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The Elephant in the Green Room

Left: Glenn Beck was overwhelming Fox’s brand—and getting rich doing it. Right: Sarah Palin quarreled over the name of one of her shows, thinking it might tarnish her political identity.  

All the 2012 candidates know that Ailes is a crucial constituency. “You can’t run for the Republican nomination without talking to Roger,” one GOPer told me. “Every single candidate has consulted with Roger.” But he hasn’t found any of them, including the adults in the room—Jon Huntsman, Mitch Daniels, Mitt Romney—compelling. “He finds flaws in every one,” says a person familiar with his thinking.

“He thinks things are going in a bad direction,” another Republican close to Ailes told me. “Roger is worried about the future of the country. He thinks the election of Obama is a disaster. He thinks Palin is an idiot. He thinks she’s stupid. He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven’t elevated the conservative movement.”

In the aftermath of the Tucson rampage, the national mood seemed to pivot. Ailes recognized that a Fox brand defined by Palin could be politically vulnerable. Two days after the shooting, he gave an interview to Russell Simmons and told him both sides needed to lower the temperature. “I told all of our guys, ‘Shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.’ ”

“Roger thinks Palin is an idiot. People like her haven’t elevated the conservative movement.”

For Ailes, Tucson was a turning point, suggesting an end to the silly season that had lasted most of Obama’s term as president and that Ailes had promoted and profited from. While Sean Hannity and other Fox pundits continue to hammer away at Obama, Ailes is hedging his bets. The network is pushing to make news anchor Bret Baier a bigger star. Shepard Smith’s newscast has flashes of outright liberalism. And last month, Ailes encouraged Bill O’Reilly—who seemed to be fading at the height of Beck’s power but now has been recast as the right’s reasonable man, Jon Stewart’s comic foil—to shoot down the “birther” conspiracy and other assorted right-wing myths that have dogged Obama since his election. “Fox gave the tea party the oxygen to prosper,” Chris Ruddy, the CEO of the conservative magazine Newsmax, told me. “Politically, it was brilliant. There were so many disaffected people after the Bush years. Now I sense a slight movement in a new direction. Roger has a long track record. It’s like the book Blink. He’s just got it. We’re going into an election period, and he doesn’t want Fox to be seen as a front of the Republican Party.”

That the GOP Establishment’s bench seems so thin now is a by-product of how the party, and Fox, reacted to Obama’s presidency. In the fall of 2008, a sense of panic raced through the halls of Fox News. In the waning years of the Bush administration, Fox’s ratings had declined, as the audience, weary from a seemingly never-ending stream of gloomy headlines, lost its ardor for the channel. In the year after Hurricane Katrina, Fox lost more than 30 percent of its viewership. Fox executives knew that the Obama era might usher in a new media environment, one that could favor a cheerleader of the left, or a news network like CNN, whose ratings beat Fox’s during the campaign. “For a while, if you pointed a camera at the news, Fox’s ratings went up,” a person close to Ailes explained. “There was the Florida recount, Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the 2004 election—until Katrina. Then the audience was kind of like, ‘This is bad for the home team.’ ”

Even Rupert Murdoch, sensing the shifting tectonic plates, contemplated a move to the middle. In the summer of 2008, Ailes confronted Murdoch after he learned Murdoch was thinking of endorsing Obama in the New York Post; Ailes threatened to quit. It was a politically vulnerable time for Ailes. Murdoch’s children were agitating for a greater role in the company. Ailes surely understood that their politics, along with those of then–News Corp. president Peter Chernin and communications adviser Gary Ginsberg, differed greatly from Murdoch’s. The tensions surrounding Ailes played out in the publication of Michael Wolff’s Murdoch biography. Matthew Freud, husband of Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and a London-based PR executive, encouraged Wolff to portray Fox as a pariah wing of the News Corp. empire. Ailes was furious with Wolff’s account, which was critical of Fox, and Rupert, seeking to quell the turmoil, offered Ailes a new contract. This corporate victory, not to mention Fox’s profits, ensured that Ailes remained unscathed by the succession games playing out among the Murdoch children.

By October 2008, Ailes recognized that Obama was likely to beat McCain. He needed to give his audience a reason to stay in the stands and watch his team. And so he went on a hiring spree. By the time Obama defeated McCain, Ailes had hired former Bush aide Karl Rove and Mike Huckabee and went on to assemble a whole lineup of prospective 2012 contenders: Palin, Gingrich, Santorum, and John Bolton.