After a bombshell lawsuit filed last week by Gretchen Carlson was closely followed by a New York Magazine expose in which more women detailed their own lurid allegations against Fox News chief Roger Ailes spanning decades, the master of message manipulation is now fighting to retain control over his Fox News empire. But with Carlson’s lawyer happily announcing, “Someone suggested he’s the Bill Cosby of media” and media coverage now racing in that direction, can Ailes survive?
It won’t be for lack of trying. The spin mastery of the man who famously media-consulted Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could well determine whether the Murdochs keep him on at a time when CNN is enjoying a Jeff Zucker-led, political-election-cycle-fueled ratings resurgence. It’s playing out dramatically as both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions are fast approaching. Fox News reps are spinning up a storm, connecting female network talent anxious to tell their pro-Ailes testimonials with scoop-hungry media outlets. This supplements his attempt to keep former FNC host Carlson’s lawsuit out of the public glare of a courtroom and instead in the private chambers of an arbitrator, claiming the lawsuit filed last week is a breach of her contract.
Since former Fox News Channel host Carlson filed that lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court alleging Ailes sacked her after she rebuffed his sexual advances, Greta Van Susteren, Maria Bartiromo and the others have said in these interviews that Ailes never sexually harassed them, and described him variously as a great boss, a champion of women, and a “father figure.” Jeanine Pirro, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Martha MacCallum, Harris Faulkner, Sandra Smith, Mercedes Colwin, and Ainsley Earhardt, as well as former FNC talent Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Kiran Chetry, have contributed glowing stories to the We Stand With Roger pile-on.
Carlson responded today with an interview on the front page of the New York Times business section, in which she showed off her three silver bracelets engraved with the words “Carpe diem,” “Brave,” and “Fearless.” In the long article’s other bit of breaking news, Carlson claimed Ailes never brought up ratings weakness in any discussions, and that she was not told about it when she was let go. “It was cold and calculating,” she told NYT of the meeting in June when she was informed her contract would not be renewed. “It took 30 seconds, there was no, ‘Thank you for your service of 11 years,’ and there was absolutely no discussion of ratings.”
Ailes has dismissed Carlson’s lawsuit, calling it “a retaliatory suit for the network’s decision not to renew her contract which was due to the fact that her disappointingly low ratings were dragging down the afternoon lineup.” (Nielsen ratings out yesterday for the week Carlson’s suit was filed, show her 2 PM program clocking its best weekly ratings ever.) Ailes took Carlson off Fox & Friends in 2013, giving her her own program in the 2 PM time slot that Megyn Kelly had used as a springboard to primetime fame. Carlson’s contract was not renewed when it expired last month.
Ailes’ feisty litigate-in-the-press campaign has, to date, notably lacked a character reference from Kelly, the reigning queen of Fox News. But the sheer volume is impressive and the on-air wagon-circling could give pause to Rupert Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan, who run Fox News parent 21st Century Fox, what with Fox News being 21st Century Fox’s biggest profit driver. The message to the Murdochs is clear: Roger Ailes is Fox News.
The corporation so far has only issued a statement, late last Wednesday, saying it would conduct an internal investigation of the situation. Both Murdoch sons, reported to be non-fans of Ailes, have asked an outside attorney to investigate the claims.
Until the August 1 ruling on Ailes’ arbitration argument, the wagon-circling will continue and more talent interviews (read: click bait) served up to traffic-obsessed media; in some cases Ailes has even co-opted outlets not typically kind to him.
With the audience delivery of such outlets as People, New York Times, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and the trades, Ailes’s female-fan chorus has been heard loud and clear, without his once having to use his own network’s airwaves, which might be frowned upon by whoever is conducting that 21st Century Fox investigation. In fact, since Carlson’s attorneys filed her lawsuit there has been virtually no mention of it on Fox News Channel, except for a brief report by Shep Smith the day after the filing, and another brief mention by Fox News’ media expert Howard Kurtz on his show that Sunday.
Bret Baier last night joined those publicly expressing support for Ailes, telling CBS’ Late Show host Stephen Colbert, “These headlines are foreign to me,” and “the Roger I know is somebody who has been amazing to me,” while noting he’s worked at FNC for nearly two decades.
And similarly, FNC’s biggest star Bill O’Reilly, who is booked for NBC’s Late Night this evening, is expected to take and answer questions on Ailes. O’Reilly has not weighed in on Carlson’s claims to date. But FNC’s Sean Hannity and Brit Hume worked overtime when news of the lawsuit broke, tweeting about Carlson’s “BS:”
Meanwhile, Carlson’s camp is giving Ailes quite a run. Over the weekend, Ailes attorneys found themselves having to deny new allegations made against their client – this time by women who had contacted Carlson’s attorneys when the suit was filed, and subsequently were interviewed by NYMag’s Gabriel Sherman. Six women, two of whom spoke on the record, detailed concupiscent claims of alleged sexual harassment in the late ’80s and late 60’s, before Ailes launched Fox News Channel. Entirely not coincidentally, Sherman is author of The Loudest Voice In The Room: How The Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – And Divided A Country, the unauthorized and highly controversial 2014 book blasted by Fox News. It includes more sexual harassment allegations, including TV producer Randi Harrison’s claim Ailes offered to hike her paycheck by $100 in the ’80s, in exchange for on-demand sex with him.
In a statement, Ailes’ attorney scolded Carlson and her lawyers for “desperately attempting to litigate this in the press because they have no legal case to argue.” But Carlson’s attorneys, who had previously said they studied Sherman’s book before filing the lawsuit, outmaneuvered the exec, deftly shooting back: “Yesterday in a statement to the press (“litigating in the press”), an Ailes spokesperson challenged Gretchen’s lawyers to come forward with other victims of Ailes’ sexual harassment to speak on the record. Today, six brave women voluntarily spoke out to New York Magazine detailing their traumatic sexual harassment by Ailes. We are hearing from others…Women have the right to speak out — whether Ailes likes it or not — even about trauma they endured years ago and that haunts them to this day. Calling these women liars because they chose to speak out is despicable. Bullying and threats will not silence these brave women.”
It’s that kind of carefully crafted post-Cosby era rhetoric that had many media pundits giving Carlson’s camp the early advantage in this slug-fest with Ailes. Carlson, said one media observer, “struck hard and fast” and caught Ailes “flat-footed.” Another put their money on Carlson, “by virtue of her suit bringing out other allegations,” noting, “Everyone loves a party.”
“Her team has played a very smart hand for keeping this in the press,” said yet another TV news pundit, noting Carlson attorney’s follow to various Ailes moves. “Each day, Carlson’s camp has a new angle.”
“You have to wonder how long they’ve been planning this,” mulled that pundit. That one’s easy: “Months ago,” Carlson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith recently told Marie Claire, adding, “It was long before we knew that she was going to be terminated.”
It’s hard to tell at this point which side is winning in the court of public opinion, and the story still is young. But one industry sage advised Ailes he’s still catching up. Carlson “had the advantage of surprise and a head start.”