Everyone knew it was coming, but few thought it would happen so fast.
Roger Ailes built Fox News from scratch into a cable news powerhouse, easily outdistancing his rivals at MSNBC and CNN. But sexual harassment allegations from at least 20 women have derailed his career as Ailes tendered his resignation to Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox.
The blustery, 76-year-old media executive built a network that both transformed the news business and changed the political conversation. Fox News Channel provided a television home to conservatives who had felt left out of the media, and played a part in advancing a rough-and-tumble style of politics that left many concerned that it was impossible to get things done in government.
Ailes’ downfall began with the July 6 filing of a lawsuit by Gretchen Carlson, who charged that Ailes sabotaged her career because she refused his suggestions for sex and had complained about a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment at Fox. Ailes has denied the charges, but 21st Century Fox hired a law firm to investigate.
Several Fox employees jumped to Ailes’ defense, but notably not Megyn Kelly, one of Fox’s top personalities. In rapid succession, it was reported that Kelly was among other women who had told investigators about harassment – again denied by Ailes – and that corporate heads Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, determined that Ailes had to go.
Within two weeks of the court filing, Carlson’s lawyers also said more than 20 women had contacted the firm with stories of alleged harassment by Ailes either against themselves or someone they knew. Two came forward publicly.
Before the charges, Fox’s sheer success had insulated Ailes despite some previous scrapes with the Murdoch sons. Fox News Channel is the parent company’s single most important property, said Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser, with some estimates that it accounted for nearly a quarter of the company’s profits.
Ailes was a prominent Republican media consultant who later ran CNBC before Murdoch asked him to create a cable news network to compete with CNN at the same time MSNBC was starting. Ailes’ slogans, “fair and balanced” and “we report, you decide,” appealed to an audience that believed mainstream outlets didn’t live up to those promises.
“He was ahead of his time in recognizing that dividing, not uniting, an audience would be the key to commercial success in the 21st Century cable news business,” said Matt Sienkiewicz, communications professor at Boston College. Ailes blew apart the notion that public affairs programming should target a broad audience with civil debates, he said.
There has been some hot speculation in Cleveland that Ailes would replace Paul Manafort as campaign manager. That isn’t likely. But Ailes as a super-consultant — a campaign overseer of sorts? Trump could use his help and wisdom, that’s for sure.
Wherever he ends up, Ailes will no doubt prove his value as he has at Fox News for the last 20 years. He almost certainly won’t go to work for CNN or MSNBC. But there may be right-leaning media companies looking to grow that would be willing to pay Ailes for his considerable expertise.
Whatever happens, you can be sure he ends up on his feet.