How Roger Ailes Won in Business, But Lost in Politics

The Atlantic Wire
How Roger Ailes Won in Business, But Lost in Politics
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How Roger Ailes Won in Business, But Lost in Politics

In his blockbuster profile of Fox News' head Roger Ailes, Gabriel Sherman describes that, for all his network's bombast, Ailes is deeply serious in his political beliefs. "He still speaks almost daily with George H. W. Bush, one of the GOP’s last great moderates," writes Sherman, and in 2008, when Rupert Murdoch contemplated endorsing Obama in the New York Post, "Ailes threatened to quit." But even as Ailes has made his network $900 million last year, he may have hurt the GOP's chances in the 2012 election.  

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The Rise of Fox News. Following Obama's win in 2008, Ailes went on a hiring spree of potential GOP contenders, including Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, as well as Bush aide Karl Rove and Glenn Beck, who would prove to be one of the network's biggest draws. Meanwhile, "some of the network’s journalistic ballast was disappearing." Brit Hume retired. David Rhodes quit to work for Bloomberg. And John Moddy left to run his own division within Murdoch's empire.

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While the changes were great for business, Ailes was increasingly worried about the political effect. “He thinks things are going in a bad direction,” one Republican close to Ailes told Sherman. “Roger is worried about the future of the country."

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Tensions with Sarah Palin. Despite once actively courting Sarah Palin, a Republican close to Ailes told Sherman that Ailes “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.” The turning point for Ailes was the Tucson shooting. Ailes told Palin not to respond when the media pounced on her rhetoric, but to "lie low." Nonetheless, Palin responded with her infamous "blood-libel" speech. At that point, Ailes recognized that "a Fox brand defined by Palin could be politically vulnerable." 

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Glenn Beck's Departure. Beck was a phenomenon for Fox News, but he was saying things "that weren’t supposed to be said, even at Fox." He was "uncontrollable," and Ailes found the show "too religious." Fox's other big names, such as Sean Hannity, complained about the power Beck wielded. Beck himself was willing to walk away, but moving from there was difficult: Ailes didn't want to lose loyal fans, and "most of all, he didn’t want Beck’s departure to be seen as a victory for the liberal media."

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No Favored 2012 Contender. In the GOP primary field, Ailes now has no favorite contenders. A few months ago, Ailes called Chris Christie and encouraged him to jump into the race, but he turned him down. Ailes had also hoped that David Petraeus would run, but he too decided to sit this election out. And those left are coming up short. One GOPer told Sherman that “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.

A New Direction. If James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch's son, takes over News Corp, it might be problematic for Ailes, as James and Ailes have had little interation. And Rupert’s wife, Wendi, recently agreed to host an Obama fund-raiser with Russell Simmons. But there are signs that Fox News may be changing its extreme rhetoric. The network is pushing to make news anchor Bret Baier a bigger star. And last month, Ailes encouraged Bill O’Reilly to shoot down the “birther” conspiracy. As Chris Ruddy, CEO of conservative magazine Newsmax, told Sherman: "We’re going into an election period, and [Ailes] doesn’t want Fox to be seen as a front of the Republican Party.”

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