When Roger Ailes' wife Elizabeth sent a statement on her husband's death to The Drudge Report instead of Fox News it was, according to NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik, "the final act of Roger Ailes' revenge" against the network he created.
In an interview for the podcast NewsFeed with @BuzzFeedBen, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith talks with Folkenflik about Ailes' contentious relationship with the Murdochs and the way he wielded — and abused — his power as the head of Fox News. "It was a paranoid cult culture, it was a control culture, we knew that it was a punitive culture," said Folkenflik.
In the interview, Folkenflik also talks about the allegations of sexual abuse that got Ailes kicked out of Fox News and how the network is navigating Trump's presidency without him.
"The people who are in that [morning] meeting basically have a triptych, incense, candles, a hologram machine, designed to conjure up the spirit of Roger Ailes and figure out what the hell would he do if he was handed these cards to play," he said.
David Folkenflik is the author of Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires. Read the full transcript of the conversation below, and subscribe to listen.
Ben Smith: I guess I just wanted to start with how did you find out that Roger Ailes had died?
David Folkenflik: A friend of mine, who's a TV news anchor, texted me and told me to look at Drudge, as I think the rest of the world learned about it. Elizabeth Ailes, in the final act of Roger Ailes' revenge, snubbing his old network, gives a statement to Matt Drudge and there it was and it was breathtaking. You knew it was true, you knew it was right. Let's not forget that the reason we found out what Roger Ailes' settlement would look like when he was forced out of Fox last summer was that his lawyer mistakenly cc'd Drudge in an email containing it that she had meant to send I think to other lawyers. And he posted it thinking that's what Ailes wanted him to put online.
Look, Roger Ailes has been in poor health for a while, he's a life-long hemophiliac, and in recent years he's had real trouble. He's had hips and knee trouble, there was a summer where he basically took weeks off at a time and through other stretches where he was essentially sitting in a Barcalounger. The revelation of his death was still a shock. You know, he was a towering figure and a twisty figure, as I imagine we'll talk about. But he really, the idea of him being dead and gone was stunning particularly, obviously, for folks inside Fox News.
And you, you've written about the Murdoch empire and you wrote about the Murdochs in particular. How much was Ailes a soldier in the broader Rupert Murdoch media empire, how much was he his own thing?
DF: He was given an extraordinary degree of autonomy. Now, Murdoch likes to, in a lot of ways, do that, but Ailes was really first among equals and he was that for a couple reasons. He had a clear vision of what he wanted to do, and achieved it, and he just kept generating so much money for the Murdoch family. It's a publicly traded company but we're really talking about one that's controlled by the Murdoch family... That, they gave him the autonomy he needed. Now, he resented that. You know, in my book I talk about — and it's been some years — but I talk about how resentful it was that although he got shares, he didn't get like an ownership stake. He wanted to feel that he had earned his way in a sense, into a level equal to the family. Not in terms of equal to their fortunes, but given a taste of, "you are an owner, not just a guy that we give shares and big bonuses," and he never got it.
So every now and then he would flirt, as he did, with the idea of going somewhere else, taking a huge payday, taking an ownership stake someplace like Newsmax. You know, saying, "we're gonna create a television rival, it might be smaller but I'm going to enjoy the action." And then, you know, he'd hold up the Murdochs for a little bit more money and they'd give him a bunch more shares to make him feel good about himself. But, he was allowed to run the station.
Look, Fox News is more conservative than Rupert Murdoch is, even though Murdoch is clearly a guy with conservative inclinations. Both are pragmatic when it comes to their politics, but Murdoch especially so. And yet, he allowed Ailes to go places that, you know, he might not have wanted it to go and that his sons desperately wanted Fox not to go because that was Ailes' personal sensibility and that seemed to be rewarded by Fox's audience.
And just to go back, Ailes came out of a specific type of American TV, the Mike Douglas Show — I guess where he sort of got his start. Where does he come from, in that regard?
DF: So he comes from really a kind of show business talk show, and a show business background. He saw himself as a producer. I mean, you think about the coinage of the term "producer," it's really Broadway lineage to that. You know, Don Hewitt, perhaps apocryphally, perhaps honestly, apparently came up with the term inspired by Broadway theater terms. And he was a producer for the Mike Douglas Show in Cleveland as a local talk show, and Douglas had it. He had a spark and he drew people in and he was entertaining and smart and lively, and so they were able to nationally syndicate this thing. And he went to Philly to do that and ultimately went to New York, leaving behind his first wife, because as he claimed, she didn't want to come to New York with him. And it was a very different life in New York, he became very interested in show business, he became the producer of a couple broadway shows including The Hot l Baltimore.
What is that?
DF: It was... you know to be honest, I've never seen it and I've never heard it so I don't know. But it was apparently a lively production, not one promoting conservative family values as you might have heard expounded on Fox News. He liked the idea of show business, you know kind of a moth to the flame. And so he comes out of this mindset, he toggled you know between entertainment TV and politics, and more entertainment that became cable news of a sort... but there was always a sense of a showman's spirit. The idea that you'd find storylines that people would want to be drawn to, the sense that you wanted to have great graphics, great camera work, great visuals and good looking people... especially women, in front of the camera.
And this, and the sexual harassment allegations that wound up... I mean, I feel that sexual harassment is actually sort of a euphemism for some of these really grotesque allegations of coerced sex acts, that really brought him down in the end, [they] start way back in Cleveland, right?
DF: You know, I think the first case that I recall involves a, I think a case involving the Mike Douglas Show in a hotel room in New York of a very young... of a teenager. And, there are a series of these incidents, dating back... Shelley Ross who went on to become and executive at CBS and ABC said that it's almost three decades ago now, 25 years plus, that when he hired her for a job at an NBC late night talk show, that he said, "well you know, we're going to have to have a sexual relationship... we're going to have to have a sexual alliance." There was some word in there that indicated "your commitment and loyalty to me will be manifested through a sexual connection," and she said no thank you. She said she couldn't take the job, and he apologized profusely and never made overtures to her again. And good for her for being a young woman in her early twenties at the time, who, had the strength to say no — maybe not quite in her early twenties — but had the strength to say no at a time when sexual harassment was more prevalent.
But this was just the foreshadowing of what turned into a wave of such action towards all kinds of women in politics and particularly in television, where when he had power that he could exert... You know I did a story about this last fall, because I thought it was so important to say explicitly: This wasn't about sex. This was about the exertion of power. You have to show to me that you are yielding in the face of my power.
Now Ailes, we have to say, even in death, denies all these things. These accusations though, I think it's so important to say, there are so many of them, they're so consistent, they're so precise... women who don't know each other saying the same story — often, many of them not filing lawsuits, many of them well outside the statute of limitations, you know, not having a financial incentive to do so. I think it's very hard to do anything but credit these allegations at this point.
Do you, and I know this is sort of a tricky question, but do you see any connection between who he was as a public person and these allegations? I mean, was this sort of an aberration or was this somehow consistent with who he was?
DF: I don't think we understand Roger Ailes without knowing this about him. I think the idea of power... You know, he called Fox News "the most powerful name in news." This is not something CBS would aspire to. This is not something that the Washington Post would say...
Maybe they wouldn't admit aspiring to it.
They might enjoy it at cocktail parties. If somebody says, oh my goodness you're the national writer at the Washington Post here in Georgetown, you know you're quite the star, people might get into that kind of thing and God knows with the advent of television, you know, people enjoy those klieg lights as well. But the idea that that's your brand — is power — I think is a personal reflection of who Roger Ailes was.
The idea that you have to pay a kind of fealty... this is something he exerted in Republican Party politics as well. You saw this, this was something in terms of the sexualization of women, you know. Among the things that seemed to start, all of these conversations he had with women and these exchanges he had with women, he would say, "I'd like you to turn around for me." "I'd like you to lean in." [BS: Or spin, right] "I want you to spin, I want you to turn around." And he would check out their figures.
And on the air, you know, when I was doing this book, and at the tail end of reporting on it I think it was the summer of 2013 I learned of what was called "the leg cam." Now, this sounds frivolous and silly and cringe- and laughter-inducing — and it is — but basically, for a show like The Five, in which five people are arrayed, he would basically have producers mentally rank who had the best figure among the women, and put them on their right — our left, as viewers — and then the camera, when you would go to and from the segments, would swoop down around the set, focus on the woman, linger, do a kind of oval loop and come back again. And the women who wanted that show — or shows like it — who were well remunerated for doing it would sit in that chair and they would wear always skirts above the knee and they would jangle their ankles just so, so their high heel would go up and down and up and down and it would force your eye and your attention to their heel, their legs, their body, their looks. And that is what Roger Ailes rewarded.
So you've built, baked into the formula — and this is one of many examples — but you've baked into the formula a sexualization of women and the realization they have to perform for Roger on the air, that's what he wanted. He always said, "well that's what viewers want," but that is what he wanted to see, and he engineered a network to do that.
And there was a kind of culture of control there that I mean... We, you and I and many others get leaks from media companies all the time, hear all sorts of gossip and rumors. And, you know, you wrote a book about the Murdoch empire, Gabe Sherman wrote a great book about Fox... This wasn't in those books, right? Like this was stuff that maybe... how did this stuff — because it's so egregious — how did it stay a secret?
DF: So, to be fair to Gabe, there was an intimation of this. I believe the Shelley Ross incident was in there [BS: Yep.] and I think there might have been one other allusion to another thing. But, you know, over the course of fifty years, two women, perhaps it was a different age where bosses could ask women out, perhaps it was... I'm not saying that justifies any of it, but I think that's how it struck a lot of readers. They didn't focus in on it and said, "Oh my God," you know, "he killed a man." That wasn't what people did as a take away. But there was a little hit of that.
I gotta say that this scandal makes Gabe's book, and our, my reporting, and other people reporting on Ailes in Fox make much more sense. It was a paranoid cult culture, it was a control culture, we knew that it was a punitive culture. That's part of it. And some of these lawsuits, you know, they have named the lawyers, they have named the publicity chief, they have named other people as part of these suits because they see them. Beau Dietl, you know, emerges... he's a private eye who was under Ailes as a Fox News contributor but really he was given a position at Fox so that Ailes could justify having him on the payroll and sending him to go do stuff.
Dietl has said of late, well one of Bill O'Reilly's accusers — first accuser Andrea Mackris who had been a producer there — who, got a ton of money to cut short her lawsuit which was just going to get more devastating for O'Reilly and Fox a decade ago. He said he was hired by an outside firm to do it for Fox and for Ailes. It's hard to know what to make of that, but clearly a guy like that is there so that Ailes has people who can tail people.
There's sort of an ongoing cover-up basically.
DF: Right, well think about... One anecdote that's amazing: Laurie Dhue was an anchor for years at Fox. About a decade ago, goes to a black tie dinner at Washington and a story emerges in a reliable source gossip column of the Washington Post, basically saying she was drunk at this party, and that people were saying, "Laurie don't, Laurie don't," because she was knocking into people.
And there's a picture of her hoisting a glass and looking a little buzzed, or buzzy anyway and Fox was asked for comment and they said, "well she had a really good time that evening, but all of us had a really good time that evening." Fox News leaked that to the Washington Post, they had their staffers go through more than a hundred photographs to find the photograph they gave to the Post, taken by their own contractor to show her at her drunkest. And why did they do this: they were punishing her because she had complained in an elevator in front of other people that she wasn't getting a sufficient publicity. Why did they do that story? They did that because privately they knew that she was an alcoholic, something that she would only announce later.
So the publicity people, with Roger's full permission, are going after her to punish her for a slight in public about a nothing comment as a way of showing to other people, "You cross us and we will go after you." And you want to know why people don't have a habit of saying embarrassing things about Roger Ailes and the top executives? That kind of culture. That kind of culture is why.
And, in addition, people at Fox, many of them executives and staffers have said, the elevators were mic'ed. The hallways were bugged. They monitored... You know if you talk to corporate executives, 21st Century Fox, the parent company, they'll say, "Well you know, it's a different culture, whatever... we never knew about X, we never knew about Y," but when you say the phones were bugged, the devices were monitored, they had little software things where they could do keystroke things where if you say, typed the word "Ailes," a copy would go to security. 21st Century Fox will say, "Well, and we're entitled to do so under employment law," which is true.
But what they won't say is that is part of the enforcement mechanism of a culture like that. Yes, they are absolutely entitled, you know United Airlines does quality control when you call on the customer service line, they're entitled to listen in. And yes, Fox has the right to do that. But, they were doing it for a different reason.
There's a federal investigation underway right under of some of that stuff. How much of a threat with Ailes dead is that to Fox?
DF: Well it's not, as far as I can tell, really a criminal investigation aimed at Ailes. I think it's a criminal investigation aimed at the corporation and particularly at Fox News. Whether these payments were hidden. And whether payments were hidden and more recently also into the question of this culture of intimidation and were things legal and did it amount to a different kind of enterprise somehow.
I mean there's been suggestion that they could be looking into this under racketeering laws. It's a very troubling thing, the Murdoch's are very concerned about this. It reminds me of the concerns back during the hacking scandal from London where everybody focused on the hacking of phones over there, but what the Murdoch's were focused on were the fact that the revelations that they had been paying cops and other public servants there that in implications under US law, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and they were very concerned that there would be prosecutions here, for that, so they did a lot to try to make that go away.
In this case, you know, I talked to corporance governance people last summer when I said, "Well these payments were hidden, is that a problem?" And they said, "You know, the amount of money..." You know, the biggest payment at that time that we knew about or that had occurred at that time was in 2011 to a woman who had — credibly, as it turns out — alleged that Ailes had essentially extorted sexual acts from her over a more than two decades period and that they basically hid the payment in 2011. Which, by the way, was the same period that the hacking scandal was breaking wide open. So, they say, "Three million bucks, it's a publicly traded parent company, 21st Century Fox." Fox, you know, tosses off well over a billion dollars a year in profits, it's not important. But it turns out to have been an early flag. If you look at that payment, it says something is weird if you're paying three million bucks to go away, you're not doing that because nothing happened.
And it's maybe not the first time that you did it.
DF: And it's maybe not the only time you did it. [BS: Yeah] So then what happens? Well what happens is, you've seen a turnover of about how the C-level suite at Fox News. You've seen them lose their founding visionary. You've seen them lose Bill O'Reilly. You've seen them lose the CFO, the head of HR, a bunch of folks... some of them are still there. Their president Bill Shine, a bunch of people are gone.
So in some ways, that little three million dollar flag and some of the other payments that went on over the years, while financially not important to the investors in the Murdochs' empire, may be important to the corruption of the culture of the leadership of Fox News, and maybe investors needed to know about that. That may be a stretch for prosecutors, but it's saying, "We're not talking about the dollar figure here, we're talking about the concealment here."
Do you know what Ailes made of Fox in its sort of last, last post-Ailes period? Was he watching? Was he... [DF: Oh I'm sorry, not what he made financially] No no no, yeah, that he thought of it. Would he talk to you? Did you talk to him?
DF: Not on a regular basis. I'd spoken to him over the years a few times.
And did he, when you covered him, did you ever harassed or followed or you know... sort of gossip-attacked in the gossip columns? I once got a crazy Irena Briganti-placed item in a gossip column which I considered a great honor at the time.
DF: Um, I would get trashed in trade press and in other places. I know that I was... I don't know that John Cook of Gawker once asked me, "Were you followed?" and I said, if they did I don't know about it. I don't think they took my book for example as seriously at Fox as they took Gabe's book because it was squarely a biography of Ailes and it turned out Ailes had something very deeply he wanted to hide as well as being a secretive a twisty guy.
But, I do know that I had other reporters call me and say they would just call and trash me, just sort of volunteer that I couldn't be trusted, that my reporting wouldn't stand up. All of it stood up, but like they would actively go and say, "You can't report that, it's him, you can't do that." On the other hand... and I was also warned at one point by a person I won't name who worked in PR there that they said, "We have a full portfolio on you, we have a dossier on you and we know you." And you know, I haven't defaulted on a mortgage, I haven't, you know, I don't have a very expensive cocaine habit, you know like... Which, they actually did expose to Tim Arango who's a reporter for the New York Times, who I've talked to about this for the book, who they trashed and leaked to a number of places. But, I don't know what it meant that they had a dossier on me but they thought that was a menace and that was something that would make me back off.
I will say, one of the interesting things about my relationship with them, and their PR shop is a direct reflection of Ailes... he had a guy, Brian Lewis, who worked for him for many years until he fired him because he was concerned that he was leaking to Gabe Sherman but, they respected the fact that when I would criticize Fox for stories about Fox, whether the old Jim Romenesko's blog, whether it was for David Carr or whatever, I would always attach my name to it. Because I just said, you know, I'm gonna say this what I would say privately what I'll say publicly and it was fine and they would, you know, they froze me out two or three times for periods stretching over a year where people literally would email me from Fox on their private accounts saying, "I'm not allowed to talk to you, there's a policy now." And so that lasted, last time it was over two and a half years. But the PR people would always say, "We respect you for putting your name behind your criticism." And so I think that they, they wanted to inspire fear and they respected when they didn't.
The... Think about, you know, if Trump had lost the election, that Ailes' death I think we'd probably be writing a story that was kind like the last of this kind of era and generation to exit the stage. Fox, shit continues to shift dramatically to the left under this new post-conservative era - or whatever narrative we would have concocted for that moment - um, but Fox does feel like a little lost right now.
DF: I think they don't know what they want. I think Rupert Murdoch is fighting, particularly with his son... you know James and Lachlan Murdoch, the two sons of Rupert are running the parent company 21st Century Fox with their father. They're in their forties, he's in his mid-to late eighties. You know, there's a generational shift slowly happening, but when Roger went, they needed to stabilize Fox.
Rupert came in as the acting CEO, which he remains. They don't know what they want. Suddenly... They'd tried very hard for example to keep Megyn Kelly who herself had been harassed as she says, credibly, as a young woman at Fox News. And, their inability to have a fully — in her mind — sincere response to what happened to her, even as they very much sought to pay her big money to stay, helped contribute to her decision to go. She said, "I just want to be in untainted waters here. I just don't want this to be my workplace any longer." The fact that Bill O'Reilly, on the day of the release of her book — in which she talked about Ailes harassing her, and which she had cleared with the Murdoch's and with others that she was going to have to do that for the book to be credible and which was published by a Murdoch imprint, HarperCollins — Bill O'Reilly went on his show that night, which leads... or at that time, lead into hers, and he said, you know, "Let's talk about loyalty. If you have a problem with your boss, you take it up with him internally, you don't talk about it publicly," and he talked about the importance of loyalty and the importance of commitment and he basically trashed her, on the air. And she felt that if they were sincere in what they were doing then they would have gone.
Well if Hillary Clinton had won, Megyn Kelly would have been the most important face for Fox News in the eyes particularly of James Murdoch. It would have been — maybe you could call her at that time on the center-right — but you know, a tough, credible woman whose hairstyle or looks, and this is how television is thought about, is not that dissimilar from a younger Hillary in some ways, like a more striking woman but nonetheless you know you've got something of the same visage there. This would have been a modernizing face for Fox News. Instead at that time, they lose her, and although they made a genuine offer, it wasn't a catastrophe. What could they do? Well, they had had Bill O'Reilly, angry Long Island guy who's kind of a "common sense guy" who kind of "gets" Trump, they've Sean Hannity, Trump's biggest supporter and suddenly they could be Trump TV.
And is that just what they're gonna be, they're going to be.. which is what they are now, this kind of really to the point of parody, reflexive defender of Trump?
DF: Well, it's problematic. I mean, they haven't lost a ton of viewers or anything
Isn't it kind of boring?
DF: They're playing sort of a sullen defense right now. And MSNBC, because it's got a liberal primetime lineup with recognizable figures, is getting this wave of angry liberals watching, and CNN is getting a lot of people watching because it's an incredibly intense period, as you know better than most. So, it strikes me that Fox is unable to capitalize on the moment. In a weird way, Fox found its purest voice when Obama came in. Not only do you have a liberal president, and you get rid of the fact that they had a conservative guy who they liked who had two unpopular wars, Katrina, financial crisis... you get Obama in there and suddenly you get the guy who gets to be the repository of all that's wrong with the world. I mean, Roger Ailes... put it this way, you watch Fox and having a black guy with a muslim middle name as president of the United States is uncomfortable to the point of angering and cause for deep suspicion. For Roger Ailes, it was almost cataclysmic. Like, this was not purely a cynical play on his part. It was reflecting a slightly moderated view of how he thought in private.
This was everything that they'd been warning you about.
DF: This is, this is all of the future coming at once, way too fast and so you saw them double down. You saw them reach for Glenn Beck. You saw them try to find a way they could become more culturally conservative. When you have a president who is a celebrity that they helped to propel and promote in recent years as a credible political figure, when it's hard to make that claim with a straight face outside of Fox News. It's hard for them to play defense when he's being tarred and hit by so many scandals and crises, all of which are self-inflicted.
Yeah, and there was something for them obviously, I guess energizing is the right word to be the voice of this sometimes kind of wild-eyed opposition, being the attack dog for the beleaguered president is, among other things, boring and incoherent when you watch it.
DF: It's fun to be triumphant. So, if they were passing the overturning of the Obamacare and replacing it with you know, a thousand-dollar-a-year voucher or something, it they were heralding the cut in the tax rates, if they were heralding the reversal of trans bathrooms... you know, like if they were doing all these cultural touchstones and America was going exactly in the direction that Sean Hannity has advised, then that might be exciting for a while. But it's much easier as you say... You know Bill Shine told me this explicitly in 2009. He said, "Does this make it easier for us to be the voice of opposition?" He's like, "It sure does." And it provided a clarity and a logic to their programming. I think there's a tension between Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch in particular, I think you seen a tension on the airwaves with what to do with as I said, these self-inflicted crises that are besetting a president that they clearly supported.
Yeah, Trump is obviously a real expression of their values. You said this one thing earlier, modernizing. And I think like, right, the notion that Fox was sort of set-up to modernize with this new generation with after this purge, that seemed like the narrative that was coming when everybody thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. But Trump now is obviously the central media figure among other things. And he is a pure 1980s media figure. He reads the New York Post in the morning, he watches television, he said the other day [DF: Forbearance at the gate, right?] He said the other day I don't know if you saw this but he said in an interview that, "The New York Times, you ever notice how thin it's getting? Pretty soon it's just going to be on the Internet." Like, I don't think he really knows about or believes in the Internet. And Fox's audience, average viewers are late sixties? Early... [DF: I think, I knew that Bill O'Reilly's audience... over half its audience was over the age of 72.] Can they modernize? Or do they...
DF: Is it a harvest strategy where they just take their viewers until the viewers die off?
I don't know, but can Fox modernize?
DF: It is going to have to take a conscious effort. This is not going to be a gentle recalibration where you know, Waze tells you to take a left a mile earlier and you're going to do fine. This is gonna have to be a really conscious strategy for them to figure out how they appeal to a younger audience, an audience that consumes a lot of news online from a lot of sources...
At least they don't... Aside from running anonymous blogs to attack their enemies, I don't think they really take the Internet seriously, right?
DF: Well certainly not as reflected by their website. I mean I think it's complicated to navigate, a lot of their stuff doesn't make it online... they see it as a place to appease talent that's not getting a chance to do stuff on the air. [BS: Ah, do an Internet special.] You know, it's where a lot of the folks who Roger Ailes would hire, would get a chance to write columns and do certain kinds of other things. I mean there are some things there, there was this Fox News Latino venture which I thought was pretty good.
Yeah, my colleague Adrian Carrasquillo worked there for a bit.
DF: And I had a good regard for some of the work they were doing there, it often cut against the messaging you'd see on the air and on the air you would see a much more skeptical take of some of their work.
But, I don't think they really have a sense of what to do with it. You know, CNN is seeing digital as a major revenue source. I find it a very clunky site to get around and I think they need to address that, it is not user friendly, but there's a ton of stuff. They do ton of original reporting, they've got a ton of video there — sometimes there's too much video — and it's becoming a major nine-figure revenue source for them. I cannot imagine it is anything like that at Fox News. They know that it is just a very difficult site to navigate. They've improved it, but it's still got a long ways to go.
And more broadly, Trump was kind of powered by Fox, he drew a lot of his ideology from Fox, his voters obviously were not on Twitter — people talk about Twitter — people in their 60s and 70s were watching television, and his base is older. But he brought with him this kind of new right.
This, I think much smaller audiences right now for Breitbart, for these sort of constellation of sometimes more extreme, sometimes really openly nationalist white voices around Breitbart. I've noticed, I don't see those people on Fox a lot. Fox does not seem hugely excited about the rise of this kind of new internet right. And even if they're taking stories from them all the time, and I do wonder, do they feel threatened is new... these new voices?
DF: I mean, I think Ailes wanted them close enough that they felt cordial and also close enough that he could try to figure out ways to strangle them if he needed to. You know, I think he... He was friendly with Chris Ruddy, the head of Newsmax. But he didn't want Newsmax to rise up as a possible [BS: No, you didn't see them promoting Newsmax voices, right?] Every now and then. I think I saw a Newsmax guy up there in the last 48 hours but I was struck by it because it's not common. You don't see a ton of Breitbart folks on Fox News. You see a lot of people from Town Hall, but you don't see folks from Breitbart News, you know Town Hall is just a very different model, it's a collection of mostly opinion writers on there, syndicated columnists... [BS: It's not a threat.] No, just a tone, it's not a threat, it's got its own schtick but it's not a threat. You don't see... you know Breitbart, when Andrew Breitbart was there you know, had this funny relationship with Fox where he'd have him on to perform because he was kind of a performance artist as much as anything else. [BS: Yeah.]
But they didn't really want to relate on Breitbart for news and it also hadn't quite built up the extent it has. You know, you would imagine James O'Keefe would've been on the air on Fox News if they trusted him, but there was enough blow-back... I mean, Andrew Breitbart the night before his death talked about O'Keefe and he didn't quite trust O'Keefe either. And that seeped up to Fox, so they didn't put O'Keefe on.
But there are these elements of more radical spirit not just simply from the question of white nationalist or even racist sites, but these elements of the more extreme Right in the kind of media space that Fox isn't comfortable with and partly it's that it wants to be respectable enough that it still can claim that its part of the media and part of the news media. And it is, it does have journalists, and some of whom are good, and capable. But they're working at a place where the news isn't the point. And so what you see at Fox is, particularly under Ailes, is a desire not to allow sort of younger rivals to become too big, but to ride their enthusiasm a bit as best they can.
One of the things that I was always struck me about Fox was, clearly they had a morning meeting and I think it was like on the second floor and everybody — executives — would come out with their marching order and you could see it flow across on the air, and this is one place where it reflected on the website which I, as an Internet person, probably saw more, which is you would have the same image, the same language, the same story, like it was... clearly someone had decided that this was the way they... this is how we're talking about it, this is how we're illustrating it.
Who's sitting in that barcalounger now? Because it seems like it still happens. Yesterday there was this ludicrous story that I think Seth Rich was trying to imply that this poor DNC staffer who'd been killed had been like, set up by the Clintons. It was an incoherent, ludicrous story based totally messed up reporting where their source had actually heard it from them and was repeating it to them. I mean, really like a total debacle, and yet you did see it: suddenly it's leading the website, it's on air. It seems like Fox is so organized kind of around a central brain. Who is that? Is that Rupert?
DF: It's centralized. It's very much centralized, and they would very much always object when we'd, when reporters like me would write about this and say, "Oh well look, ABC News does this every morning too, it's the same thing." It's not the same thing. [BS: No.] It's a very intentional thing.
What are they doing with a story like that? They're playing prevent defense, they're trying to take grand scopes of time and attention from anything to do with the Trump crises that are currently playing out. And so, what can we do? We can talk about Hillary Clinton, we can mention the servers, we can mention WikiLeaks, we can mention the hacking, we can mention the young man's death. Suddenly, all the older viewers who remember Vince Foster and all the deaths that were ludicrously and offensively pinned on the Clintons over the years, you know, would be reminded of that.
You know, it evokes the pizza-gate terrible allegations utterly unfounded and unfair, claiming that there's a child sex ring being run out of a pizza parlor in northwest DC by somebody linked to the Clinton campaign... it just, none of it was true. Deeply offensive and problematic. In this case, a young man's death is being exploited by Fox News. And you know, you mention their source. Their source was an investigator who's kind of working for the family to figure out what happened in this botched robbery, according to cops. The investigator was hired by a guy who’s a frequent Fox News commentator and personality to the point where he has his own little landing page on Fox News... Like, it seems like a closed ecosystem for this story. What the hell is going on there? What are they doing? Well, they are telling you don't listen to this other chatter.
So Susanne Scott, who was a protege of Roger Ailes and of his deputy Bill Shine, both of those men are gone, and she is now the president of programming. And what's going on there? Well, the people who are in that meeting basically have a triptych, incense, candles, a hologram machine, designed to conjure up the spirit of Roger Ailes and figure out what the hell would he do if he was handed these cards to play. And this is the best that they can come up with. I don't think it's particularly coherent, I don't think it makes sense, I think people inside Fox don't think it makes sense, I think they are looking for some clarity, you know.
And Rupert Murdoch keeps trying to signal ways in which he's got a new day: so he'll get rid of leaders here, he forced out Bill Shine a couple weeks ago... This week, he announced that there are these grand new newsroom design plans. And what is the message he's sending there? Well he's like, "Well you know, we're going to make it a very open brand-new newsroom, promote collaboration." What is really is, is he's taking that second floor and that warren of corridors and blocked off areas, barricaded area, behind which Roger Ailes did all these things to all these women, these places that had all these hidden microphones and cameras in which he was monitoring what employees were saying and doing and he's gutting all of it. He's tearing all of that away and he's building a newsroom there to say, "This is going to be a new day."
That's fine, and that's probably important and good symbolism and hats off to him. What he doesn't have is a new day on the air. And I think one of the points you raised earlier is there was such a close connection between the behavior and characteristics off the air of Roger Ailes and what he propelled on the air, they don't have that vision, that sensibility, that clarity about who they are so they're getting pretty good ratings, they're getting drubbed by the other two guys of cable news at the moment, because the news is so intense. But they also are limping into the future, and that is going to be a real problem for the Murdoch's and for Fox News itself.
DF: You bet.