The resignation yesterday of Roger Ailes, Chairman and Chief Executive of Fox News in the US, sent shock waves through an American media system currently struggling, like everyone else, to make sense of Donald Trump’s performance at the Republican Party convention in Cleveland, Ohio.
Events began on to take shape on July 6th when Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox newscaster, filed a lawsuit accusing Ailes of sexual harassment. This triggered an internal investigation by Fox News which has now led to the downfall of its CEO. The particulars of the departure are still a little obscure but the New York Times reports that Ailes departs with around a $40 million settlement agreement.
Though relatively unknown in the UK, the 76 year old Ailes has for decades enjoyed a position of some influence in US cultural and political life. As a former advisor to Presidents Nixon and George H.W. Bush, this was a man, according to Richard Wolffe who had the power to make or break presidential campaigns. He is credited with building Fox News into the most watched cable news channel with unquantifiable benefits for Republican politics. So his resignation, resulting from accusations of sexual harassment of female colleagues going back 25 years, is hugely significant.
Ailes’ fate is only the latest occurrence in what appears to be a growing trend of women (in what we can perhaps erroneously call ‘the media industries’) feeling empowered enough to call out their former male bosses for improper behaviour. In Ailes case, as his biographer Gabriel Sherman asserts, more than a dozen women have now taken legal steps against him. Sherman writes of a prevailing culture where Ailes, spoke openly of expecting women to perform sexual favors in exchange for job opportunities.
At this stage of course, the allegations against Ailes, are just that – allegations and in his resignation letter (shared with the Drudge report) he was at pains to illustrate how far he had been personally responsible for the advancement of women in journalism. He wrote:
I take particular pride in the role that I have played advancing the careers of the many women I have promoted to executive and on-air positions. Many of these talented journalists have deservedly become household names known for their intelligence and strength, whether reporting the news, fair and balanced, and offering exciting opinions on our opinion programs. .
But according to the millions strong social change pressure group, CREDO there is a culture of sexism and misogyny ingrained in Fox News and its fair to say that the US news media in general is, unsurprisingly enough, heavily gendered in favour of men. In 2105, the Women’s Media Center (WMC) report into the status of women in the industry revealed that media on all platforms were failing women. In terms of the news media WMC found that women were assigned to report stories at a substantially lower rate than men and in evening broadcast news women were on-camera 32% of the time. In the 2102 Presidential election it was found that on network TV, political news show guests and experts were 77% men.
But where now for Fox News? David Bauder writes that heavyweight hosts Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity (no strangers to controversy themselves) have close ties to Ailes and reportedly have contract stipulations which allow them to leave should their boss do so. Whilst that is unlikely there is Fox’s fractious relationship with Trump to consider. Though former Presidential candidate Ted Cruz has accused Ailes of turning Fox News into the Donald Trump network, 24/7 Trump himself has on a number of occasions spurned the network with open contempt. Oddly enough, as Roger Yu reasons, if Hillary Clinton wins the election it could invigorate Fox who would then undoubtedly go after her in the way it has gone after Obama. And in other good news for Fox, Pew Research centre reports its financial rude health. Fox’s business model is commercially admired and ratings are at an all time high with profits rolling in of over $1billion a year. Not withstanding the current controversies which have seen share prices fall by 3% in the last week, Fox is well placed to face the challenges of adapting a 24 hour news channel in the digital age.
And I’ve yet to mention the return of Rupert Murdoch who is of course Executive Chairman of parent company 21st Century Fox . Ailes’ resignation letter published by the Drudge Report was addressed directly to ‘Dear Rupert’ and on Thursday Murdoch visited Fox News studios in Manhattan. There he announced, to an understandably shocked workforce, that he himself would be taking over from Ailes for the foreseeable future. But at 85 the old man is slowing down and its’ likely that the ground is being prepared for his sons Lachlan and James, who are currently executive co-chairman and chief executive officer of 21st century Fox. The pair are known to have had differences with Ailes whose combative style and political rigidity they found jarring and outdated.
But in the short term? This is very much a case of out with old and in with the old familiar.