July 21, 2017

Report: Murdochs Wanted Fox News to Be Never-Trump; Ailes Refused

Wednesday morning, Michael Wolff at The Hollywood Reporter, based on what conversations he claims to have had “on a regular basis” with recently deceased former Fox News Chairman and CEO, claimed that Rupert Murdoch, and especially his sons, “were agitated by Ailes’ regard” for presidential candidate Donald Trump. Wolff claims that the elder Murdoch “instructed Ailes to tilt to anyone but Trump … even Hillary.”

Though it’s fair to question the analogy Wolff contends that Ailes used, his basic description of how Ailes reacted to Rupert Murdoch’s instruction seems credible (bolds are mine throughout this post):

It was Ailes’ tacit support of Trump that, in part, made his removal from Fox all the more urgent for the Murdochs. And it was not just the liberal sons who were agitated by Ailes’ regard for Trump, but also the father, whose tabloid, the New York Post, helped create Trump, but who found him now, with great snobbery, not of “our” conservative class. (“When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” Murdoch senior tweeted the day after Trump officially declared himself a candidate.) Murdoch instructed Ailes to tilt to anyone but Trump, Ailes confided to me before he was fired, even Hillary. (Ailes, for his part, characterized Murdoch’s periodic efforts at interference as similar to Nixon’s instructions to bomb this or that country — best ignored.)

The guess here is that if Ailes actually said what Wolff claims he said, the former Fox News CEO was attempting to play into a mythical stereotype about Nixon. Nixon bombed Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam, but he’s not known to have ordered those exercises without having a military objective. That stands in stark contrast to Bill Clinton, who a quarter-century later, bombed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to distract from a sex scandal.

The main point is that Ailes didn’t change what he was doing with Fox during the election campaign.

He didn’t force actual news reports to tilt in any one direction. As he did for nearly 20 years, he continued to let his commentators, pundits, and opinion-show hosts freely express their views. As anyone who watched the network during the 2016 campaign knows, some were vocally anti-Trump, even to the point of being virtually never-Trump, while others got behind the eventual Republican nominee.

As a result, while virtually everyone else in the establishment press was obviously anti-Trump — with more reporters and editors than one could hope to count insisting that stopping Trump demanded that normal journalistic standards of fairness, balance and objectivity should no longer apply — no one could credibly accuse Fox News as a network , despite Ailes’ reported “regard” and “tacit support” for Trump, of having been blindly pro- or anti-Trump during that period.

Consistent with that take, Greta Van Susteren, who hosted evening shows at Fox for 14 years, tweeted on Thursday: “Just FYI: Neither Roger Ailes nor @rupertmurdoch ever told me to say/do anything about the race.”

Wolff reports that the election result was mortifying to the Murdochs, who, in addition to not liking Trump, apparently felt he had no chance to win:

After the election, a confounded Murdoch had to call on his ex-wife Wendi’s friends, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, to broker a rapprochement with the disreputable Donald. Now, to Trump’s great satisfaction, a humbled Murdoch is a constant caller.

Since then, according to Wolff, the Murdochs have worked to turn Ailes into a non-person:

The Murdochs, with a strict confidentiality provision in Ailes’ contract and administering a slow-drip payout of the millions owed him, were able to enforce his silence as they pursued their plan to erase his place in their corporate history. The 20th anniversary of Fox News happened without anyone uttering the name of the dominant figure in cable news.

Fox dropped its Ailes-era “fair and balanced” motto in June, though Special Report host Bret Baier continues to end his show by describing it as “fair, balanced and unafraid.”

Wolff’s take is that Ailes, in a sense, had the last laugh:

There were two different Americas located in different worlds and different times, ever-more unrecognizable to each other — that was Ailes’ political and business insight, which Trump has now carried to a stunning conclusion. Ironically for Ailes, Murdoch senior had built his fortune cultivating one of those worlds — presciently using Ailes’ talents to cultivate it — but his aspirational sons now saw their future in the other.

Fox was the clear cable ratings winner in the second quarter. One would think that the Murdochs’ primary objective would be avoid “fixing” something that isn’t broken. Long-term, that appears not to be the case — especially considering how many other broadcast and cable news outlets are already firmly positioned in the “other world.”


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