Donald Trump, the reality TV star, is getting an education on the problems of presidential reality. Speakers are blowing their big moments and key endorsements aren’t happening. Yes, show business can be stressful.
Day 1 of the Republican National Convention heralded one of TV’s great epiphany moments: The anchors at CNN and MSNBC, looking weary and heavy-lidded from their first-day recaps, were suddenly rescued from the doldrums. Thanks to the circus of social media, Melania’s adventure in plagiarism magically appeared before them.
Except that the Fox News Channel anchors weren’t ready for rescue. Their fear: Would boss Roger Ailes sign on to the story? Even in its initial hours, the Fox convention coverage was displaying a fiercely pro-Trump tilt. Then came their own epiphany: After a 20-year run, Ailes was getting the boot at the very moment that Trump was getting the nomination — a diabolical convergence.
In the opinion of political gurus, Ailes played a key role in creating the “Trump movement” by pushing Fox coverage sharply to the right. Among his other accomplishments: Building a billion-dollar-a-year revenue stream for Rupert Murdoch that represents 20% of the earnings of 21st Century Fox. Fox News has been the highest-rated cable news station for 15 years and this was shaping up as its biggest year and widest-viewed convention coverage.
In his two decades at Fox News, Ailes has changed the shape of television news and, more importantly, also changed the complexion of American politics by giving a mega-voice to Tea Party ideology. Yet in my conversations with Ailes over the years, I always sensed that he, like Donald Trump, was as much an ideological opportunist as an ideologue. Starting with his service with Richard Nixon, Ailes saw bigger career opportunities on the right than the left. Had the mainstream Democrats courted him, and remunerated him, I think Ailes could have been a great soldier for liberalism.
The big source of speculation now, however, is this: In which direction will Fox News drift in a post-Ailes era? Clearly its constituency is aging and hard right. But the mainstream business community — the Chamber of Commerce type — distrusts Trump and is disturbed by the potential economic consequences of an ultra-right drift. Hence Fox News ratings may stay high during the election season, but the advertisers may grow increasingly jittery.
Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James, have cultivated a fuzzy image of political moderation. But if they were to guide Fox News to a more centrist mold, would their viewers begin to turn away?
The dilemma of the hard right was reflected to a degree in Trump’s confused convention program. Given the absence of mainstream Republican stars, and the tentative support (or non-support, in the case of Ted Cruz) of those who did appear, the Republicans presented themselves as a fragmented party. That fragmentation could offer opportunity to other alert, nonpartisan news organizations — or to Trump himself who, it is rumored, is considering starting his own news network should his bid fail. If all that happened, could a Trump-Ailes alliance resuscitate itself as a new TV entity — one that might aim itself in yet another unpredictable ideological direction?