Fox News Frankenstein

Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has come to regret the direction he took the network after the 2008 election.

A New York Magazine feature argues that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has come to regret the direction he took the network after the 2008 election.

[W]ith 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.'”

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 magazineNewsmax, 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.”

When I started watching Fox News in the late 1990s, mostly in the form of Brit Hume’s “Special Report,” it was a welcome alternative to a national news media that leaned leftward in its coverage. While by no means an arm of the Democratic Party or hard core Progressive, the big 3 network news programs, CNN, and PBS’ NewsHour all filtered their reporting through the same bicoastal lens. Fox’ claim to be “Fair and Balanced” and the slogan “We Report. You Decide.” rang true in that environment.

That stopped being true quite some time ago. Put it this way: I was never a fan of Bill O’Reilly, the network’s biggest star. His style always seemed obnoxious and unfair. He’s now Fox’ voice of reason by virtue of having been surrounded over the years by show hosts who are simply unwatchable if you’re not a die-hard social conservative.

Hume, a respected journalist who’d built his reputation at ABC News before joining the upstart Fox as its managing editor and headline anchor, retired and was replaced by Bill Sammon from the Washington Times. Major Garrett, who’d come to Fox after a career at US News and CNN, left for National Journal after getting frustrated with the war between his employer and the Obama administration. Bret Baier still gets kudos as a straight news guy but he’s on an island surrounded by a sea of propagandists and nitwits.

If the feature is to be believed, Ailes finally figured out that he’d created a monster when Glenn Beck started becoming the face of his network. He’d doubled the ratings of the 5 o’clock slot but at the cost of filling it with a freak show. Fox News became so widely seen as a something other than a news network that even the president openly stopped pretending otherwise.

Hiring a stable of presidential aspirants to star on the network further damaged its brand as a news outlet. And, it turns out, being a television sideshow isn’t the ideal way to build a presidential reputation! Meanwhile, while stoking the Tea Party movement was great for ratings in the off year, it’s now made it much harder for an electable Republican to get nominated.

Ailes has apparently realized this and is desperately courting New Jersey governor Chris Christie to run.

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.

That seems rather unlikely.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    “If the feature is to be believed, Ailes finally figured out that he’d created a monster when Glenn Beck started becoming the face of his network.”

    Interesting to me that the establishment GOP is coming to have similar reservations about the Tea Party (a creation of Fox, really). The difference (category mistake aside) is, Beck just wants to get out of cable news (and stop being a monkey on Ailes’s back), and the TP wants to eat the establishment GOP.

  2. Peacewood says:

    The more interesting issue in my mind is: suppose Ailes decides to completely bail on the Tea Party from here on out (extremely unlikely, I grant). How much would the Tea Party as a movement suffer as a consequence?

    In short, how much does the TP owe its standing to favorable Fox coverage?

  3. MM says:

    The more interesting issue in my mind is: suppose Ailes decides to completely bail on the Tea Party from here on out (extremely unlikely, I grant). How much would the Tea Party as a movement suffer as a consequence?

    The tea party is already suffering based on the fact that they are getting almost zero coverage and the fact that most of the people who matter have realized that the Tea Party is interested in getting Republicans (granted, republicans with a specific vocabulary about fiscal issues, but republicans) elected. Nikki Haley spoke at a Tea Party gathering in SC that had 30 people, most of the tax day events around the country got a tenth or a hundredth of what they had in 2009/2010.

    They’ll get lip service in 2012, because they have mailing lists and a fundraising apparatus, and that will likely be the end of it. Once Ailes backs off far enough, some GOP candidate in 2014 or 2016 (Apparently Chris Christie if Ailes has his way) will have his Sister Soulja moment by slamming the Birchers and the birthers and Beck, FOX will run with it, Kristol will run with it and the Tea Party will either fold into the GOP quietly (which most of the members want to do anyway), or become nothing but Birchers and people standing around in trifold hats scaring children.

    The Tea Party only exists because the GOP was such a damaged brand in 2008. Even if Obama wins 2012, it’s not likely that the Dems will get the Senate and the House back, so short of an utter meltdown (like nominating Bachmann), the GOP won’t be a damaged brand going into 2014 or 2016.

  4. jwest says:

    “If the feature is to be believed…”

    And why wouldn’t people believe an unsourced hit piece from an obviously hate-filled liberal?

    I used to wonder why anyone would be stupid enough to send money to Nigerian scam artists, but in reading the accounts of these people, they wanted to believe the story was true so badly that what little common sense they had was ignored. These were not uneducated, backwoods people (who wouldn’t make a lucrative target anyway), but professionals, school administrators and nurses.

    With this article, the author desperately wants to believe that Beck leaving his show at Fox was something greater than him shedding an insignificant portion of his income in exchange for a great deal more time to devote to other (more profitable) interests. He reads into the situation a desire on Ailes’ part to rid the network of Beck, but in the same breath says the sticking point to a exit deal was FOX’s desire to have 6 specials as opposed to Beck desire to only do 4. Typical liberal reasoning. From this point, the article extrapolates a fantasy scenario of a regretful Ailes, who created a monster with his network and who now wishes he would be accepted as a good person by the left.

    New York Magazine, capitalizing on the depth of naiveté of their audience, also wants their readers to believe that the author’s “sources” were privy to Roger Ailes’ budget meetings, his private conversations with GOP figures and employees and his opinion of Sarah Palin. No doubt, the weak minded are thrilled with this type of “reporting” and take every word as fact. Let’s hope James views this with a bit more skepticism.

  5. hey norm says:

    Ailes has been an unquestionable success in grabbing ratings in the well-off, white, old, suburban demographic (folks who wear tea bags dangling from their hats). But he has done nothing for the Conservative project. Since Fox news took off in the Clinton years the deficit has exploded, the size of government has exploded, and the Twin Towers exploded – all on the Republicans watch. Fiscal responsibility, limited government, national security – three legs of the Republican stool snapped like twigs. I’ve said it many times before – now the Republicans are only about tax cuts for the rich, torture and uteruse control. The bleach blondes at Fox may drive the news cycle, but the record shows they have had a negative impact on what is actually happening in the Republican party.

  6. jwest says:

    Norm,

    Were you asleep during the 2010 midterms?

  7. michael reynolds says:

    Allow me to deploy an “I Toldja So.” When Ailes fired Beck I said it was to clear the decks for the election, that Ailes knew he’d be toxic.

    On a separate note I admire the fact that you wrote this, James. Any conservative with aspirations of punditry must know that public criticism of Fox is a potential problem. Kudos.

  8. jwest says:

    James,

    Michael is right. Any “conservative” with aspirations to be a pundit on left-wing cable news needs to be able to buy into bullshit like this with a straight face.

    “Why yes, Chris, I believe Barack Obama was highly qualified for the presidency”

    Just keep practicing line like this. You’ll make it someday.

  9. cB says:

    In short, how much does the TP owe its standing to favorable Fox coverage

    at first, this may have been true, but i think the notion of the TP as a viable party has become pervasive enough that they could still make some waves in national, and especially local, coverage. granted, not as big without the FN wave-machine, but i still think theyre a locally viable party.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    the author desperately wants to believe that Beck leaving his show at Fox was something greater than him shedding an insignificant portion of his income in exchange for a great deal more time to devote to other (more profitable) interests.

    Ladies and Gentlemen: I give you the brainwashed mind.

  11. cB says:

    its a knee-jerk reaction to a fairly well reasoned piece, albeit one with some flaws in its logic. best not to feed him.

  12. sam says:

    “I give you the brainwashed mind.”

    That’s a reach.

  13. jwest says:

    Michael,

    Had you read the article or knew anything about Beck or business, you would know that his FOX salary was a small fraction of Beck’s 40 million/year income.

    Although to a liberal having a cable show is the pinnacle of their existence, conservatives operate in a world an order of magnitude greater, both in audience and money.

  14. Hey Norm says:

    Jwest…
    Since the 2010 midterms the so-called republicans have done nothing but incrase the deficit, and wage a culture war in an attempt to control all productive uteruses. They voted to continue the Bush tax cuts which are by far the biggest driver of future debt. The voted to repeal and not replace the ACA, which would have the effect of increasing the deficit and the debt. The have waged an assault on Planned Parenthood, an organization which Jon Kyle (famously) lied about in order to demonize. They negotiated a budget deal, which (comically) actually increases the deficit. And they voted for The Path to Prosperity which gives even more tax cuts to the rich, and continues to up the debt even after Medicare is abolished.
    I’m sorry pal – but the facts do not match your ideology.

  15. oricowits says:

    “The bleach blondes at Fox may drive the news cycle, but the record shows they have had a negative impact on what is actually happening in the Republican party.”

    And that is a good thing, right? We all know republicans nearly destroyed the country and may well have succeeded if not for the people rising up to elect our historic president and the absolute yeoman work of the 111th congress. Republicans would never have even figured out the cure for profligate spending and ever larger government is to exponentially increase them, let alone have the courage to take such bold actions.

  16. jwest says:

    Norm,

    I’m sorry, but the election results don’t match your version of the “facts”.

    Unemployment over 9%, spiraling debt, gas over $4 a gallon, three wars, totally inept foreign policy, public employees retiring at 55 with full pay and benefits, lifeguards making $250,000 a year, half of Detroit (and more of D.C. and Baltimore) can’t read…. Do you think anyone is going to vote for this failed president or his party?

    Perception is reality. No president has ever been elected with right track/wrong track numbers like Obama has. Democrats in the senate have seen their own internal polls and are flocking into retirement to avoid what will surely be the most embarrassing election since Jimmy Carter.

  17. cB says:

    Democrats in the senate have seen their own internal polls…

    should read ‘the senate’. americans these days are equal opportunity haters. how bout a little intellectual honesty.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Funny, I did not realize Obama decided how much a lifeguard in Huntington Beach makes. You learn something new every day.

  19. hey norm says:

    Jesus-God JWest…if any of that were true I wouldn’t vote for him either. Unfortunately it’s not.
    Lets go point by point:
    * Unemployment over 9% – well not really. At any rate Bush left the country a 7.6% rate (after inheriting a 4.5% rate) and a market shedding over 600,000 jobs a month. Obama would have to get to something like 13% to match the piss-poor Republican performance. So whats your point?
    *Spiraling debt – driven primarily by Bush tax cuts, unpaid for wars, and unpaid for entitlement expansion. So what’s your point?
    *Gas over $4 a gallon – and thats Obama’s fault? It’s an important macroeconomic factor, but only seriously foolish people blame Obama for gas prices. So what’s your point?
    *Three wars – Iraq and Afghanistan were started by and left unfinished by the Bush Administration. Libya can hardly be considered a war. So what’s your point?
    *Totally inept foreign policy – Obama is so inept he actually killed OBL instead of just talking about it. So what’s your point?
    *Public employees retiring at 55 with full pay and benefits – that’s a problem created by Obama? It wasn’t even an issue until Bush crashed the economy and States could no longer live up to their commitments.
    *Lifeguards making $250,000 a year – really? You are going to blame Obama for the salary on lifeguards on Newport Beach?
    *Half of Detroit (and more of D.C. and Baltimore) can’t read – really? That’s Obama’s fault? They could read before Jan. 20, 2009? And they can’t now? Really?
    Obama’s polling has been a pretty steady line all along. His approval is uncannily similar to Reagan.

  20. jwest says:

    Anjin-san & Norm,

    Do either of you have any idea of how politics works? The fact that we’re on this website discussing politics shows that we are in a tiny minority of people who know and care about what is happening. The vast majority of people haven’t a clue.

    It doesn’t matter what Obama has done or hasn’t, he’s the president. Just as it didn’t matter back when the republicans in congress engineered the budget and put us in surplus, Clinton was given the credit. Same thing when Kathleen Blanco caused hundreds of deaths due to incompetence and corruption, Bush took the blame.

    Obama just happened to be the unlucky bastard that was sitting in the seat when most people think the country is heading down the toilet. He and his party will take a beating like few others in the next election due to this phenomenon.

  21. hey norm says:

    you claim to know whats happening but absolutely nothing you say comports with the facts – because people like you watch fox news.
    Bush ’41 got together with Democrats and passed a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. Clinton then did more of the the same in ’93 – before republicans took control in congress. That’s where the surpluses came from – not the Republican social engineering.
    The Bush administration decimated FEMA – and that was Blanco’s fault?
    Criminy – buy a dog, name it Clue – then you will have one.

  22. Socrates says:

    By the way, I keep hearing that Bret Baier is the straight news guy, but that’s bunk.

    I watch his show pretty much every day, and I think anyone else who watches often knows that Baier has lots of right-wing bias.

    Stewart did a piece quite a while back where he contrasted Baier interviewing G W Bush with total softball questions, and then Baier’s very combative interview with President Obama (which was actually pretty rude.)

    And just watch the update thing at the bottom of the hour, it’s almost totally made of “liberals are idiots” stories. And he often jumps into the panel conversation with winger talking points.

    Obviously he doesn’t have the same kind of winger bile that we get from the other knuckleheads on FOX, but don’t let that lull you into complacency.

    Come on!

  23. jwest says:

    Norm,

    Just to let you in on a secret, the surpluses weren’t the result of Clinton or the republican congress. They came from the profits generated in the dot com bubble. When the economy does well, money pours into the government coffers.

    The disturbing part of your comment is your (and all other liberals) total ignorance as to what FEMA is and what it does. This, coupled with your lack of understanding of how the federal, state and local governments are organized and how they function in disasters will, no doubt, lead to more needless deaths in the future.

    Don’t you liberals ever grow tired of the misery, poverty and deaths you cause because of your unwillingness to learn the fundamentals of our country?

    Hang your uninformed leftist head in shame.

  24. ponce says:

    All Republican hair pulling and rending of garments is just a realization of the fact that Obama is a very formidable incumbent.

  25. hey norm says:

    J West…
    At 11:30 you said: “…back when the republicans in congress engineered the budget and put us in surplus…” Then when confronted with facts that don’t fit your ideology you changed your mind and said: “…the surpluses weren’t the result of Clinton or the republican congress. They came from the profits generated in the dot com bubble…”
    I guess I’ll just wait until 1:30 and see what you think then. Your opinions are like the weather in New England – if you don’t like it just wait an hour. Let us know when you actually decide on what you think that you think.
    Fool.

  26. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: All incumbents are formidable. Re-election is the default position for U.S. presidents.

    Obama’s a strong campaigner and fundraiser, which helps. But the economy remains horrid, especially on the jobs front. That hurts.

    He’s quite beatable if current conditions prevail. Romney could give him a strong fight. I don’t know enough about Pawlenty to know if he could. No way Huntsman is nominated. And none of the other current candidates would seem to pass the giggle test.

  27. Jib says:

    jwest, as the democrats found out in 2004, who you nominate for president matters. At some point, the poll questions will stop being ‘how good a job is Obama doing’ and start being ‘do you want Obama or this republican to be your president’. Right now it does not look like the answer to that question will be good for republicans. There is a chance Obama will lose but there is an equal chance that republicans will have there McGovern moment and nominate some one way out of the main stream and go down in flaming defeat. The higher chance is a close win for Obama.

    The horrendous performance of the class of 2010 republicans at both the state and federal level will have consequences in the 2012 election. The republican governors elected in the swing states have seen their popularity crash. None would win re-election today but they are not running today or in 2012. But the house republicans elected in those same swing states are. And they will bear the brunt of the tea party backlash.

    Polls show 70%+ of American’s favor raising taxes on the rich, 80%+ favor leaving Medicare alone. Those are amazing numbers given how highly partisan the country is. Yet the republicans main plan once in office was to cut taxes on the rich and slash Medicare. Did they think no one would notice?

    My prediction, Obama wins, Republicans take the Senate, Dems re-take the House.

  28. ponce says:

    All incumbents are formidable. Re-election is the default position for U.S. presidents.

    Yes, but the Republicans have been drinking their own “Obama is the worst prsident in history” kool-aid for so long they’ve forgotten that fact.

    None of their candidates have a chance against Obama even if the economy stays where it is right up to the election.

    And what happened to the House Republicans?

    Did they get sworn in then go on a six month recess?

  29. Wayne says:

    Right Fox has been such a disaster and is in such disarray. It is the only News network that has been increasing in ratings. CNN and MSNBC ratings are dropping like a lead balloon. The election of Obama has helped Fox’s ratings. Also Sheppard Smith has more than just flashes at time that he is a liberal and he is by far not the only liberal on the network.

  30. oricowits says:

    If 80+% favor leaving medicare alone, does not the $500 billion Obamacare cuts from medicare create a conflict. Seems like demonizing republicans for ‘wanting’ to do something Obama & crew have already done is contradictary and more than a little disingenuous. This could be a gamble as a campaign issue. It is certainly an indication of republican fecklessness that they have not already made a point of this.

  31. Moosebreath says:

    “And none of the other current candidates would seem to pass the giggle test.”

    James, with all respect, this statement shows how far you are from the mainstream of your party. By the time the voting starts, the majority of Republican primary voters will not think this of Bachmann (or Palin if she decides to run). They are already showing signs this is not true of Cain.

  32. john personna says:

    While we’re keeping score ;-), remember that I called “shark jump” at the “I am not a witch” moment.

    It’s all been downhill from there.

  33. Hey Norm says:

    Oriciwits…
    The republicans did demonize the democrats for this imagined travesty in the leadup to the 2010 election…reducing waste and overpayments by some $500b and using the money to close the doughnut hole…and then the same republicans turned around and voted to abolish Medicare outright. That’s how they roll…

  34. anjin-san says:

    Were you asleep during the 2010 midterms?

    jwest has still not figured out that when all is said and done, 2010 was a net win for Democrats. The GOP Congress is a gift that keeps on giving, and newly minted GOP governors are fading rapidly. Elector votes are going south with them…

  35. Southern Hooser says:

    It sounds like Roger Ailes has anointed himself the kingmaker.