the loudest voice in the room

The Civil Wars of Roger Ailes

Fox News President Roger Ailes attends the Hollywood Reporter celebrates
Photo: Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic

Roger Ailes sometimes refers to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire as a pirate ship. Since launching Fox News in 1996, Ailes’s legendary temper and gyrating moods made him stand out, even among Murdoch’s band of buccaneering media figures, like New York Post editor Col Allan and book publisher Judith Regan. Ailes said things that other executives just did not say. But after leaving NBC following a nasty management dispute with NBC executive David Zaslav, which culminated with Ailes allegedly calling him “a little fucking Jew prick,” Ailes arrived at News Corp, the place where, finally, Ailes could be Ailes. The corporate Darwinism Murdoch fostered was in practice no different from the brutal environment of a political campaign. Campaigns do not have HR departments to police office behavior or middle managers to appease. Come Election Day, all that matters are results. And at News Corp, results mean profits. “If you’re good, you get to live. If you’re bad, you don’t,” Ailes explained to a reporter not long after he teamed up with Murdoch. “It’s somewhat primitive, but that’s the way life is. In a capitalistic society, success is determined by whether you can pay the bills.”

By 2002, Fox passed CNN as the No. 1–rated cable-news network; within seven years, its audience more than doubled that of CNN and MSNBC, and its profits were believed to exceed those of its cable-news rivals and the broadcast evening newscasts combined. In 2012, a Wall Street analyst valued Fox News at $12.4 billion. With numbers like that came privileges, and Ailes wasn’t afraid to press his advantage. “No one could rein Ailes in,” said a former News Corp executive.

Ailes’s profits, and talents for corporate infighting, served him well during his eighteen years working for Murdoch. He survived dustups that would have sidelined lesser players and even forced Rupert Murdoch to choose between him and his own children. Guess who won?

Below are exclusive accounts of Ailes’s memorable battles at News Corp featured in my book The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, to be published on January 21 by Random House.

Roger Ailes vs. Rupert Murdoch

By the spring of 2013, Murdoch and senior executives at News Corp viewed Ailes as a caricature of himself. On issues like gun control and immigration, Murdoch was moving away from Ailes. “Rupert doesn’t have a worldview, Roger does,” a senior executive said. “Roger said Rupert doesn’t understand the threat of China,” a senior Fox producer recalled, adding, “Roger doesn’t think Rupert understands the threat about the Middle East.” In one meeting, Ailes told his team that Murdoch asked him to meet with Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who was at the time News Corp’s second largest voting shareholder after Murdoch. “Roger said he wouldn’t do it,” the producer said. “He said it was the only time he told Rupert ‘No.’”

Ailes vs. James Murdoch

In 2011, during the height of the phone-hacking scandal at News Corp’s London tabloids, James, the younger of Rupert’s sons and no fan of Fox News, saw his chances to succeed his father implode. As the head of News Corp’s European division that included its scandalized tabloids, he authorized settlements with hacking victims that failed to contain the scandal before it blew up into a company-wide crisis. “He’s a fucking dope,” Ailes told a friend over dinner.

Ailes vs. Lachlan Murdoch

On the evening of October 18, 2001, while Ailes was at the annual Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, Ailes got a tip from Mayor Giuliani’s office: the New York Post was the latest media organization hit with an anthrax-laced letter. Earlier that day, a Post mail-room employee had come down with symptoms of anthrax exposure, but no one knew where the letter was. Ailes raced back to the office. In the Post’s tenth floor newsroom, spiky-haired publisher Lachlan Murdoch was handling the response while workers in hazmat suits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scanned the office. Lachlan wanted to keep the incident under wraps for the time being —  there were questions about the company’s legal exposure if more employees got sick. Lachlan and Ian Moore, News Corp’s head of HR, huddled together, strategizing options for alerting the staff in the morning.

Suddenly, someone told Lachlan that Ailes had burst into the Fox News newsroom shouting, “We’re under attack! We’re under attack!” To Lachlan, that was precisely the wrong message to be sending at that moment, and he decided to do something about it. He took the elevator to the basement and found Ailes in his white-tie tuxedo giving directions to the crew of overnight producers. Lachlan told Ailes he needed to settle down. Ailes did not take his advice well. “You could see him getting aggravated. He’d been taken down in front of his people,” one executive said. The Fox News producers watching the confrontation were startled by what they were witnessing — Ailes was openly challenging the chairman’s kid, who was the deputy chief operating officer of the entire corporation.

The gravity of the situation was not lost on Ailes. Fate could be cruel to News Corp executives who crossed the Murdoch children. “On one level, Roger was very scared. No one had had a conflict with the children and survived. He didn’t want to be Sam Chisholm,” one executive close to Ailes explained. Chisholm, the profane, New Zealand–born CEO of British pay television service BSkyB, was forced out in part because he tangled with Rupert’s daughter Liz, who worked for him (he had called her a “management trainee”).

Within days of his confrontation with Lachlan, Ailes made an appointment to see Rupert. In the meeting, Ailes threatened to resign as a preemptive strike. Ailes told Murdoch that his kids were aligned against him. “Rupert is not the hardest person to manipulate,” a Murdoch family intimate said. It was an effective move — Murdoch offered him a new contract.

After Lachlan left the company a few years later, Ailes gloated. In addition to his second-floor executive suite, Ailes moved into Lachlan’s vacated office on the eighth floor. “Do you know whose chair I’m sitting in?” he asked a Fox executive. “I’m sitting in Lachlan Murdoch’s chair.” There was a cold pause. “Do you know who’s sitting on the other side of that wall? Rupert Murdoch.”

“What are you going to do with all this power now?” the executive ventured.

Ailes looked him in the eye. “We’ll see where it goes,” he said.

Ailes vs. The Wall Street Journal:

By 2012, Murdoch relied on Ailes’s profits like never before. “They all hate me, I make them a lot of money and they go and spend the money,” Ailes said to Bill Shine, Fox’s head of programming. Ailes took a certain pleasure in watching News Corp executives face lawsuits and criminal prosecution over the hacking scandal. “He was delighted it was happening,” an executive recalled. “He said, ‘It’s nice to not be the only bad guy in the company.’”

The ratings failure of the Fox Business Network, which Murdoch had tapped Ailes to launch 2007, was all the more glaring given that Murdoch had acquired The Wall Street Journal around the same time. But Ailes spoke of the Journal as a threat. The paper had no synergy with Fox. Executives noticed that Ailes resented Murdoch’s lavish support of the Journal’s parent company, Dow Jones, and his close friendship with Robert Thomson, the former editor of The Times of London whom Murdoch tapped to be publisher of the Journal. As Les Hinton, then president of Dow Jones, accompanied Ailes on a tour of the Journal’s gleaming new newsroom a few floors above Fox News, Ailes grumbled, “So, you’re showing me what I paid for.”

In the fall of 2012, Ailes held a meeting with Fox Business executives to discuss whether Fox should sign a content arrangement with Dow Jones. That year, Dow Jones was exiting a long-term partnership with CNBC and was free to sign up with Fox. “Why would I pay them anything?” Ailes said, referring to the Journal. Fox anchor Neil Cavuto stoked Ailes’s fears of a corporate rivalry. “The Wall Street Journal is a Trojan horse. They want the business channel,” he told Ailes.

Then Ailes largely banned Journal reporters from his air. It happened after Ailes learned that Journal Deputy Managing Rditor Alan Murray, who was steering the Journal’s expansion into video production, had made a snide comment about Fox. “Alan made the mistake of telling folks how he could make FBN better,” the executive said. A few months later, a junior Fox Business staffer mistakenly disclosed the ban to a Journal employee.

“We had to deny that there ever was a ban. It was so silly,” a Fox producer said.

Ailes vs. News Corp Democrats: Peter Chernin, Gary Ginsberg, and Joel Klein

After Lachlan Murdoch left the company and Ailes assumed control of the Fox Television Stations Group, Chernin eyed Ailes warily. “There was a thinking from Peter, what is Roger going to do now?” an executive recalled. There was reason for concern: Ailes was throwing his weight around in Chernin’s West Coast cable realm. In the winter of 2003, the News Corp cable channel FX released a docudrama about the Pentagon Papers. Ailes was not pleased. He called Peter Liguori, the president of FX.

“You making a movie about the Pentagon Papers?” Ailes said.

“Yeah,” Liguori said.

“Why would you do that? It’s bad for America,” Ailes said.

The FX film was already scheduled to air, so there was nothing Liguori could do. As a half measure, he told his team to cut the marketing budget in half.

In 2009, Ailes maneuvered to take advantage from the fallout from Michael Wolff’s biography of Murdoch, which exposed rifts in the company. “As [Gary] Ginsberg was blowing up because of the Murdoch book, [Fox PR chief] Brian Lewis and Roger would huddle about the best way to leverage that to hurt Peter Chernin,” a senior Fox producer said.

When News Corp’s top Democrats — Ginsberg and Chernin — departed the company, Ailes savored the moment. “Roger took credit,” an executive close to him recalled. “The day Ginsberg left, Roger walked into his afternoon editorial meeting, dropped the press release onto the conference table and said, ‘In life, there are winners, and there are …’ And just smiled as people passed around the note.”

Around the time of the 2010 midterms, Ailes openly bad-mouthed News Corp board member John Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs, who suggested programming ideas to him. “I’m not going to have some fucking liberal tell me how to program my network!” Ailes told Bill Shine.

Other executives spoke of Ailes’s tangles with Joel Klein, the former New York City school chancellor, whom Murdoch hired in November 2010 to launch a for-profit education business. “Roger said, ‘The education business is a big mistake. The teachers unions will never let Rupert Murdoch educate their children,’” an executive said. About a year after Klein joined the company, News Corp hired Klein’s former spokeswoman, Natalie Ravitz, to serve as Murdoch’s chief of staff. Ravitz went to Fox News to introduce herself to Ailes. She reported back to colleagues that her conversation with Ailes went well. Ailes had a different take. “I’ve just seen that spy!” he later told Chase Carey. “I know she’s a Clinton spy and Joel’s spy!”

The Civil Wars of Roger Ailes