New York — Fox News Channel is minus founding leader Roger Ailes but not its direction, Rupert Murdoch vowed.
“I am personally committed to ensuring that Fox News remains a distinctive, powerful voice. Our nation needs a robust Fox News to resonate from every corner of the country,” Murdoch said in a statement Thursday after Ailes, 76, resigned under pressure as chief executive while fighting a workplace misconduct suit.
The vacuum left by his departure after two decades will be filled for now by Murdoch, 85, the executive chairman of network parent 21st Century Fox. He will run Fox News and its sister Fox Business Network, which Ailes had also led, until a successor is found.
Former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit alleges she was forced out by Ailes after she spurned his sexual advances. Ailes has denied the claims and did not comment on his resignation.
But Carlson’s attorneys did.
“We hope that all businesses now understand that women will no longer tolerate sexual harassment and reputable companies will no longer shield those who abuse women,” lawyers Nancy Erika Smith and Martin Hyman said in a statement.
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.
Murdoch and 21st Century Fox did not address the widening scandal in the statement but lauded Ailes for his contributions. Details were not given on the settlement agreement for a contract that was supposed to run through 2018, but Ailes is expected to get a payment of at least $40 million.
Ailes will have no formal role in the company, but is expected to serve as an informal adviser to Murdoch, said a person familiar with the agreement who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is a personnel matter. The deal is also said to have a standard no-compete clause.
Fox is heading into a general election campaign in its customary spot at the top of the ratings, but without the man who sets its editorial tone every day. The announcement came on the day Donald Trump accepted the GOP nomination for president, a speech likely to be watched by more people on Fox than any other network.
Ailes groomed no obvious successors, and has been so identified with the brand that many have a hard time envisioning the network without him. Will the person who follows him lack Ailes’ political instincts, or tone down aggressive opinion? That could make Fox more broadly palatable, but also risks alienating the audience that has made Fox such a success.
Murdoch said Fox managers Bill Shine, Jay Wallace and Mark Kranz will assist in day-to-day management of the network. The Murdoch sons may also seek to make a statement by reaching outside the current Fox News culture.
The blustery Ailes 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 lawsuit filing by Carlson, who charged that he sabotaged her career because she refused his suggestions for sex and had complained about a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment at Fox. 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 Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, determined that Ailes had to go. The company has no plans to make results of its investigation public.
Before the claims, Fox’s sheer success had insulated Ailes despite some previous scrapes with the Murdoch sons over who he would report to. 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.
Critics scoffed at Ailes’ promise that he’d lift Fox to first place. By 2002, he did, and Fox hasn’t looked back.
He was also a showman. Fox had flashier graphics, brighter colors and a vitality its staid rivals lacked. The daytime show “Outnumbered” is a classic Ailes concept: four women in dresses, their legs prominently displayed, debating issues with a single male panelist.
In 2011, Ailes told The Associated Press that he hired Sarah Palin as an analyst — a decision that later gave him headaches — “because she was hot and got ratings.”
While ratings are soaring in an election year, a newly aggressive CNN is making inroads among younger viewers that advertisers seek. Fox faces the challenge of trying to inject youth into an audience that is among the oldest in television, and viewership is expected to inevitably fall without the excitement of a campaign.
The network has been remarkably stable, with personalities bonded from loyalty to Ailes. Host Bill O’Reilly has recently mused about retirement, and he and Sean Hannity reportedly have contract provisions that would allow them to leave if Ailes does. Kelly’s contract ends later this year and it would be a huge blow to the network if she left.
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