The Rise And Fall Of FOX News CEO Roger Ailes

Jul 26, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

We're going to talk about Roger Ailes' resignation last Thursday from his position as the CEO of Fox News in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment. Over 20 women have come forward since former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit alleging she was sexually harassed by Ailes.

My guest, Gabriel Sherman, is the author of a book about Ailes called "The Loudest Voice In The Room: How The Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News - And Divided A Country." It was published in 2014. Sherman has broken several stories about these new charges and was the first to report that Ailes was about to resign or be fired.

In Sherman's book, he wrote that Ailes had, quote, "both remade American politics and media. More than anyone of his generation, he helped transform politics into mass entertainment. Through Fox, Ailes helped polarize America, drawing sharp with-us-or-against-us lines, demonizing foes, preaching against compromise," unquote. I spoke with Gabriel Sherman this morning.

Gabriel Sherman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the fact that two executives were fired yesterday from Fox News. What happened?

GABRIEL SHERMAN: Yesterday, two executives were fired in what many expect - many inside the company expect to be the first round of house cleaning. Michael Clemente, a former head of news who was in the documentary unit, was let go, as was Peter Boyer, a former New Yorker staff writer who had come to Fox News and was working in the documentary unit, was also dismissed. And so people inside the company are expecting that this is the first of many.

These two executives were not in central roles. They were collecting very high salaries. They were personally loyal to Roger Ailes. And now that Roger Ailes is no longer at the company, there's a feeling that the Murdoch family - Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan Murdoch, who are running Fox News now - are taking a look at how the company was structured and why executives who were earning high salaries were in these positions that didn't have major influence and responsibilities at the company.

GROSS: So why would they be getting paid high salaries if there weren't - if they were no longer in positions of major responsibility?

SHERMAN: Roger Ailes is famously loyal to his employees. And he doesn't want employees to leave Fox News and potentially say bad things about him. So he elevates them, even if they're not in positions of power, to jobs with high salaries to keep them on the payroll and to keep them under employment contracts that have strict non-disclosure agreements.

GROSS: So you're saying it's partly out of self-protection that Ailes kept people like that on staff?

SHERMAN: Yes, that's what sources inside the company explain - how he continues to employ people even when they're not continuing in jobs that have, you know, major day-to-day responsibilities.

GROSS: So sum up where we are now in terms of how many women have come forward alleging that they were sexually harassed by Ailes or by somebody else at Fox News. And I should say, we're recording this at 9:00 in the morning. And I'm not sure if that number is going to change by the end of the day.

SHERMAN: Well, Terry, where we are now since Gretchen Carlson filed her, really, landmark lawsuit on July 6 is that 25 women have come forward to the outside law firm Paul, Weiss, that was hired by 21st Century Fox to investigate the sexual harassment allegations. By my reporting, more than 25 women have come forward to allege their experiences of harassment at Fox. And this number could be growing by the day. The lawyers are hearing from women.

And I think there's a fear inside the company that this could snowball into - I mean, it's already a shocking scandal, but that, you know, dozens of more women could come forward. And then you really have to start to question, did Roger Ailes preside over a culture that was not only - it tolerated sexual harassment, but it was almost built to encourage it?

GROSS: How many women have you spoken with about their charges?

SHERMAN: Well, I've spoken with more than 15 women who have had experiences of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances by Roger Ailes over the years. And, you know, I just want to step back for a second, Terry, because what's so, in a sense, sad about this story is that when it broke in July - on July, 6, with Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit, I wasn't surprised because in my biography of Roger Ailes that was published in 2014, I detailed multiple instances of sexual harassment. I quoted a very brave woman named Randi Harrison on the record who said that when she was a young producer at NBC in the 1980s, Roger Ailes said that he would give her a raise of $100 a week in exchange for sex whenever he wanted.

And this was, you know, shocking. This was all published back in 2014, and it didn't quite make the wave that I thought it might. And so this story that's, you know, exploded into a national scandal - sometimes, I guess, it just takes the right moment for the public to pay attention. But I, again, have, you know - over the years, I've interviewed more than 20 women who have had these types of experiences with Ailes. And you know, again, that - to me, it just seems like the tip of the iceberg.

GROSS: I want to emphasize here that Roger Ailes has denied the allegations of sexual harassment.

SHERMAN: Yes, and he's - through his lawyers has - have denied it. But what I find so shocking is that last week, when I was reporting on the first Fox News female employee, besides Gretchen Carlson, to speak out on the record about her experience of sexual harassment, moments after I contacted her, the man she accuses of harassing her, she received an intimidating phone call. Her attorney received an intimidating phone call from Roger Ailes' attorney reminding her that if she talked to the press, she would be violating her nondisclosure agreement that she signed as a condition of leaving the company in the wake of these sexual harassment allegations.

And so this culture of intimidation, you know, that - to me, that does not strike me as a man that is - that knows he's innocent. It strikes me as a man that is, again, attempting to preserve this wall of silence that he's built around himself.

GROSS: Give us a sense of the allegations of the women who have worked at Fox News with Roger Ailes.

SHERMAN: Well, Terry, I think that the most important thing to stress is that this is not about - well, it is about Roger Ailes. It's not about Roger Ailes. It's about a culture - a television news network that played a undeniable role in reshaping American politics over the last 20 years. And it was a culture where this type of behavior was was encouraged and protected. The allegations are that women routinely had to sleep with or be propositioned by their manager - in many cases, Roger Ailes, but I've reported on another manager who did this - in exchange for promotions.

And so this is a culture where women felt pressured to participate in sexual activity with their superiors if they wanted to advance inside the company. And it was so - it was shocking to me - it was not that it occurred, but that it was so explicit, that it was - there was no subtext. There was no subtlety to it. It was just there. It was just almost blatantly stated. If you want this, you have to have sex with me or allow me to make sexually unwanted comments about you. And it was so blatant that it's almost now unbelievable. But it - we're learning more and more every day. This is what women who worked there had to endure for the last 20 years.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman. We're talking about the allegations of sexual harassment - allegations against Roger Ailes, the former CEO of the Fox News Channel. He stepped down last Thursday because of these allegations. Gabriel Sherman is the author of the book "The Loudest Voice In The Room," a 2014 book about Roger Ailes. He's also national affairs editor of New York magazine.

Why did Gretchen Carlson decide to come forward when she did and say that Roger Ailes had sexually harassed her?

SHERMAN: Well, I think, Terry, Gretchen's going to be seen as playing a heroic role in opening up and getting this story into the public consciousness. She was, for 11 years, an on-air personality, perhaps for most - many listeners, most known for being skewered by Jon Stewart as kind of the embodiment of Fox's low intellectualism. She was - but what's so fascinating about Gretchen is that she is a brilliant, strong woman. She went to Stanford University. She studied literature at Oxford. So she's, behind the scenes, off-camera, a very forceful, strong woman. But she was, you know, cast in this role as kind of an airhead TV on the morning show "Fox & Friends."

And so when her job wasn't renewed, the reason she decided to go public was that - you can't - if you try to negotiate with Fox News behind the scenes, they will steer you and force you into these secret arbitration deals where you sign ironclad nondisclosure agreements. And so what's so fascinating is that her lawyers decided that they would not attempt to negotiate, that the only way that the truth could actually get out there is if they file a public lawsuit before Fox News had a chance to try to crush her. And that's what her lawyers in the state of New Jersey did. They fired - filed in superior court.

And this case - that sort of was the spark that lit this fuse that then all these other women who experienced and endured sexual harassment by Ailes and other executives at Fox, felt the courage and - to come forward. And so that really got the ball rolling.

GROSS: So some people are saying that Gretchen Carlson's allegations of sexual harassment are just payback to Roger Ailes because her contract was not renewed. What do you make of that?

SHERMAN: Well, factually, that's correct. Her contract wasn't renewed, and then she filed the lawsuit. But again, this is a case where the fear of speaking out internally prevented her - and I've talked to her lawyers at length about this. She tried to change the culture internally, and she was punished for it. And so I think, in these kinds of cases, it's not surprising that the people who are accused, Roger Ailes and Fox News, would portray her as that way. But I think the volume - the number of women that have come forward subsequently bolster her case. And so I feel strongly that this is not a sort of an opportunistic lawsuit. I think she genuinely tried to change the culture internally and was punished for it.

GROSS: What has Megyn Kelly's role been in these allegations?

SHERMAN: This is, again, another pivotal turning point in the story, Terry. Megyn Kelly is, by far, the biggest star on Fox News. She famously tangled with Donald Trump last summer at the Republican debate in Cleveland during the primaries. And her role is that when she came forward in the middle of last week to tell the lawyers investigating this scandal that she, too, had endured harassment by Roger Ailes in the mid-2000s - this was just jaw-dropping because the investigation had only unearthed a couple examples. It was not progressing.

And, in fact, I reported that the lawyers were getting frustrated because Fox employees were so scared to say anything, there was a feeling that the offices at Fox News are bugged by Roger Ailes, that he listens to every conversation in the offices. And so they moved the interviews out of the Fox News building into the - to the law offices of the firm Paul, Weiss that was conducting the inquiry. And when Megyn Kelly went to the lawyers at Paul, Weiss and said that, yes, I - this happened to me, too, they realized that this was the magnitude of this scandal.

And Megyn - the word quickly spread inside the company, and especially after I reported it, that Megyn Kelly had been one of Ailes' victims - alleged victims, we should say. So she gave other women the courage to come forward, and quickly, the number grew. And that's when Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan Murdoch, knew. I mean, Roger Ailes was on his way out, but that was the nail in his coffin.

GROSS: Why had women been reluctant to come forward earlier?

SHERMAN: Well, again, this is really in a case where, at Fox News, the culture of silence Ailes built applied to men and women, but especially women. Because women who would, you know, think about coming forward were terrified that Fox's public relations department, which was famous for attacking its own employees - it was almost like an internal security service - that they would leak highly negative and personal stories to journalists about their own employees that were somehow on the wrong side of Ailes. Women felt that if they came forward, that they would - both publicly or even privately inside the company - that they would be blacklisted and smeared.

And so this encouraged - you know, I interviewed a young employee who worked for Ailes who was, you know, faced unwanted sexual advances from him. I asked her why she didn't come forward. And she - and there was a pause and she said - because no one would believe me, and I didn't want to be that person that said that. I mean, inside Fox News, Ailes is seen as all-powerful and omnipotent. And no one woman faced - wanted to face that, you know, that backlash. And so when it happened, they were pressured into maintaining that silence.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman, and we're talking about Roger Ailes who resigned last week as the CEO of the Fox News Channel. And Sherman wrote a book in 2014 about Ailes called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." And he's been continuing to report on Fox News. He's also the national affairs editor of New York magazine. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gabriel Sherman. We're talking about the allegations of sexual harassment - allegations against Roger Ailes, the former CEO of the Fox News Channel. He stepped down last Thursday because of these allegations. Gabriel Sherman is the author of the book "The Loudest Voice In The Room," a 2014 book about Roger Ailes. He's also national affairs editor of New York magazine.

You said in reporting your book about Roger Ailes, the book that was published in 2014, that you had to crack the code of silence at Fox. I think most organizations, including media organizations, have some kind of code of silence in the sense that nobody really likes (laughter) to have their, you know, their dirty laundry written about or discussed in the press. So what was the difference - you've reported on media, I mean. So what was the difference between what you described as the code of silence at Fox and, you know, the privacy or secrecy surrounding other media organizations?

SHERMAN: The difference is the - just the degree. I agree. You're right, Terry. All institutions are sort of by design insular, and they don't like to be exposed to public scrutiny. The difference with Fox is that employees feel that if they are seen as potentially talking to a journalist that their career would end.

And so it's just this - the extremity of fear of talking and being seen and even fear - rumored to be talking to a journalist that keeps people from speaking to reporters. And it took just persistence and patience to get sources to finally start to talk about how Fox News works from the inside.

GROSS: Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch. And you actually credit Murdoch's sons with pushing out Ailes. You don't think it would have happened if his sons had not been elevated last year to co-leadership positions of the company. So what's the difference in management styles between Rupert Murdoch and his two sons?

SHERMAN: The change in management has played a central role in getting Ailes out of the company. Rupert Murdoch's two adult children, James and Lachlan Murdoch, are very much modern individuals. They understand how corporate America works, and they don't want their father's company to have this sort of outlaw-pirate-like culture that he - that Rupert Murdoch encouraged in building it into the global media empire that it is. And so when the scandal broke, the Murdoch children, especially James Murdoch by my reporting, understood that this could be explosive.

We should point out that James Murdoch had been at the center of the phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. He understood that what happens when corporate scandals get out of control. And so he moved very forcefully to investigate this and pushed his father - their father, who was reluctant.

Rupert Murdoch was out of the country. He was on vacation with his new wife, Jerry Hall, in the south of France. He did not want Roger Ailes to resign. He was hoping to buy time. And the two children pushed their father to really see that this was untenable and Roger Ailes needed to go.

GROSS: Are Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes good friends? Do they have a strong working relationship? Did they have a strong working relationship?

SHERMAN: Yeah. Their relationship was one of mutual benefit. You know, Roger Ailes created the most profitable division of Rupert Murdoch's media empire. Fox News generates over a billion dollars a year in profit. That allows Rupert Murdoch to fund all of his other media ventures around the world.

And so Rupert Murdoch for the last 19 years has been content to let Roger Ailes run Fox News as his person - almost like his private - his personal company. There was very little oversight from management. Rupert Murdoch, we should again point out, is not a television executive. He is a newspaper man at heart, and the core of his passion is newspapers - are newspapers. So he was happy to let Roger Ailes run Fox News.

And it was a relationship that benefited both men. They weren't personally close. Rupert Murdoch got a kick, you know, enjoyed Roger Ailes. Roger Ailes is incredibly charming, can be incredibly charming. He has a razor-sharp sense of humor. And so Murdoch, you know, liked having him around in a presence and especially his profits.

But his sons had many tangles with Roger Ailes, as I report in my book and others have reported. And so when they were elevated last summer into position - co-leadership positions at the media conglomerate, that was really where, you know, Roger Ailes, you know, faced a new test because they weren't going to tolerate this outlaw behavior. And they wanted - they wanted to get him to more conform to how corporate executives at other divisions of news - 21st Century Fox, like the movie studio and the television broadcasting network are expected to behave.

GROSS: My guest is Gabriel Sherman. He's the author of a book about Roger Ailes called the loudest voice in the room. We'll talk more about Ailes after we take a short break. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will have a remembrance of guitarist Charlie Christian. Friday marks the centennial of Christian's birth. And John Powers will review a dystopian novel he describes as a feminist parable. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded this morning about Roger Ailes and his resignation last week as CEO of Fox News in the wake of allegations against him of sexual harassment. My guest, Gabriel Sherman, has been covering and breaking news about the story. He's the author of a book about Ailes published a couple of years ago, called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." He's national affairs editor at New York magazine.

In your book about Roger Ailes, you wrote that early in his career he worked at a TV news network in which one of the executives there encouraged that they hire women with sex appeal and that that would really be good for ratings. And you wrote, anyone who turns on - and actually, this is something you said to me when I interviewed you in 2014. You said, anyone who turns on Fox will see that the anchors - the female anchors are very attractive, often blonde. They have a lot of personality. And that's the way Ailes programs it, to appeal to a mostly white, middle-class male audience, and sex appeal is at the heart of one of the reasons why Fox is such a success at transmitting political messages.

So can you talk about that a little bit more, what you meant when you said that and how, if at all, you see that as connecting to the current round of allegations?

SHERMAN: Yeah, it's directly connected. And what we've learned over the last two weeks is that - the actual process by which Roger Ailes selects the female talent that get - go on screen. I reported last week that he asked a job applicant to stand and show off her legs. He literally makes women stand up during their job interviews with him and do a twirl so he can examine their physique. There's nothing subtle about it. He wants to - he wants to look.

One woman, named Rudi Bakhtiar, a former Fox News reporter who left in 2007, who wanted to wear pantsuits on air, was instructed by her producers to wear miniskirts. They rolled in - she told this to me in a lengthy interview - that they rolled in a clothes rack of miniskirts. And they said, Roger thinks you have great legs. You should wear this.

So women are actively encouraged to fit this image that Roger Ailes has of what a Fox News woman should be. So this is not subtle. Again, I think what we've learned over the last two weeks is just the specificity of how the network encourages women to conform to Roger, what Roger Ailes wants them to be on camera.

GROSS: Who's running Fox News now in the absence of Roger Ailes?

SHERMAN: Rupert Murdoch is running Fox News now. He took over as acting chairman and CEO. But he's not a television executive, as I mentioned earlier. So he's relying on the existing leadership to make the channel run on a day-to-day basis. And I think that's what's so perilous for Rupert Murdoch at this point because as the scandal continues to evolve, as more and more people - as we find out - as I reported, Roger Ailes' deputy, Bill Shine, was involved in some of these cases of getting women to sign non-disclosure agreements in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.

If this ensnares other executives, Rupert Murdoch is going to quickly have to bring in new management because he does not have the - he's 85 years old. And he doesn't have the skill set - he's not a television executive - to really run this thing on his own.

GROSS: I saw you on the CNN media show speaking with Brian Stelter, the host of the show, on Sunday. And you told them that Fox News - the PR office was actually returning your phone calls for the first time in years. Had you usually called them for comment and just gotten no call back in the past?

SHERMAN: Yeah, I was shocked by that. I've - as I always do with my subjects, I call them for comment before I print a story. And it was stated policy at Fox News that - Roger Ailes said that nobody at the company was allowed to return my call. And that exist - that went on for about the last five years.

But then, suddenly, after he was - after he resigned, I received a call from Irena Briganti, who runs the public relations office at Fox News. And it seems that that, you know, edict is now no longer in effect.

GROSS: And when you did call Fox News for official comment, did you hear anything reportable?

SHERMAN: You mean in this last instance?

GROSS: Yeah.

SHERMAN: No, they declined to comment. But I think I got a call back, which was, again, just a pretty traumatic reversal of the way they've engaged with me over the last five years.

GROSS: What was - what has Roger Ailes' relationship been with Donald Trump? Let's start with, what was the relationship before the debate conflict between Trump and Megyn Kelly?

SHERMAN: Roger Ailes has known Donald Trump for decades in the New York power broker - in the circle of New York power brokers. And Roger Ailes was instrumental in building Donald Trump's platform as a politician. He gave Donald Trump a weekly call-in slot on the morning show, "Fox & Friends," that really helped convince conservatives that Donald Trump could transform himself from a reality TV star into a politician. And Roger Ailes, by my reporting, has been advising Trump behind the scenes, giving him talking points and suggestions for speeches.

And, yes, they did clash during the whole Megyn Kelly debate - feud. But quickly, Roger Ailes tried to repair the relationship. And Megyn Kelly - again, by my reporting - felt very marginalized and sidelined and not defended by her network, who - she was being relentlessly attacked, not only by Donald Trump but by his legions of followers. And Roger Ailes kind of issued statements. But they were late. And they were - he did not forcefully use the network to defend Megyn Kelly.

And so this relationship is incredibly close. I, again, reported Donald Trump called Roger Ailes. They spoke by phone after the Gretchen Carlson lawsuit was filed. And Donald Trump was helping Roger Ailes behind the scenes and giving him suggestions on how to navigate this scandal in the press. And there's many rumors that Roger Ailes would resurface as Donald Trump's media adviser, reprising the role that Roger Ailes started his career in with - in 1968, by advising Richard Nixon on how to perform on television. And Donald Trump himself did not do anything to tamp down these rumors during a interview on "Meet The Press" with Chuck Todd. He declined to comment on the question of whether Roger Ailes would sign on to the Trump campaign.

GROSS: This is the first Democratic National Convention since 2000 in which Roger Ailes is not the head of Fox News. So do you think that's going to affect the coverage of the convention in any way?

SHERMAN: You know, actually I don't, Terry, because, you know, Roger Ailes built Fox News into such a profitable and powerful media machine, that it runs - right now, in the short term, it's going to run pretty much on its own because the people in positions of leadership know how Ailes approaches the news. And so in the near term, I don't expect any sort of dramatic changes in coverage. I think the real question that Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan Murdoch, are weighing right now is longer-term, looking ahead.

They're going to need a creative force to run Fox News because these existing storylines - Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton's history with women - you know, these storylines that Fox is stoking during this election cycle are going to play themselves out. And so they're going to need a new creative force to come in, to help, you know, power the network into whatever political landscape we're in, whether it's a Donald Trump presidency or a Hillary Clinton one. So that's really what's happening now. But I think in the next week to several months, we're going to see Fox News basically continue being Fox News.

GROSS: I assume based on what you're saying that Rupert Murdoch's two sons will have a lot of say in who is appointed the new head of Fox News and that the Murdoch sons will help figure out what the new direction is for Fox News. So based on what you know about Murdoch sons, do you have any ideas of where Fox might be headed, if there might be a change of direction, if the emphasis will still be on, you know, very conservative politics?

SHERMAN: Yeah. That's - the question right now Terry is that question is being debated inside the company. There's really two points of view. The Murdoch family is deciding whether they want to keep it as a right-wing cable news channel, and there are several candidates being considered both internally and externally. One of the internal candidates is Roger Ailes's Deputy Bill Shine, who is Sean Hannity's - had been Sean Hannity's producer and then rose through the ranks. So he is firmly entrenched in that conservative world.

The outside - one outside candidate is an executive named Chris Ruddy. He runs Newsmax, which is a conservative TV network and magazine based in Florida. So that would be taking it in the conservative direction. The Murdoch sons, James and Lachlan Murdoch, also perhaps want to take it to a more centrist, center-right direction. And so they're looking to executives both in the Murdoch empire and outside the company.

One executive's name that's been floated is David Rhodes. He's the president of CBS News. He had worked at Fox News for years as a journalist. And he's very close with James Murdoch. And so there's talk inside the company that James Murdoch is working to recruit him to run FOX News. That would be clearly an indication that the company would be repositioned more to the center.

GROSS: So what do you think Roger Ailes's legacy is in terms of having affected TV news and political discourse?

SHERMAN: Donald Trump sort of represents Roger Ailes's legacy of 50 years of using television to advance a style - a populist style of conservative politics. And so it - there's almost a novelistic aspect that Roger Ailes' career would come to an end at the very moment that the product of everything he's done in politics and as a political consultant and media executive, you know, reaches its zenith with the possible election of Donald Trump.

GROSS: Have you been watching a lot of Fox News? And do you know if they've been covering the story of Roger Ailes's resignation and the allegations of sexual harassment?

SHERMAN: Fox News, to my understanding, has covered it in a limited way. I spent most of my time reporting, so I've not been watching the screen. But I understand they've covered it on some of their news programs in a very cursory fashion, which is to be understandable. I mean, media companies have a very difficult time reporting on themselves. So that's not surprising.

GROSS: Gabriel Sherman, thank you so much for talking with us.

SHERMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Gabriel Sherman is the author of a book about Roger Ailes called "The Loudest Voice In The Room." After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will have an appreciation of guitarist Charlie Christian. Friday marks the centennial of his birth. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.