The Downfall of Roger Ailes Step by Step
As Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes was battling the worst crisis of his professional life in mid-July—a self-inflicted catastrophe borne of decades of allegedly sexually harassing and abusing female underlings—he and his third wife, Elizabeth, focused their fire on Megyn Kelly.
According to New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman in his latest Fox News opus, published online on Friday morning and slated as the next issue’s cover story, the Aileses were “furious” at his onetime protégé, now the conservative-leaning cable outlet’s brightest star, for not publicly defending him in the wake of fired anchor Gretchen Carlson’s sensational lawsuit alleging harassment and retaliation for rebuffing his sexual requests.
Sherman, citing a Fox News source, reports that Elizabeth Ailes wanted the channel’s notoriously aggressive media relations department to release racy photos of the 45-year-Kelly, published years before in GQ magazine, to discredit and shame Kelly for her silence, while many other Fox women were publicly rising to their boss’s defense. The media relations department refused Elizabeth Ailes’s demand (as it did several other outlandish tactics from Team Ailes, a source told The Daily Beast).
This is just one of the juicy revelations in New York magazine national affairs editor Sherman’s latest opus—the most detailed account to date of how Ailes allegedly ran Fox News as both 21st Century Fox’s most profitable subsidiary, throwing off a billion dollars a year, and as his personal fiefdom and sexual service.
While the ousted Ailes is contractually prohibited from participating in the launch of a rival outlet to Fox, such as the widely-predicted Trump TV, the ugly allegations surrounding him haven’t prevented him from playing an advisory role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. A legendary former Republican political consultant, Ailes has helped the GOP nominee prepare for the upcoming presidential debates against Hillary Clinton.
Ailes, through his attorneys, has denied many of the allegations arising from Carlson’s lawsuit, especially in reporting by Sherman over the past several weeks. In an especially troubling development, Sherman reports that Ailes “ruled Fox News like a surveillance state,” instructing the head of engineering, Warren Vandeveer, to place close-circuit cameras in various locations that allowed Ailes to monitor the goings-on in offices, studios, green rooms, the back entrance of the network’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, and Ailes’s homes.
Fox’s IT department also monitored employees’ emails, Sherman reports. In an anecdote that does no favors for Fox News co-president Bill Shine, Ailes’s former deputy who was promoted after Ailes’s abrupt departure, Shine laughed when Ailes spotted James Murdoch smoking a cigarette on one of his close-circuit screens, and quipped, “Tell me that mouth hasn’t sucked a cock.” (Shine told Sherman through a spokesperson he doesn’t recall the incident.)
Skirting the law, Fox News obtained the phone records of journalists, Sherman reports, and Dianne Brandi, the company’s general counsel, hired a private investigator in late 2010 to obtain the personal home- and cellphone records of Joe Strupp, a reporter for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters who had quoted anonymous company sources in several articles. This occurred shortly before the phone-hacking scandal exploded in Britain, where the Murdochs were forced to shut down the popular News of the World tabloid in response to public outrage. (Brandi denies she did this.)
Reacting to Sherman’s story, Media Matters announced on Friday it is considering its legal options and demanded a criminal investigation of Fox News’s alleged surveillance of journalists. “This was the culture. Getting phone records doesn’t make anybody blink,” one Fox executive told Sherman.
As for Megyn Kelly, her decision to move against her former mentor apparently sealed his fate. According to Sherman’s latest, as the Carlson lawsuit blew up, Kelly had confided to James Murdoch—who along with his older brother, Lachlan, and father, Rupert, run Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox—that a decade ago, when she was a fledgling legal correspondent in Washington and going through a divorce, Ailes had “made harassing comments and inappropriately hugged her in his office.”
Sherman reports that Kelly, a former litigator at a high-powered Washington law firm, had established an alliance with the Murdoch sons, and that Lachlan personally approved a $6 million advance for her upcoming book to be published this fall by Murdoch subsidiary HarperCollins. Both Murdoch sons—unlike their dad, no fans of Ailes—encouraged her to repeat her account of Ailes’s misconduct to the law firm Paul, Weiss, which was conducting an internal review of Carlson’s allegations.
Kelly, whose relationship with Ailes had become distant in the past few months, in large measure because of Ailes’s complicated relationship with Donald Trump, had sounded alarms about Ailes’s bad behavior as early as 2012, when she warned Fox News’s then PR-chief Brian Lewis that the top boss was being reckless, and that damaging anecdotes about his conduct could show up in Sherman’s book-length biography, which was published in 2014.
Lewis passed on Kelly’s concerns to Ailes’s trusted executive assistant, Judy Laterza, asking her to caution him to stop harassing underlings, but instead of staging an intervention, she told Ailes that Lewis was being disloyal; he was fired less than a year later.
The most eye-popping revelation in Sherman’s report—at least for people who work at Fox News, where expense accounts for lowly production and support staff are microscopically scrutinized—is that Ailes arranged for Laterza to be paid $2 million a year for her sensitive work. Sherman reports that Laterza’s job description included identifying attractive young women that Ailes might like, and setting up private appointments for them with Ailes in his bunker-like office. Laterza also fabricated an office log of Ailes’s young visitors, using fake names, Sherman reports.
Laterza, who didn’t respond to Sherman’s request for comment, left the company along with Ailes when he was forced to resign with a reported $40 million severance package on July 21.
Ailes’s attorneys, Susan Estrich and Marc Mukasey, didn’t respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Sherman’s story by deadline. Kelly also didn’t respond to a request for comment, and spokespeople for both Fox News and 21st Century Fox declined to weigh in on Sherman’s report.
Other highlights from Sherman’s account:
* As more and more women came forward to reveal their unpleasant encounters with Ailes, he called an emergency meeting with longtime friend Rudy Giuliani and lawyer Marc Mukasey, a Giuliani protégé, at his home in Garrison, New York, and vehemently denied the allegations. The next morning, Ailes and his wife, Elizabeth, turned his second-floor office at Fox News into a war room. “It’s all bullshit! We have to get in front of this,” he told executives. “This is not about money. This is about his legacy,” Elizabeth Ailes said.
* Ailes told his executives that “he was being persecuted by the liberal media and by the Murdoch sons. Ailes complained to 21st Century Fox general counsel Gerson Zweifach that James, whose wife had worked for the Clinton Foundation, was trying to get rid of him in order to help elect Hillary Clinton. At one point, Ailes threatened to fly to France, where Rupert was vacationing with his wife, Jerry Hall, in an effort to save his job.”
* “A few days before the first GOP debate on Fox in August 2015, Murdoch”—who loathed Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric—“called Ailes at home. ‘This has gone on long enough,’” Murdoch said … Murdoch told Ailes he wanted Fox’s debate moderators—Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace—to hammer Trump on a variety of issues.
* Sherman reports: “Murdoch blamed Ailes for laying the groundwork for Trump’s candidacy. Ailes had given Trump, his longtime friend, a weekly call-in segment on Fox & Friends to sound off on political issues,” notably Trump’s anti-Obama birther campaign. “Ailes also had lunch with Trump days before he launched his presidential campaign and continued to feed him political advice throughout the primaries, according to sources close to Trump and Ailes. (And in the days after Carlson filed her lawsuit, Trump advised Ailes on navigating the crisis, even recommending a lawyer.)”
* Elizabeth Ailes “is said to be taking all of the revelations especially hard, according to four sources close to the family,” Sherman reports. Frequent Fox News commentator Rudolph Giuliani, who officiated at their 1997 wedding, told Rupert Murdoch she would likely divorce Ailes. An expert in failed marriages, the twice-divorced Guiliani predicted, “This marriage won’t last.”)
* Ailes “used Fox’s payroll as a patronage tool, doling out jobs to Republican politicians, friends, and political operatives,” such as making his personal lawyer, Peter Johnson Jr., a regular commentator on Fox shows, despite his sub-par on-air performance. (The Fox News staff nicknamed Johnson “The Must-Do,” Sherman reports.) Manny Alvarez, Ailes’s wife’s doctor, became a medical commentator. Ailes also placed loyal former personal secretaries in key sensitive positions. Sherman reports that former Ailes secretary Nikole King, for instance, was sent to the finance department, where she handled Ailes’s personal expenses.
* Beginning in 2014, Carlson used her iPhone to secretly record her private meetings with Ailes, capturing numerous instances of sexual harassment, which included his alleged comment quoted in her lawsuit: “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better. Sometimes problems are easier to solve” that way. “I’m sure you can do sweet nothings when you want to,” he allegedly remarked in a different conversation.
* “After news broke on the afternoon of July 19 that Kelly had come forward, Ailes’s lawyer Susan Estrich tried to send Ailes’s denial to [Matt] Drudge but mistakenly emailed a draft of Ailes’s proposed severance deal, which Drudge, briefly, published instead.
* The evening before his formal ouster, “Ailes was banned from Fox News headquarters, his company email and phone shut off. On the afternoon of July 21, a few hours before Trump was to accept the Republican nomination in Cleveland, Murdoch summoned Ailes to his New York penthouse to work out a severance deal. James had wanted Ailes to be fired for cause, according to a person close to the Murdochs, but after reviewing his contract, Rupert decided to pay him $40 million and retain him as an ‘adviser.’ Ailes, in turn, agreed to a multiyear noncompete clause that prevents him from going to a rival network (but, notably, not to a political campaign).”