Will 2016 Be Roger Ailes' Final Fox News Campaign?

Trump Candidacy Marks The Ailes Legacy

The aura of invincibility that Roger Ailes quickly tried to create at Fox News last week after news broke about Rupert Murdoch's executive succession plans has now evaporated. The implications may be long lasting, not only for the cable channel, but also for the Republican Party.

Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, Ailes has ruled the Fox News fiefdom within Murdoch's sprawling 21st Century Fox media empire and built it into a hugely influential moneymaker. The Ailes programming fingerprint has always been omnipresent at Fox.  

But now as Murdoch signals his eventual withdrawal from corporate leadership and hands the reigns over his sons, James and Lachlan, Ailes is suddenly left without his key ally and now faces a somewhat uncertain future. (Fox's contract with Ailes, who is 75, expires next year.) The Fox boss now has to report to Murdoch's children, both of whom he has sparred with in the past and who have reportedly signaled their distaste for Ailes' brand of toxic programming. In previous corporate scuffles, Ailes always emerged victorious because he had Rupert's final support. 

Not anymore.

“For Ailes, it was a stinging smack-down and effectively a demotion,” wrote Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman in New York. “Roger Ailes Burned By Murdoch Sons In Fox News Power Shift,” read the Talking Points Memo headline. (Also note that Ailes is losing another longtime corporate ally, Chase Carey, who's resigning as chief operating officer.)

For the Republican Party, the swirling questions inside Fox News mean this campaign season might be the last one Ailes pilots as the head of Fox News, or at least as the head of Fox News as we currently recognize it. (If the Murdoch sons eventually set out to alter the network, will Ailes have the power to stop them?)

Having seamlessly turned Fox News into the marketing and 'policy' wing of the Republican Party, the current campaign season could mark the end of an era if Ailes' internal power is eroded. Some inside the Republican Party and conservative movement might actually be wondering if that's a good thing.

How fitting is it that the same week Ailes struggles to maintain his power base, Donald Trump's looming presidential campaign emerges into full view? A longtime Fox favorite, Trump, who personifies the often tasteless brand of divisive rhetoric that Ailes helped hallmark, is poised to unleash a presidential push that could do deep damage to the Republican Party.

If forced to pick a Republican candidate to endorse, Trump likely would not be Ailes' choice. (The Fox boss prefers to side with possible winners.) But the content of Trump's message is undeniably Ailes-esque. Trump's a cartoonish nativist birther who thinks climate change is a hoax. He's loud, offensive and ill informed, which means Trump functions as the Fox News id. He's the guttural roar of Fox's aging, white audience.

“Trump is what Ailes did to the GOP,” tweeted Sherman.

Indeed, unfiltered Trump represents the true Ailes legacy. Trump's a would-be politician marketed on cable TV who spouts thoughtless rhetoric and preaches the politics of division. The bad news for the GOP is that Ailes, starring in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, may have let loose his Trump monster onto the GOP primary season. The good news for Republicans is that this may be Ailes' swan song as unofficial campaign impresario for the GOP.

The Fox turmoil began last week when Murdoch announced he was handing the 21st Century Fox CEO title to his younger son James, while his other son Lachlan would be promoted to executive co-chairman.

The façade that Ailes tried to quickly erect when he seemed to be caught off guard by the Murdoch family announcement was that he would not be reporting to the Murdoch sons. Instead, Ailes would maintain a direct line of command with Rupert himself. In other words, Ailes would uphold a special relationship with Murdoch Sr. and operate above the sons, immune to their dictates.

According to New York, Ailes inserted that language himself into a statement that Fox Business host Stuart Varney read on the air as the Murdoch news broke last week.

Ailes generates so much profit for Murdoch via Fox News (18 percent of 21st Century Fox's profits in 2014, according to one estimate), it made sense that the cable news chief would be immune to executive suite shuffles. Or so went the thinking.

But this week 21st Century Fox corrected the record (i.e. it called Ailes' bluff) and confirmed that for the first time in nearly two decades Ailes won't report to Rupert. Instead, he'll report to Murdoch's young sons.

And with that comes the end of a Fox News era.

And for people who think the unfolding Murdoch chain of command -- the actual chain, not the one Ailes apparently fabricated -- means nothing will really change inside Fox News' corporate headquarters and that Ailes will maintain his ironclad control over the enterprise, close observers says that's simply not the case. They point out that Ailes and Murdoch's children have battled on and off for years and the notion that Ailes will continue to enjoy unfettered control of the Fox domain seems remote.

Here's how Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff described the internal dynamics in 2010 [emphasis added]:

There are, practically speaking, now two factions inside of News Corp., Ailes and Fox News, and the Murdoch children--with Rupert caught between them. Ailes is the big money maker inside of News Corp.--all the more meaningful during a recession and when his boss, Rupert Murdoch, has hitched his star to the newspaper business and the failing Wall Street Journal--and Ailes' power has risen accordingly (this summer and fall he helped push out COO Peter Chernin and Rupert's flack and aide, Gary Ginsberg--both Democrats). But he can't last against the enmity of Rupert's children.

As Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management and an expert on CEO succession, told the Wall Street Journal this week, “When family businesses try power balancing, it's pretty inelegant. Somebody is going to win out.”

In this case, the Murdoch sons have won out, which means Ailes' GOP campaign days may be numbered.