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.
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.
It was, more than anything, a business decision. “It would be easy to look at Fox and think it’s conservative because Rupert and Roger are conservative and they program it the way they like. And to a degree, that’s true. But it’s also a business,” a person close to Ailes explained. “And the way the business works is, they control conservative commentary the way ESPN controls the market for sports rights. If you have a league, you have a meeting with ESPN, you find out how much they’re willing to pay, and then everyone else agrees to pay the same amount if they want it … It’s sort of the same at Fox. I was surprised at some of what was being paid until I processed it that way. If you’re ABC and you don’t have Newt Gingrich on a particular morning, you can put someone else on. But if you’re Fox, and Newt is moving and talking today, you got to have him. Otherwise, your people are like, ‘Where’s Newt? Why isn’t he on my channel?’ ”
Fox also had to compete with CNN for pundits. In early 2008, then–CNN-U.S. president Jon Klein invited Mike Huckabee to breakfast at the Time Warner Center. Klein sold Huckabee on the benefits of CNN. “If you believe what you’re saying, you should try and convince the middle,” Klein told him. It was the same pitch he made later to Karl Rove and to Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes. All three turned down Klein and signed with Fox.
Ailes was also intensely interested in Sarah Palin. In September 2008, he secretly met Palin during her swing through New York, when she toured the U.N. and had her photo op with Henry Kissinger. That afternoon, Shushannah Walshe, a young Fox producer who was covering Palin’s campaign for the network, had gone on-air and criticized McCain’s staff, who had prevented reporters from asking Palin questions during her U.N. visit. “There’s not one chance that Governor Palin would have to answer a question,” Walshe said on-camera. “They’re eliminating even the chance of any kind of interaction with the candidate—it’s just unprecedented.”
“Ailes doesn’t want Fox to be seen as a front of the Republican party.”
Ailes didn’t know Walshe, but he was furious when he heard her comments. Liberal media outlets like the Huffington Post were seizing on her statement and made it appear that Fox was turning on Palin. Ailes called Refet Kaplan, a senior Fox executive, and demanded Walshe be taken off the air. “It’s not fair-and-balanced coverage,” Kaplan later told Walshe. Walshe was allowed to continue covering Palin but was barred from future on-air appearances. She later quit Fox to co-write a book about Palin.
After the campaign, Ailes stayed in touch with Palin. In September 2009, two months after Palin resigned the Alaska governorship, Ailes arranged for her to fly on News Corp.’s private Citation jet when Palin needed to travel from San Diego to New York to meet with her editors at HarperCollins. That fall, Palin’s agent, Bob Barnett, started shopping her to the news networks. CNN told Barnett they weren’t interested. Ailes put his programming chief Bill Shine in charge of recruiting Palin. Shine negotiated with Barnett and was able to close the deal. In January 2010, Fox announced Palin had signed a three-year contract worth $1 million a year to appear as a contributor on the network and to host prime-time specials. Palin made her Fox debut on Bill O’Reilly’s show. A week later, she appeared on Beck’s program.
Beck had been hired to solve a problem that had vexed Ailes for years: The five-o’clock hour continually failed to attract an audience, which delivered a weak lead-in to the shows that followed. Fox executives dubbed the slot the “black hole.” Ailes had unsuccessfully cycled through a slew of anchors, from John Gibson to Laura Ingraham. Ingraham’s turn was especially rocky. She would scream so loudly at her staff off-camera that producers in the newsroom would turn on the monitors for fun and watch the unfolding drama.
Beck’s debut was the day before Obama’s inauguration. Within a month, Beck became a phenomenon. He doubled the time slot’s viewership, providing a powerful boost that carried into the prime-time hours, when Fox earns most of its advertising revenue. But from the beginning, Beck had a different relationship to Fox than did Ailes’s other talent. Beck had a coterie of powerful advisers and PR reps behind him. He was a best-selling author and had a thriving radio franchise. He didn’t submit to Fox, which would later cause him problems.
Fox’s record ratings during the beginning of Obama’s presidency quickly put an end to Ailes’s fears that he would be bad for business. The network’s audience hit stratospheric levels as the tea-party rebellion provided a powerful story line that ran through Fox’s coverage. Sometimes Fox personalities took an active role in building the movement, something that Ailes was careful to check if it became too overt. In April 2010, Fox barred Hannity from broadcasting his show at a Cincinnati tea-party rally. “There would not have been a tea party without Fox,” Sal Russo, a former Reagan gubernatorial aide and the founder of the national Tea Party Express tour, told me.
But as Fox was helping to inflate the tea party’s balloon, some of the network’s journalistic ballast was disappearing. Starting in July 2008, a series of high-level departures began when Brit Hume, Ailes’s longtime Washington anchor, announced his retirement inside Fox. Then, three weeks after the election, David Rhodes, Fox’s vice-president for news, quit to work for Bloomberg. Rhodes had started at Fox as a 22-year-old production assistant and risen through the ranks to become No. 2 in charge of news. His brother was a senior foreign-policy aide to Obama, and Rhodes told staffers that Ailes had expressed concern about this closeness to the White House. Rhodes privately told people he was uncomfortable with where Fox was going in the Obama era.
A few months after Rhodes’s departure, John Moody, Ailes’s longtime news chief, left. Moody, a former Time correspondent, had been with Ailes from the beginning and wanted to run his own division. Murdoch put him in charge of News Corp.’s wire service. “The thing about that place is there is Roger, and there is everyone else,” a former Fox executive said.
Meanwhile, Hume’s replacement, Bill Sammon, a former Washington Times correspondent, angered Fox’s political reporters, who saw him pushing coverage further to the right than they were comfortable with. Days after Obama’s inauguration, an ice storm caused major damage throughout the Midwest. At an editorial meeting in the D.C. bureau, Sammon told producers that Fox should compare Obama’s response to Bush’s handling of Katrina. “Bush got grief for Katrina,” Sammon said.
“It’s too early; give him some time to respond,” a producer shot back. “This ice storm isn’t Katrina.”
Later, Sammon caused problems internally when the Fox watchdog website Media Matters obtained a series of controversial e-mails about Fox’s coverage of climate change and health care. In one December 2009 e-mail, Sammon said Fox should question the science of climate change. “We should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without immediately pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question,” he wrote.
Inside the Obama White House, there was a debate unfolding over how to deal with Fox. Michelle Obama was said to particularly loathe the network and was most turned off by Hannity. Obama’s advisers began to talk about ways to fight back.
There was bad blood left over from the campaign. In the bitter primary fight for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton’s advisers, led by Howard Wolfson, courted Fox and fed them negative research about Obama and John Edwards. “She made some kind of compact with Murdoch,” Obama’s former media adviser Anita Dunn told me.
There had been back-channel efforts to broker a détente between Ailes and Obama. In the run-up to the election, Russell Simmons, who has built an unlikely relationship with Ailes, placed private calls to both Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and John Moody to do shuttle diplomacy. “They couldn’t get Obama on the phone; I suggested they have a dialogue,” Simmons told me.
But from the moment of Obama’s inauguration, Fox went on the offensive. Its pundits pushed stories including tales of voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party, ACORN fraud, Obama’s czars, and Obama’s rumored $200 million–per–day trip to India. As the summer of 2009 unfolded, with tea-party anger over the stimulus and health care ratcheting up, Fox and the White House went to war. In June 2009, Obama gave an interview to CNBC’s John Harwood and lashed out. “I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration,” he said. “That’s a pretty big megaphone. You’d be hard-pressed, if you watched the entire day, to find a positive story about me on that front.”
But it wasn’t until a month later that a succession of media controversies convinced the White House that Fox was a dangerous opponent that needed to be taken on. On July 28, Beck went on Fox and Friends, called Obama a “racist,” and declared that his response to the dustup between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge Police Department exposed the president’s “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Beck’s next target was Obama’s green-jobs “czar,” Van Jones, who had been blasted for signing a 9/11 “Truth Statement” in 2004. Jones resigned on September 6. Four days later, Fox broke the undercover video of conservative prankster James O’Keefe’s ACORN sting. “I had never heard of Glenn Beck before,” Dunn told me. “Obviously, August of 2009 was a disaster.”
All of a sudden, the rest of the media took notice. In an interview posted on the Times’ website after Van Jones’s resignation, Times managing editor Jill Abramson acknowledged that the paper would need to follow Fox’s reporting in the future. “We should have been paying closer attention,” she said.
Inside the White House, this statement was greeted with alarm. “The narrative was being hijacked by Fox,” Dunn told me. The White House attempted to isolate the network. In mid-September, when Obama agreed to appear on the Sunday political shows, he skipped Fox News Sunday, leaving Chris Wallace to take to the air on O’Reilly and complain, “They are the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington.”
In early October, Dunn went on CNN and declared Fox the “research arm of the Republican Party.” Then, in late October, a Treasury Department official tried to deny Fox an interview with tarp compensation regulator Ken Feinberg. The move backfired when journalists from other networks, angered that the White House was picking on a member of the press, rallied behind Fox. David Axelrod called Ailes and blamed the decision on a low-level Treasury employee.
On Friday, October 23, Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, called Fox News senior VP Michael Clemente to work out a deal. Clemente didn’t take the call. Gibbs complained to Fox’s well-regarded White House correspondent, Major Garrett, that Clemente had blown him off. On Monday, Garrett participated in a conference call with Ailes and Clemente and told them that the White House was looking to end the war. Clemente still hadn’t returned Gibbs’s call.
“Maybe I’ll call him,” Clemente said.
Clemente called Gibbs on October 27 and traveled to Washington the next day to try to defuse the tensions. In November 2009, on a trip to Asia, Obama granted an interview with Garrett, his first since the war with Fox began. But the entire episode was taxing for Garrett. After clashing with Sammon over his partisan journalistic agenda, Garrett quit Fox months later to become a correspondent for National Journal.
“God’s really busy, Glenn,” Ailes told Beck. “He can’t be listening to you.”
At one point, Dunn spoke with David Rhodes. The two had remained friendly despite their clashes during the ’08 campaign. Rhodes, who had left Fox to run Bloomberg TV, told Dunn the White House was making a mistake in attacking Fox. “You guys have this all wrong,” Rhodes told Dunn. “Everything you’re doing is anticipating that they’re somewhere having a meeting which is like, ‘What if Beck says something that embarrasses us?’ That’s an NBC meeting. They have eight guys in suits in a conference room, and you’re playing this like an NBC meeting. Now, let me tell you what a Fox meeting is: A Fox meeting is, ‘Boy, he’s really emotional. Now he’s tearing up. What if he gets really emotional and doesn’t do the show and we don’t get the ratings, what are we going to do?’ ”
Still, both sides walked away claiming victory. “[Ailes] is great at making the mainstream press feel guilty about their liberal bias,” Dunn later told me. “Fox had taken on a thought-leader role in the national press corps. What we could influence was the way everyone else looks at Fox. Frankly, that’s the real problem.”
For Fox, the war with the White House only stoked ratings. A Fox executive told Clemente that the White House’s attacks were like “a hanging curveball” for Fox.
While Dunn and others publicly engaged Fox, David Axelrod worked back-channel diplomacy as the good cop. About a week before Dunn’s CNN appearance, Axelrod secretly sat down with Ailes at the Palm in midtown. They met before the restaurant opened to avoid drawing attention. Axelrod told Ailes they should try to defuse things and work together.
Going back to the 2008 campaign, Axelrod had maintained an off-the-record dialogue with Ailes. He had faced off against Ailes in a U.S. Senate campaign in the early eighties and respected him as a fellow political warrior and shaper of narrative. But early on, Axelrod learned he couldn’t change Ailes’s outlook on Obama. In one meeting in 2008, Ailes told Axelrod that he was concerned that Obama wanted to create a national police force.
“You can’t be serious,” Axelrod replied. “What makes you think that?”
Ailes responded by e-mailing Axelrod a YouTube clip from a campaign speech Obama had given on national service, in which he called for the creation of a new civilian corps to work alongside the military on projects overseas.
Later, Axelrod related in a conversation that the exchange was the moment he realized Ailes truly believed what he was broadcasting.
On a cold, rain-soaked Saturday last month, I traveled to Albany see the final leg of Beck’s nine-city comedy tour. It had been just over a week since news had broken that Beck would be leaving Fox. Shortly before 7 p.m., a crush of fans waited in the stiff drizzle for the doors to the Palace Theater to open. An elderly woman standing in line next to me told me that, in a way, she was glad Beck was leaving his Fox show. “I can’t tell you how many times I almost got in a car accident racing home from work to catch him at five o’clock,” she said. When I told her she could TiVo the show, she insisted she had to see it live.
Just after 8 p.m., Beck took to the stage to rapturous applause. He paced in front of the sold-out crowd like an itinerant preacher bringing the good word to the faithful. “It has been an amazing ten days. I bring you greetings from people just like you from all across the nation,” he said. Days before, Beck had been in Chicago. “I think Chicago is one of the nicest cities in America, if you can get rid of the communists, the progressives, and the weather.” The crowd cheered again.
Beck then turned to the upcoming election.
“Someone asked me today, ‘Are we going to get a real politician, someone who is not manufactured?’ ”
“You!” came a cry from the darkened theater.
Beck chuckled, but he wouldn’t heed his audience’s wishes. He told them he won’t run, but he does have a dream ticket: Florida congressman Allen West and tea-party queen Michele Bachmann.
In Albany, Beck announced he’s not only leaving Fox, but he’s also leaving New York, taking his show somewhere to the middle of the country. Betsy Morgan, who runs Beck’s website the Blaze, told me Beck wants to remain authentic to his heartland fans. “I’m sure he’s sitting there thinking, My audience probably is saying, ‘Oh my God, he’s a total fraud,’ ” Morgan said recently. “I’m here in this high-rise, and they’re out in the country trying to make ends meet, watching gas going up to $4 a gallon, and I’m sitting here in New York City.”
By the beginning of this year, it was clear Beck would be leaving Fox. Ailes is a businessman, and he saw Beck, who had graced the covers of Forbes, Time, and The New York Times Magazine, leading rallies and becoming bigger than the Fox brand. Beck’s media company, Mercury Radio Arts, had broken the mold at Fox. He earned more than 90 percent of his reported $40 million income from non-Fox activities, including comedy tours, best-selling books, a magazine, and a subscription website. Ailes was peeved. When Beck rallied about 100,000 of his devoted followers in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Fox provided scant coverage of the event—CNN actually seemed to give it more play. And Fox executives told Beck he couldn’t promote the Blaze on-air.
“Ailes doesn’t want to be hated. It really bothers him.”
Ailes also faced internal resistance to Beck’s rise. Sean Hannity complained to Bill Shine about Beck. And it didn’t help matters that O’Reilly, who had become friends with Beck and can’t stand Hannity, scheduled Beck as a regular guest, a move that only annoyed Hannity further.
In March 2010, the Washington Post ran an article that reported on grievances Fox employees had about Beck. Fox’s PR department is notoriously strict when it comes to internal leaks, and the public griping was seen from the outside as a measure of the unease about where Fox was heading. Ailes was angry with the leak. Two days after the article was published, he visited Fox’s D.C. bureau and scolded the staff. “For the first time in our fourteen years, we’ve had people apparently shooting in the tent, from within the tent,” he said. “Glenn Beck does his show, and that’s his opinion. It’s not the opinion of Fox News, and he has a right to say it … I was brought up to defend the family. If I couldn’t defend the family, I’d leave. I’d go to another family.”
Recently, the Blaze ran an article debunking conservative provocateur James O’Keefe’s NPR sting, which had received wall-to-wall coverage on Fox. And during another meeting, Ailes called Beck into his office and told him the show had grown too religious.
“God’s really busy, Glenn,” Ailes told him. “He can’t be listening to you.”
As Ailes figured out what to do with Beck, a new problem emerged: Sarah Palin. Inside Fox, Palin had become a source of frustration in some corners. In the wake of the 2008 campaign, the network had wanted to capitalize on her celebrity. But as Palin contemplated her political future, she began to worry that being a celebrity pundit on Fox was potentially at odds with her presidential aspirations.
Last year, tensions between Palin’s camp and Fox erupted over a prime-time special that the network wanted her to host. Nancy Duffy, a senior Fox producer, wanted Palin to host the show in front of a live studio audience. Duffy wanted to call the program Sarah Palin’s Real American Stories. Palin hated the idea. She complained to her advisers that she didn’t want to be a talk-show host. She wanted to just do voice-overs. More important, she didn’t want Fox to promote her name in the title of the program. Not that it mattered: Palin’s ratings were starting to disappoint Ailes anyway. Fox hasn’t scheduled any additional specials.
Ailes began to doubt Palin’s political instincts. He thought she was getting bad advice from her kitchen cabinet and saw her erratic behavior as a sign that she is a “loose cannon,” as one person close to him put it. A turning point in their relationship came during the apex of the media debate over the Tucson shooting. As the media pounced on Palin’s rhetoric, Palin wanted to fight back. She felt it was deeply unfair that commentators were singling her out. Ailes agreed but told her to stay out of it. He thought if she stayed quiet, she would score a victory.
“Lie low,” he told her. “If you want to respond later, fine, but do not interfere with the memorial service.”
Palin ignored Ailes’s advice and went ahead and released her now-infamous “blood libel” video the morning Obama traveled to Tucson. For Ailes, the move was further evidence that Palin was flailing around off-message. “Why did you call me for advice?” he wondered out loud to colleagues.
What had been an effort to boost ratings has recently become a complication for Fox. Employing potential presidential candidates has opened the network up to criticism that it is too politicized. As risible as liberals find the slogan “Fair and Balanced,” it was significantly more defensible before Ailes’s candidate-hiring binge.
As Ailes struggled with what to do with Glenn Beck in a changed political landscape, an older problem reared its head. In February, news broke that former lawyers for Judith Regan, the former HarperCollins publisher, claimed in sworn statements that Regan taped conversations in which Ailes had allegedly told her to lie to investigators about her affair with Bernie Kerik to help Ailes’s friend Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. News Corp. issued a statement that quoted Regan denying she felt pressure, but it sparked a media frenzy for a couple of days. Regan blames Ailes for her negative press in the wake of her 2006 ouster from News Corp. and claims Ailes is trying to protect powerful interests. “Connect the dots,” she told me.
As Ailes’s history with Regan was racing back to the present, he had little choice but to force the hands of the candidates on his payroll. In late February, Shine made calls to Palin and her husband, Todd, to ask if she was going to run for president. The Palins told him they hadn’t decided. “I’m not sure Sarah has made up her mind one way or the other,” a Palin adviser told me. The network is working hard to get a definitive answer out of her. A couple of weeks earlier, Shine and Fox general counsel Dianne Brandi called Mike Huckabee into a meeting to ask him about his presidential ambitions.
In early March, Fox News suspended contracts for Gingrich and Santorum. Santorum was said to be angry at Fox’s decision. He hadn’t formally declared his candidacy when Fox decided he had to go, even as Ailes had allowed Palin and Huckabee to keep their lucrative gigs before making a decision. Last week, Huckabee finally did, choosing the Fox paycheck over the GOP primary. And in making his announcement on-air, he turned his Saturday-evening show into an odd ratings-grab spectacle. “I didn’t like the endgame; it was a bizarre-type thing,” Ed Rollins, Huckabee’s former ’08 campaign manager, told me.
In the halls of Fox News, people do not want to be caught talking about what will happen to Fox News after the Ailes era. The network continues to be Ailes’s singular vision, and he’s so far declined to name a successor. One possibility in the event Ailes departs when his contract is up in 2013 is that Bill Shine could continue to oversee prime time and Michael Clemente would run the news division. But more than one person described fearing Lord of the Flies–type chaos in the wake of Ailes’s departure, so firm has his grip on power been.
This spring, the announcement by News Corp. that James Murdoch was being promoted to deputy chief operating officer triggered another round of speculation that the accession of the next generation would be problematic for Ailes. So far, James has had little interaction with Ailes. The last time the pair worked closely together was in the late nineties, when James was overseeing News Corp.’s dot-com properties and was briefly in charge of Fox’s website.
James likely witnessed his older brother Lachlan’s frustration over clashing with Ailes (one of the factors that caused Lachlan to leave the company). James has smartly avoided any major interactions with Ailes. Last year, when Matthew Freud criticized Ailes in a Times article, James immediately e-mailed Ailes to say that Freud wasn’t speaking for him. At a budget meeting with Ailes and Rupert a couple of weeks ago, James, who clearly hopes to run the company some day, praised Ailes for his outsize profits. But the future could be different. Rupert’s wife, Wendi, recently agreed to host an Obama fund-raiser with Russell Simmons. “She’s a big fan,” Simmons told me.
Last week, Ailes turned 71. He’s spending considerable time thinking about his legacy. It bothers him that he’s still regarded as an outsider. “He doesn’t want to be hated,” a GOPer who knows Ailes well said. “It really bothers him. You can’t gross a billion a year and retain an outlaw sensibility forever.”
But there’s other unfinished business, which is why Chris Christie is so appealing. At dinner last summer, they talked about pension reform and getting tough with the unions, and Ailes saw in Christie a great candidate: an ordinary guy, someone you’d be comfortable talking to over your back fence. But Ailes may have seen something else. Christie’s got Fox News TV values with a ready-made reel. And of course, Obama versus Christie is a producer’s dream: black versus white, fat versus thin, professor versus prosecutor. Maybe, just maybe, Ailes could laugh all the way to the White House and the bank.