If the latest skirmish between Donald Trump and Fox News is an embarrassment for Fox, Rupert Murdoch and his sons are seeing to it that Roger Ailes personally takes the blame, according to New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman:
As Fox News and Donald Trump barrel toward their competing events tonight, Rupert Murdoch and his two sons, Lachlan and James, are making sure people know that this crisis is on Roger Ailes. “Rupert is letting Roger handle this,” a source close to Murdoch said earlier on Thursday. Murdoch, according to another source close to the company, is "really upset about this."
What this means is that, at least publicly, the Murdochs seem to want to isolate the PR nightmare to Ailes and Fox. The surreal spectacle of Fox's feud with the GOP front-runner is becoming a test of Ailes’s management abilities....
This matters because Ailes is extremely good at the horrible thing he does. If you're a white person and every one of your relatives over the age of sixty is now a raging wingnut, it's because the product Ailes has created, that unique combination of pseudo-information, entertainment, outrage, hatemongering, and eye candy, works on old white people's brains like an addictive drug. Ailes knows precisely what heartland senior citizens' bliss point is, and he's found it consistently for twenty years. Once he's gone, a successor really might not be able to keep creating the evil magic.
And it's not clear that his successors will even want to. Which might just rid America of the single most noxious influence on its politics.
The backstory, as Sherman noted a couple of weeks ago, is that Rupert Murdoch brought in his sons to oversee Ailes at Fox last year, but Ailes pitched a fit:
... three sources say Ailes threatened to quit this summer when Murdoch elevated his sons, Lachlan and James, to take over the media empire. After their promotions were announced, Ailes put out his own statement on Fox Business that declared he would continue reporting directly to Rupert. Eventually, an uneasy accord was reached: Rupert gave Ailes a new contract, but Fox issued a follow-up press release clarifying that Ailes would report to Rupert as well as Lachlan and James.
As The Hollywood Reporter has noted, James and Lachlan Murdoch "are known to have differing political views from their conservative father."
You can see how that could lead to some tensions:
James is an environmentalist who led News Corp's campaign to be a carbon-neutral company. His wife once worked for the Clinton Foundation. Ailes, a fierce climate-change denier, openly badmouthed James to friends and colleagues. He's called him a "fucking dope" and "Fredo," according to sources.
But remember, these are the boss's sons. They know they're the heirs apparent. They were told they'd be put in charge of Ailes -- and then they weren't. It seems likely that they'd be pleased to see Ailes humiliated, if not canned.
And now, according to Sherman, Ailes hasn't been well and Poppa Rupert has intervened in the running of Fox:
According to four high-placed Fox sources, Murdoch is upping his presence at Fox while Ailes has become less visible to anchors and producers, signaling a shift that marks a new chapter in the network’s history. The most visible change is that, since June, Murdoch has been attending Ailes’s daily executive meeting held on the second floor of Fox headquarters. The secretive afternoon gathering in Ailes’s conference room is attended by about a half-dozen of the network’s most senior lieutenants. It’s where some of the most sensitive decisions about running the channel are discussed.
... “[Rupert]’s marking his territory,” one person briefed on the matter told me. “There’s a little bit of a pissing match with Roger. Rupert is basically saying, ‘I know you built this place, but I own it and I’ll remind you of that by coming here.'”
To some extent, this is because Ailes isn't well:
Meanwhile, Fox hosts and producers tell me Ailes has been a somewhat diminished force at the network. In 2014, he took an extended leave of absence after a health scare. He still has trouble walking and rarely ventures out of his executive suite. A friend who ran into Ailes in Palm Beach over the holidays remarked that he was using a walker. “He seems detached and removed,” one Fox personality tells me. “He’s not around as much,” says another friend of Ailes. “He doesn’t have as many meetings with talent.”
One result, says Sherman, is that Fox is all over the map regarding Trump -- sometimes supporting him, sometimes hostile to him. Daddy Rupert apparently wants Fox to be the voice of the GOP establishment:
Several other prominent conservatives I’ve spoken with grumble that Murdoch is pushing Fox to be openly hostile to Trump and Ted Cruz at the same time the channel boosts Establishment candidates, most prominently Marco Rubio. “I’ve joked to people that they’ll be doing a segment about kumquats in China and somehow they’ll mention Rubio,” one Cruz ally told me. Another conservative activist pointed out that Fox gave Rubio the first interview opportunity following Obama’s Oval Office address on ISIS last month. Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, it should also be noted, has been one of the most aggressive Trump and Cruz critics.
Last summer, according to Sherman, Murdoch tried to get Fox to stop fawning over Trump -- but Ailes stuck with him. Now Ailes has alienated Trump -- and if the ratings suffer, even just tonight's debate ratings, he's going to be blamed for that by the Murdochs.
Rupert's interventions haven't really hurt Fox very much so far, but Fox's response to the wingnut insurgency has been a mess, and no Murdoch seems to know what to do about that. And yet it looks as if Ailes is being set up for a fall. If Ailes goes, or continues on in a diminished role, it's possible that the Murdochs might destroy what Ailes has built.
Which would be awesome for America.
So maybe someday we'll thank Trump someday for being the straw that broke Fox's back.
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog