We are watching a game of bluff between Roger Ailes and the Brothers Murdoch over the future of FOX News Channel.
Until now -- during the ancien regime when Murdoch Pere held the reins, not his boys -- Ailes has been able to assert an exemption of impunity based on a claim that he is the indispensable man at FNC: without Ailes at the helm, the channel's golden formula would be lost and the ongoing torrent of revenue from 21st Century Fox's cash cow would dry up.
Enforcing this status of impunity has meant that in the past Ailes has persuaded his Fox bosses to write checks attached to non-disclosure-agreements to make pesky problems, such as Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit, go away. Ailes' clout has not only protected his own position but has also provided protection -- and thereby purchased the enduring loyalty -- of the key on-air stars of his operation.
So, has Ailes been bluffing all this time? Can FNC, in truth, continue successfully without him at the helm? Can the Brothers Murdoch afford to resist his willful claims of impunity?
If yes, then he will have been an important man for FNC (a Roone Arledge style figure at ABC News; perhaps a Ted Turner at CNN) but not an indispensable one. If yes, FNC will turn out to have a corporate culture rather than a cult of personality, and Ailes will be seen to have been rightly laid low by his own hubris.
However, there are two strong arguments that Ailes is not bluffing and that the Brothers Murdoch would be unwise to jettison him.
First, unlike their right-wing-tabloid father, the next generation of Murdochs does not have that automatic grasp of the reactionary-populist-nativist-nationalist worldview that Rupert and Roger share. As such the brothers may fail to appreciate how fully-formed and coherent the Ailes vision is, and how skilled a television producer he is at articulating that vision. In other words, they may not realize how difficult Ailes is to replace.
Second, Ailes is not just a television producer par excellence, he is also a brilliant manager of personnel. The remarkable thing about the FNC line-up is how stable it has been throughout all the years of its success (only Glenn Beck has parted company after becoming a star). Ailes -- by a combination of inspiring loyalty and instilling fear -- has prevented other channels, or other media outlets, from poaching his talent. The glue that holds that line-up together is personal loyalty to Ailes rather than to the corporate brand.
The poetic justice of this moment cannot be overstated: the very week when Ailes' Nixonian vision for the conservative movement and the Republican Party is realized, is the week of his (probable) downfall. Donald Trump, a populist champion of the white working class, an unreconstructed pre-feminist beauty pageant entrepreneur and reality TV star, has his moment of triumph, the apotheosis of FNC's tabloid brand of conservatism, a repudiation of the corporate county-club austerity-minded elite alternative.
Further: given the unreconstructed stereotypes of the coverage and presentation of the genders on Ailes' FNC -- crusty curmudgeonly white men paired with miniskirted leggy blondes -- it is absolute poetic justice that the one woman Ailes allowed to cross those gender lines is the woman who delivers the coup de grace. Megyn Kelly may be blonde and leggy but she is also independent, articulate and self-assured. She turns out to be the exception to the wall of loyalty from FNC's on-air talent in the face of the Carlson lawsuit.
Ailes, the king at the crossroads of conservative politics and conservative media: usurped from his media throne at the moment of his political triumph; punished for his pre-feminist chauvinism by the only woman for whom he disavowed that chauvinism in order to elevate as a star.
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