his office on the second floor of News Corp.’s midtown headquarters to discuss his future at the network. Ailes had spent the better part of the weekend at his Putnam County estate thinking about how to stage-manage Beck’s departure from Fox, which at that point was all but inevitable. But, as with everything concerning Glenn Beck, the situation was a mess, simultaneously a negotiation and a therapy session. Beck had already indicated he was willing to walk away—“I don’t want to do cable news anymore,” he had told Ailes. But moving him out the door without collateral damage was proving difficult.

Ailes had hired Beck in October 2008 to reenergize Fox’s audience after Obama’s election, and he’d succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest hopes, tapping deep wells of resentment and igniting them into a vast, national conflagration. The problem was that it had almost engulfed Fox itself. Beck was huge and uncontrollable, and some of Fox’s other big names seemed diminished by comparison—and were speaking up about it. Beck seemed to many to be Fox News’s id made visible, saying things—Obama is a racist, Nazi tactics are progressive tactics—dredged from the right-wing subconscious. These were things that weren’t supposed to be said, even at Fox, and they were consuming the brand. Ailes had built his career by artfully tending the emotional undercurrents of both politics and entertainment, using them to power ratings and political careers; now they were out of his control.

“Let’s make a deal,” Ailes told Beck flatly.

During a 45-minute conversation, the two men agreed on the terms: Beck would give up his daily 5 p.m. program and appear in occasional network “specials”—but even that didn’t solve their problem. Tensions flared over how many specials he would appear in. Fox wanted six, Beck’s advisers wanted four. At another meeting, Beck choked up; he and Ailes had always had a bond. And when Ailes thought Beck’s advisers were jerking him around, he threatened to blow up the talks. “I’m just going to fire him and issue a press release,” he later snapped to a Fox executive.

On April 6, Fox and Beck announced he would be leaving the network. Both were careful to squelch the anonymous backbiting that had been going on for weeks in the press. Ailes knew that a public meltdown would alienate Beck’s legions of fans who had become loyal Fox viewers. Most of all, he didn’t want Beck’s departure to be seen as a victory for the liberal media; that would ruin the most important story line of all.

Ailes is the most successful executive in television by a wide margin, and he has been so for more than a decade. He is also, in a sense, the head of the Republican Party, having employed five prospective presidential candidates and done perhaps more than anyone to alter the balance of power in the national media in favor of the Republicans. “Because of his political work”—Ailes was a media strategist for Nixon, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush—“he understood there was an audience,” Ed Rollins, the veteran GOP consultant, told me. “He knew there were a couple million conservatives who were a potential audience, and he built Fox to reach them.”

For most of his tenure, the roles of network chief and GOP kingmaker have been in perfect synergy. Ailes’s network has dominated the cable news race for most of the past decade, and for much of that time, Fox News attracted more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. Throughout the George W. Bush years, the network’s patriotic cheerleading helped to marginalize the Democrats. And President Obama—he of the terrorist fist bump and uncertain ancestry and socialist leanings—turned out to be just as good for ratings, while galvanizing a conservative army that crushed the Democrats in the 2010 midterms. This double-barreled success is a testament to Ailes’s ferocious competitive streak. “Roger just likes to win,” former McCain adviser and longtime Ailes friend Charlie Black told me. “He’s very competitive in any game he’s in.”

So it must have been disturbing to Ailes when the wheels started to come off Fox’s presidential-circus caravan. (Coincidentally or not, this happened more or less when Donald Trump jumped on: “They like me on the network,” Trump told me. “I get ratings.”) The problem wasn’t that ratings had been slipping that much—Beck’s show declined by 30 percent from record highs, but the ratings were still nearly double those from before he joined the network. It was that, with an actual presidential election on the horizon, the Fox candidates’ poll numbers remain dismally low (Sarah Palin is polling 12 percent; Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, 10 percent and 2 percent, respectively). Ailes’s ­candidates-in-­waiting were coming up small. And, for all his programming genius, he was more interested in a real narrative than a television narrative—he wanted to elect a president. All he had to do was watch Fox’s May 5 debate in South Carolina to see what a mess the field was—a mess partly created by the loudmouths he’d given airtime to and a tea party he’d nurtured. And, not incidentally, a strong Republican candidate would be good for his business, too. A few months ago, Ailes called Chris Christie and encouraged him to jump into the race. Last summer, he’d invited Christie to dinner at his upstate compound along with Rush Limbaugh, and like much of the GOP Establishment, he fell hard for Christie, who nevertheless politely turned down Ailes’s calls to run. Ailes had also hoped that David Petraeus would run for president, but Petraeus too has decided to sit this election out, choosing to stay on the counterterrorism front lines as the head of Barack Obama’s CIA. The truth is, for all the antics that often appear on his network, there is a seriousness that underlies Ailes’s own politics. He still speaks almost daily with George H. W. Bush, one of the GOP’s last great moderates, and a war hero, which especially impresses Ailes.


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