No one seemed to believe that Ailes had breached media ethics. Nor was anyone surprised that Ailes had asked Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland to ask Petraeus if there was “anything Fox is doing right or wrong that you want to tell us to do differently.” Indeed, it is just what people have come to expect from the veteran Republican strategist who, in 2005, sent a note to then-Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice offering “help off the record” any time.
If there is a line of demarcation between the conservative Fox News and the liberal MSNBC, this is it: MSNBC may be hyper-partisan, but -- at least for now -- it is not a political operation.
It's a perverse sort of dynamic in which the president of a news organization is shielded from revelations of unethical behavior by his long-established record of unethical behavior. And while it's certainly true that Fox News is first and foremost a political operation, that doesn't explain entirely why Ailes is free to behave the way he does. The network also has a dysfunctional (one could argue nonexistent) culture of accountability.
Ailes has long benefited from Fox News' low standards for professional conduct. Most significantly, this isn't the first time he's been caught trying to persuade Republicans to run against President Obama. New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman reported last year that Ailes personally “called Chris Christie and encouraged him to jump into the race. Last summer, he'd invited Christie to dinner at his upstate compound along with Rush Limbaugh, and like much of the GOP Establishment, he fell hard for Christie, who nevertheless politely turned down Ailes's calls to run.” (Ailes later denied the Christie report. He also claimed his Petraeus pitch “was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have.” )
Then there's Ailes' inexcusable and outlandish behavior. In 2010, after NPR fired news analyst Juan Williams, Ailes lashed out at NPR executives, saying: “They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism.” Ailes later amended his remarks, apologizing to the Anti-Defamation League -- not NPR -- for use of the word “Nazi,” explaining that " 'nasty, inflexible bigot" would have worked better." For all this Ailes was rewarded with a four-year contract extension in October of this year.
The lax standards of accountability applied to Ailes trickle downward through the rest of Fox News. When it was revealed that Bill Sammon, Fox News' Washington managing editor, was directing news staff to cast doubt on climate science and tie President Obama to “Marxists” and “socialism” (an idea he later admitted to thinking was “far-fetched” and “mischievous” ), Sammon faced no public consequences.
Karl Rove, a Fox News political analyst, used Fox News air time to hype political figures whose races his American Crossroads super PAC had invested in. He talked up former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as a potential Romney Cabinet member shortly after Bush agreed to help Rove raise money for American Crossroads. Rove has faced no public consequences, and seems to be under no requirement to disclose his many conflicting interests.
Dick Morris, who can hardly open his mouth without running into a conflict of interest, was caught auctioning off tours of Fox News studios to raise money for Republicans. Fox News said they'd “reprimanded” Morris, but he remains a constant presence at the network.
Fox News just does not adhere to any sort of accepted standard for accountability. They're relentlessly political, and so long as you're on the right side ideologically, the attitude is “anything goes.”
UPDATE: After this post was published, New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman reported that Fox News has told its producers that it now must ask permission before booking Karl Rove or Dick Morris:
According to multiple Fox sources, Ailes has issued a new directive to his staff: He wants the faces associated with the election off the air -- for now. For Karl Rove and Dick Morris -- a pair of pundits perhaps most closely aligned with Fox's anti-Obama campaign -- Ailes's orders mean new rules. Ailes's deputy, Fox News programming chief Bill Shine, has sent out orders mandating that producers must get permission before booking Rove or Morris.
Sherman also reported that a Fox spokesperson “confirmed the new booking rules for Rove and Morris, and explained that Shine's message was 'the election's over.' ”