Roger Ailes is out at Fox News. The media tycoon resigned on Thursday, just two weeks after former anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment. Ailes, the founder and now former CEO of Fox News, had a long history in Republican politics before building Fox News into a media powerhouse. Here, Dan Kennedy, associate professor in the School of Journalism and a nationally known media commentator, talks about Ailes’ swift downfall and what his departure may mean for the future of journalism.
Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote, “Two weeks. That’s all it took from Gretchen Carlson’s filing a sexual harassment suit against Fox News chief Roger Ailes to the evident demise of one of the most powerful figures in American media and politics.” Are you surprised at the swiftness of the investigation and Ailes’s ultimate resignation?
I’m surprised and I’m not surprised. We talked about this recently on WGBH-TV’s Beat the Press. At the time we were all in agreement that if no other women came forward, then Carlson’s claims were likely to fizzle into a he said/she said standoff. As it turned out, numerous other women emerged to level serious accusations of sexual harassment against Ailes. Once that occurred, it was only a matter of time before he’d be shown the door. Times have changed, and the kind of towel-snapping, sexually charged atmosphere that may have been tolerated in the workplace years ago is now, thankfully, seen as unacceptable.
Then, too, it’s been widely reported that Rupert Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James, detest Ailes, and had long sought a reason to shove him aside. The Fox News Channel may be a profitable juggernaut, but the average age of its prime-time viewers is 68, by far the oldest of the three major cable news outlets. I can’t imagine that the Murdochs will want to turn Fox News into a liberal bastion. But I can see them trying to move away from rabid Republican partisanship and try to appeal to a younger demographic by positioning Fox as more conventionally conservative and getting serious about digital.
That same Washington Post article said that Ailes “had an undeniable role in creating the political atmosphere in which Donald Trump has thrived enough to become the Republican nominee for president.” How has one media outlet had such a profound effect on public opinion in America?
The three network evening newscasts may be shrinking, but they draw a far larger combined audience than Fox News—nearly 22 million viewers for just 30 minutes versus 1.36 million per day for Fox. The reason that Fox punches well above its weight class in terms of influence is that it has relentlessly pursued a certain type of viewer: older, overwhelmingly white, and convinced that the mainstream media are hopelessly liberal mouthpieces for an establishment that doesn’t speak to them.
The reason that Fox punches well above its weight class in terms of influence is that it has relentlessly pursued a certain type of viewer: older, overwhelmingly white, and convinced that the mainstream media are hopelessly liberal mouthpieces for an establishment that doesn’t speak to them.
The founding principles of the modern conservative movement are grievance and resentment, and Fox News has long indulged those emotions through absurdities such as the nonexistent “war on Christmas” and by portraying someone like Barack Obama—the African American son of a single mother—as a privileged elitist. This message is reinforced over and over by hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who ooze outrage on behalf of their angry viewers.
The result of all this is that Fox News has emerged as the single most powerful force in choosing Republican candidates for president. The irony is that Ailes and company created a monster they couldn’t control—Trump, a racist demagogue who is the most unpopular major-party nominee in history, and who showed he didn’t need Fox by publicly feuding with Megyn Kelly.
Does Ailes’s downfall carry with it any larger meaning for the future of journalism? How might the way we interact with the news change as a result of his departure?
Nothing will change at first. Ailes is gone because he was sexually harassing women, not because his formula had ceased to work or because ratings were on the wane. Quite the opposite.
But the end of the Ailes era does mean that we will transition to something different over the next few years. As I said, the Murdoch brothers are likely to take steps in terms of tone and technology in order to bring in a younger audience. CNN’s and MSNBC’s viewers also skew old, although not as much as Fox’s.
Over time, the end of the Ailes era will stand as yet another milestone in the shift from traditional forms of media to digital.
CNN has already made some smart moves by launching an international channel and by going all-in on digital with a terrific website, lots of high-quality digital-only content, and very good mobile apps. According to comScore, CNN.com receives well over a billion page views per month, which makes it by far the largest online news organization. In the long run, that will prove more important than lagging behind Fox among cable viewers.
Over time, the end of the Ailes era will stand as yet another milestone in the shift from traditional forms of media to digital. My concern is that other aspects of the Ailes legacy—the elevation of opinion over fact and bloviation over reporting—will prove to be durable regardless of what form the news of the future may take.