CONFLICT OF INTEREST? The Politically Malleable Ethics Of Roger Ailes

Roger Ailes apparently objects to staffers having family ties to the public figures they cover -- at least when those public figures happen to be Democrats.

According to New York magazine's blockbuster profile, the Fox News boss was upset that one of his executives -- whose brother was serving as an Obama foreign policy adviser -- was too close to the incoming administration:

Then, three weeks after the election, David Rhodes, Fox's vice-­president for news, quit to work for Bloomberg. Rhodes had started at Fox as a 22-year-old production assistant and risen through the ranks to become No. 2 in charge of news. His brother was a senior foreign-policy aide to Obama, and Rhodes told staffers that Ailes had expressed concern about this closeness to the White House. Rhodes privately told people he was uncomfortable with where Fox was going in the Obama era.

That story may seem surprising to anyone who remembers the 2000 presidential election. Back then, Ailes seemed to have no problem with John Ellis -- who happened to be a vocal supporter of his cousin, George W. Bush -- leading Fox News' “decision desk.” It was Ellis and his team who made the election night recommendation to call Florida (and, therefore, the election) for Bush -- a decision Fox would ultimately have to retract. At the same time, Ellis was using his position at Fox to feed information to the Bush campaign.

As Howard Kurtz reported at the time:

Even as he was leading the Fox decision desk that night, John Ellis was also on the phone with his cousins--“Jebbie,” the governor of Florida, and the presidential candidate himself--giving them updated assessments of the vote count.

Ellis's projection was crucial because Fox News Channel put Florida in the W. column at 2:16 a.m.--followed by NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC within four minutes. That decision, which turned out to be wrong and was retracted by the embarrassed networks less than two hours later, created the impression that Bush had “won” the White House.

Which is why media circles were buzzing yesterday with the question of why Fox had installed a Bush relative in such a sensitive post.


Ellis, who lives in Irvington, N.Y., was among those briefing Fox News President Roger Ailes last Tuesday night, but he was not a total Bush loyalist. At 7:52 p.m., Fox called Florida for Al Gore based on Ellis's recommendation, though Fox was not the first to make that projection. After Fox's report, according to the New Yorker, Jeb Bush called and asked Ellis: “Are you sure?”

The Gore call, based heavily on exit polls from Voter News Service, also turned out to be wrong and was retracted by the networks two hours later.

At 2 a.m., Ellis called his cousins to say it was “statistically impossible” for Gore to win Florida. “Their mood was up, big-time,” Ellis told the New Yorker's Jane Mayer. “It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth--me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the president-elect. Now that was cool.”

John Moody, then a Fox News vice president, defended Fox's decision to install Bush's cousin in the vital election night role. Moody told Kurtz, “It would be as strange not to hire him because of who he's related to as to hire him especially because of who he's related to.”

Ailes agreed, telling a congressional panel in 2001 that Ellis' hiring was appropriate and that Fox “do[es] not discriminate against people because of their family connections.”

As The Guardian observed during the Florida recount fight, Ellis' team's recommendation to call the election for Bush “proved convenient for Republicans in the ongoing PR war, say media watchers, creating a lasting impression that Bush 'won' the White House - and all the legal wrangling down in Florida is just a case of Democratic 'snippiness.' ”

After Rhodes left Fox eight years later, he was replaced by a new vice president of news -- Bill Sammon, who, among other things, wrote a book titled, At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election.