James Murdoch May Have the Reins at 21st Century Fox, But Will He Ever Control Roger Ailes?

Roger Ailes. Photo: Sonia Moskowitz/Globe Photos

This week, when it was reported that 84-year-old Rupert Murdoch was naming his younger son, James Murdoch, CEO of 21st Century Fox, speculation began almost immediately about what the change in leadership would mean for Fox News — and especially for its chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes. The Murdoch children don’t much like Ailes, whose right-wing politics have at times offended their more liberal sensibilities. To give you a sense of the yawning gulf between them: James Murdoch’s wife, Kathryn, is an environmentalist who at one point worked for the Clinton Foundation. Ailes would likely say that the dislike is mutual: In 2011, when James was embroiled in News Corp.’s London phone-hacking scandal, Ailes told a friend, “He’s a fucking dope.”

Lucky for Ailes, Rupert isn’t really going anywhere. “This is a title change, it is not a role change for Rupert,” a person with knowledge of the decision told me. “Rupert will still run the place no matter what the structure,” said another. And indeed, Ailes himself told Variety that it was his understanding that he would continue to report to Rupert. But even if that were not the case, James couldn’t afford to alienate Ailes. He may care about climate change, but he also cares about the $1 billion Fox News nets annually (single-handedly accounting for nearly 20 percent of 21st Century Fox’s total profits last year).

Besides, Ailes and Fox News have already benefited from the James era: On June 9, James revealed his plans to move 21st Century Fox and News Corp. to new, 1,340-foot-tall headquarters at 2 World Trade Center, the final tower to rise (finally) at ground zero. The dramatic tiered design by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels — which James personally approved — looks like Lego blocks stacked atop one another. If all goes according to plan, the Murdochs’ media properties, including Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and HarperCollins, will move downtown by 2020.

The relocation to ground zero puts the network right where it belongs. After all, 9/11 created the Fox News we know today. Ailes’s channel, more than any other, mined the paranoia and patriotism of that era for ratings gold. His signature programming touches — anchors donning flag pins, the ticker crawling across the bottom of the screen, paeans to “our troops” — connected with a wounded and angry public. Just four months after the attacks, Fox overtook CNN to become the No. 1 cable-news network. Ailes knows better than anyone the power of the right visual — remember that as director of George H.W. Bush’s media team in 1988, he was responsible for the Dukakis-in-the-tank ad, a piece of political theater so inspired that consultants still study it (and anyone who came anywhere near the ad is still arguing over credit). So what better home for a news channel that continues to traffic heavily in patriotism and the terrorism threat than ground zero? The optics, as they say, are good. According to the plans for the new HQ, Fox’s studios will feature sweeping views of where the towers once stood.

Whatever his relationship with James, it’s clear from Fox News sources that Ailes is flexing his muscles again after a health scare last year, which took him out of the office for a time. He’s back, walking the hallways with a cane, gearing up for 2016, and mulling over the political narratives to push this election cycle.

The first seems to be GOP primary as Game of Thrones–style free-for-all. When Fox announced on May 20 that it will allow only ten candidates onstage for the first GOP debate this summer, it sent panic rippling through the crowded Republican field. To make it into the debate, a candidate needs to rank in the top ten in an average of five national polls. “If you’re not on that stage, it’s tough to be viewed as a serious candidate,” says Ed Rollins, the veteran campaign manager and Fox News contributor. The Kochs may have the money, but Ailes controls the eyeballs.

Under Fox’s entry criteria, all-but-declared candidate Donald Trump would likely make the cut, but not John Kasich, the popular yet lesser-known Ohio governor (an outcome that’s even more embarrassing since Kasich used to host a Fox show and Ailes is said to like him). “That’s just incredible,” says another Fox personality. “This guy’s governor of Ohio, and he might not get to be in the first GOP debate in Ohio.” The debate cap is also benefiting Fox by motivating candidates with lower name recognition to spend time on Fox shows. “For a Republican who wants to talk to the base, there’s nothing more important than a Fox show,” Rollins says.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. In January, the RNC announced a streamlined debate schedule that was specifically designed to impose some adult supervision on the process. During the party’s post-2012 soul-searching, many GOPers privately blamed Fox for turning debates into a reality-show spectacle.

Ailes’s willingness to throw caution, and his party’s wishes, to the wind probably has something to do with generating good television — by upping the drama of an election cycle that already seems to be dragging on. But it’s also because, according to Fox insiders I’ve spoken with in recent days, Ailes simply isn’t dazzled by any of the GOP contenders so far. In fact, he has gotten into it with some of the biggest names in the field. He recently clashed with Jeb Bush over immigration and his support for Common Core. According to one source, Ailes fumed at Bush that his education policy would wipe American history and religion from his teenage son’s textbooks. Ailes also tangled with Chris Christie over the Hurricane Sandy photo op that the New Jersey governor shared with Obama on the eve of the 2012 election. “You looked ridiculous,” Ailes snapped at Christie at the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library. “You were like the fat kid in high school chasing the popular kid.” Christie, who’s used to doing the yelling himself, unloaded: “No one talks to me that way!” and stormed off.

One candidate Ailes is said to like is Scott Walker — whose lack of a college degree is a “plus, not a minus,” one person familiar with Ailes’s views tells me. In Walker, he has a ready-made Fox hero. He’s the plainspoken midwestern governor — the son of a Baptist preacher, no less — who stood up to those greedy public-sector unions. Walker’s hard-line, secure-the-­border-and-send-them-home immigration position is also in sync with Fox’s. (In private, Ailes once claimed that Navy SEALS should be sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to kill anyone crossing illegally.)

Another story we know Ailes is eager to tell for 2016 is Hillary Clinton as Über-villain. In the 1990s, Ailes was a member of the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” gleefully sloshing around in the conservative fever swamps. In one 1994 radio interview, he claimed that Whitewater involved “land fraud, illegal contributions, abuse of power … suicide cover-up — possible murder.” When one associate recently asked Ailes how he compared Hillary with Obama, he replied, “Well, she’s better than this guy, but if she makes it to the White House, it’s still going to be Freddy Krueger time.” Ailes has personally taken charge of some of Fox’s recent attacks. According to one source, he helped edit Fox’s prime-time special to promote Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash.

Hillary highlights a paradox for Ailes. The cable-news channel would benefit from a Hillary win. Fox’s prime-time numbers are up double digits with her in the race, and having another Clinton in the Oval Office would generate endless story lines. But Ailes the Republican operative surely would relish preventing a Clinton restoration.

Even with the ascendancy of James Murdoch, it’s shaping up to be a pretty good year for Ailes. He can look forward to months of hammering Hillary, and the roller coaster of the Republican race will keep his audience on edge. “The issue is, how do you make good TV? And it’s about TV at this point,” Rollins says. According to sources, Ailes, who is 75, is in talks with the Murdochs to extend his current contract, which expires next February. A new deal could keep him at Fox long enough to see his new office.

*This article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Will James Murdoch Ever Control Roger Ailes?