Fox News has reportedly decided to limit Karl Rove's appearances on the network. This raises the question of whether Fox's corporate cousin The Wall Street Journal will decide to take similar action.
According to a December 4 report from New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman, producers must now get permission from Fox News executive vice president for programming Bill Shine before booking Rove. Notably, the new rule comes not due to Rove's panoply of ethical misdeeds, but rather because of the political analyst's on-air election night meltdown, in which he insisted that the network had been wrong to call Ohio for President Obama.
Sherman wrote that his sources say that Fox News chief Roger Ailes had worried that the incident had diminished the network's brand; it "provided another data point for Fox's critics." A Fox spokesperson who confirmed the booking rule told the New York reporter that "Shine's message was 'the election's over.'"
Rove spent the election cycle using his weekly Journal column to forward the financial interests of the political groups he founded, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. After significant criticism, the paper finally began disclosing Rove's ties to those organizations. His column continues to appear in the Journal, and in mid-November he provided the paper's website with an extensive interview touching on the futures of the Republican Party and super PACs, the Latino vote, and the current budget negotiations.
It remains to be seen whether the Journal has similar concerns regarding Rove's impact on their brand. A request for comment to the paper and its opinion page editor, Paul Gigot, was not immediately returned.
So it seems that Karl Rove and Dick Morris are on the outs at Fox News. New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman reports that Roger Ailes wants the two pundits off the air, for the time being, and that Fox News producers "must get permission before booking Rove or Morris." The reasons for their benching? "Morris's Romney boosterism and reality-denying predictions became a punch line" within the network, and "Ailes was angry at Rove's election-night tantrum when he disputed the network's call for Obama."
At last we're getting a clearer picture of what it takes to face a reckoning at Fox News. Glaring conflicts of interest, grossly unethical behavior, and naked GOP boosterism adorned with a journalistic fig leaf are just fine. To reap the Ailes whirlwind, you have to become such a transcendent embarrassment that the network has no choice but to treat you as a liability.
It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but there exists some precedent. The most prominent example is, of course, Glenn Beck, whose short-lived Fox News tenure was an ongoing exercise in damage control. Beck managed to stay in Ailes good graces owing to high ratings and ad revenue, but as he grew increasingly unhinged (caliphate, anyone?) and big-name advertisers fled en masse, they had a falling out and Beck was shown the door. "Half of the headlines say he's been canceled. The other half say he quit. We're pretty happy with both of them," Ailes told the Associated Press.
And then there's E.D. Hill, the Fox News anchor who in 2008 memorably characterized a fist bump between Barack and Michelle Obama as "a terrorist fist jab," generating howls of outrage from all corners. Her program was canceled within two weeks, and later that year the network declined to renew her contract.
On the other hand, there are plenty of Fox News personalities who have very publicly disgraced themselves and the network and who remain secure in their jobs. Look no further than the cast of Fox & Friends. Their 2008 stunt in which they smeared two New York Times reporters by Photoshopping yellow teeth, big noses, and receding hairlines into their publicity photos should have sent heads rolling. And yet, Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade are still on the air. Eric Bolling declared himself a birther on his Fox Business Network show: "There is a legitimate question as to whether or not the president of the United States is allowed to be president of the United States." He's since moved up to the big leagues and now co-hosts The Five on Fox News.
All this to say that, despite Morris' and Rove's benching -- which has every appearance of being temporary -- there is still no real culture of accountability at Fox News. The only way to get in trouble is to make such a spectacle of yourself that the network brass are forced to act (sagging ratings seem to be a precondition as well). And even then, there's a good chance you won't face any consequences whatsoever.
You might even get promoted.
Two former network news presidents offered criticism following the revelation that a Fox News contributor had urged Gen. David Petraeus to run for president at the request of Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
"That just isn't what a news guy does," said Michael Gartner, who served as NBC News president from 1988 to 1993. "Twenty years ago it wouldn't have been done. But that was a different era."
The critiques come in response to a December 4 report from The Washington Post's Bob Woodward that Fox News contributor K.T. McFarland, on instructions from Ailes, had urged Petraeus to run for president during a recorded 2011 interview in Afghanistan.
McFarland suggested that Ailes would leave Fox to work on Petraeus' campaign and that News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch might "bankroll" the effort.
During the same interview with Petraeus, McFarland said of Ailes, "he loves you, and everybody at Fox loves you. So what I'm supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is first of all, is there anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?"
Media critics have nonetheless responded harshly to the McFarland-Petraeus interview, with Dylan Byers at Politico writing that no other major news outlet would tolerate such behavior from their top executive, and Erik Wemple at the Post writing that it indicated "Fox News is corrupt."
David Westin, who served as ABC News president from 1997 to 2010, also offered concern about the exchange to Media Matters.
While Westin said he did not know the details of Ailes' direct involvement, and noted Ailes had told Bob Woodward his comments to MacFarland had been "more of a joke" than a serious request, Westin did offer criticism of such communications between news person and news subject.
"The report had someone from Fox News, now it was a contributor, not on staff, but a contributor, saying things to a subject of news coverage that normally a journalist wouldn't say," Westin said late December 4. "You need to keep some distance from the people you're covering and you don't want to be partial for them or against them either way, so what I read would be something that normally a journalist wouldn't do."
No one seemed to believe that Ailes had breached media ethics. Nor was anyone surprised that Ailes had asked Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland to ask Petraeus if there was "anything Fox is doing right or wrong that you want to tell us to do differently." Indeed, it is just what people have come to expect from the veteran Republican strategist who, in 2005, sent a note to then-Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice offering "help off the record" any time.
If there is a line of demarcation between the conservative Fox News and the liberal MSNBC, this is it: MSNBC may be hyper-partisan, but -- at least for now -- it is not a political operation.
It's a perverse sort of dynamic in which the president of a news organization is shielded from revelations of unethical behavior by his long-established record of unethical behavior. And while it's certainly true that Fox News is first and foremost a political operation, that doesn't explain entirely why Ailes is free to behave the way he does. The network also has a dysfunctional (one could argue nonexistent) culture of accountability.
Ailes has long benefited from Fox News' low standards for professional conduct. Most significantly, this isn't the first time he's been caught trying to persuade Republicans to run against President Obama. New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman reported last year that Ailes personally "called Chris Christie and encouraged him to jump into the race. Last summer, he'd invited Christie to dinner at his upstate compound along with Rush Limbaugh, and like much of the GOP Establishment, he fell hard for Christie, who nevertheless politely turned down Ailes's calls to run." (Ailes later denied the Christie report. He also claimed his Petraeus pitch "was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have.")
From the November 4 edition of CNN's CNN Newsroom:
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Fox News is deep in an ethics quagmire following a Washington Post report that the network's CEO Roger Ailes used Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland to try to recruit Gen. David Petraeus to run for the president as a Republican. While Ailes and McFarland made their secret overtures, McFarland appeared on Fox's airwaves to praise Petraeus as "one of the greatest generals in American history."
According to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, Ailes had McFarland advise Petraeus that he "should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director" and instead hold out for the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to resign and run for president if he was not offered that post. In audio of the meeting obtained by Woodward, Petraeus also said to McFarland that he had been advised that Ailes might resign as Fox News chief and act as a Petraeus aide should the general run for president. He also said that Ailes might bankroll the campaign, although he added that maybe it was News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch who had made that offer.
Woodward also reported that Ailes has acknowledged that he did ask McFarland to make the pitch: "It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have." Ailes also called McFarland "way out of line" in some of her comments.
This would be an ethical problem by itself: Ailes -- the chief of a supposedly objective news network -- was advising an active general who was commanding U.S. troops in the middle of a war to make demands of the president, and if those demands were not met, to run for president with Ailes acting as his aide.
But the ethics problem is much worse than that. McFarland appeared on Fox's airwaves soon after meeting with Petraeus to praise him as "one of the greatest generals in American history" who will save us from defeat in Afghanistan. While McFarland was putting Petraeus on at least the same level as Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower, she provided no disclosure of her and Ailes' advice that Petraeus should consider running for president.
From the April 21, 2011, edition of Fox News' Happening Now:
McFARLAND: When I was there two years ago, Jenna, I looked around and I concluded this is hopeless. Now with General Petraeus, who is one of the greatest generals in American history, he has gone in and he has devised a plan that will work. And the question is not, will it work, but the question is, should we be doing this? Is this an objective, is this a mission that we want? And as you have pointed out, it's expensive. And are we at this point -- you know, where is America's priorities?
JENNA LEE (co-host): Are we in this kind of stalemate [in Afghanistan] like it seems some are describing in Libya -- of course we're not there with combat troops -- but where no side is really gaining any ground and nothing really changes?
McFARLAND: Well the plan that -- the Petraeus plan is to really spend this summer -- they've diminished and decimated the middle ranks of Al Qaeda at the same time they've built up the middle ranks, the mid-level management of the Afghans. So the plan is to continue to make inroads into the Al Qaeda -- not the Al Qaeda so much as the Taliban, and then have slowly but surely the Afghans take over. And it will take a number of years to do that.
McFARLAND: We're doing the military part right, but it's a three-legged stool. And the other parts of the stool, the other legs, are the Afghan government and the Pakistani government, which has safe havens for the Taliban.
During the Happening Now segment, Fox even aired a photo of McFarland's meeting with Petraeus without disclosing what they discussed about Petraeus' future:
Gawker obtained a 2005 note through a Freedom of Information Act request recently that shows Fox News president Roger Ailes offering the Bush administration "help off the record." The note is consistent with Ailes' influence in making Fox the communication arm of the Republican Party.
The Gawker find, which comes on the heels of news that Ailes' contract to run Fox News was extended through 2016, is a handwritten note sent to Condoleezza Rice in 2005, shortly after she was confirmed as President Bush's secretary of State. The note reads:
Great first month. You handled hearing beautifully. If I can be of help off the record -- just call.
According to Gawker, a Fox News spokesperson claimed Rice never accepted the offer. However, Ailes and Fox have a long history of providing "off the record" support to the GOP. Under Ailes' guidance, Fox has taken its place as the communications arm for the Republican Party.
As the self-described "voice of the opposition," Fox had an outsized influence on the 2010 midterm elections, giving GOP candidates and supporters both extensive airtime, free promotion, and a platform to raise money.
New York magazine is reporting that resident Fox News conspiracy theorist Peter Johnson Jr. acts as the on-air mouthpiece for Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.
Johnson is officially a legal analyst for Fox News and has appeared on the network at least 75 times* in the last six months. But rather than commenting on legal issues, he often uses his appearance on Fox to make bizarre attacks on President Obama and others.
In addition to appearing on Fox, Johnson serves as Ailes personal attorney, and New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman reports that this election season, "when Ailes has a message to communicate, chances are that it is Johnson who articulates it on air":
[I]f you want to know what Roger Ailes really thinks about the news these days, here's a tip: Pay close attention to Peter Johnson Jr., Fox News's legal analyst. The Columbia-educated lawyer is certainly not as familiar to most viewers as Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, but inside the network, Johnson has become, in many respects, more influential, thanks to his ties to Ailes. To understand Fox right now, you have to understand the unique role Peter Johnson Jr. has come to play in Ailes's inner circle.
Consider this: Johnson is an on-air pundit, weighing in on topics as varied as Trayvon Martin, Occupy Wall Street, Obamacare, and Benghazi. He is a regular fill-in host on Fox & Friends. And he is Ailes's personal attorney who negotiated the network chief's new four-year contract with News Corp., said to be worth upward of $30 million a year. Fox executives frequently find Johnson conferring with Ailes privately. "He is a fixture in Ailes's office," one Fox source explained.
But Johnson's value to Ailes extends far beyond his work as a lawyer. This election season, when Ailes has a message to communicate, chances are that it is Johnson who articulates it on air.
It makes one wonder if any of these comments by Johnson consisted of a message Ailes wanted to communicate:
* Text edited.
News today via Howard Kurtz that Roger Ailes has agreed to a contract extension and will remain at the helm of Fox News for four more years also means that Ailes will also remain the unofficial head of the Republican Party for four more years.
As Media Matters has detailed, Fox News moved in during the Obama administration and essentially replaced the Republican National Committee as the driving electoral force in GOP politics. (aka The Opposition Party). With Ailes ensconced in his kingmaker role, candidates and politicians have had to bow down to Fox in search of votes and the channel's coveted free airtime.
Just this month, Brian Lowry at Variety confirmed that "the voice of Republican opposition throughout the Obama administration has been Fox News Channel, and the de facto leader of the GOP its chairman-CEO Roger Ailes." (Variety noted Fox employed five of this year's presidential candidates.)
Word of the contract announcement does not come as a surprise. Ailes and his lawyer Peter Johnson, (yes, that Peter Johnson) had made it clear in the press that they were working on a lucrative extension. Ailes made $21 million last year. Reports last month indicated Ailes' new contract might pay him as much as $30 million annually, which would match News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch's salary.
In an interesting twist, the hacking scandal that enveloped News Corp., especially overseas, only helped to solidify Ailes' power within the company. By being able to avoid direct implications of the scandal Ailes made himself more valuable to Murdoch.
Also, the hacking controversy forced News Corp. to split into two separate companies. The profits that Ailes' Fox News generates will be a cornerstone to News Corp. business that will focus on television and movies. (Fox is expected to generate $1 billion in profits this year, nearly 40 percent of News Corp.'s total bottom line.)
As for the politics, back in 2010 former Bush speechwriter David Frum, noting the sweeping power that Ailes was accumulating, observing: "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox."
It's now clear Republicans will be punching the clock at Ailes' Fox News for four more years.
Rupert Murdoch veered off script this week with some tweets that ran completely counter to the Fox News spin this campaign season. In fact, they undercut the entire political premise at Fox, which is to attack Democrats without question, and to force Republican politicians to champion a truly right-wing agenda. Is there a rift brewing?
It's true Murdoch has a history of taking stances on issues such as global warming and immigration that are diametrically opposed to the propaganda programming Fox airs. So perhaps this is another example of that.
And some observers might say Murdoch's candid comments suggest competing voices are welcome within News Corp. I think that's unlikely though, at least within Roger Ailes' Fox world where you're either on the team or off. Remember that in 2008, angry that Murdoch might use his New York Post to endorse Obama after Fox had tagged him a terrorist sympathizer, Ailes reportedly "threw a fit" and threatened to quit. (Murdoch's Post endorsed McCain instead.)
Did Murdoch's curious tweets cause similar consternation?
Note this one:
Election: To win Romney must open big tent to sympathetic families.Stop fearing far right which has nowhere else to go. Otherwise no hope-- Rupert Murdoch(@rupertmurdoch) September 11, 2012
Murdoch stresses Romney has "no hope" of winning in November if he keeps kowtowing (my word) to the "far right." Instead, he has to embrace the "big tent."
Where to begin in describing the lack of self-awareness in that statement? Or is it just shocking hypocrisy in play?
Murdoch owns Fox News, the epicenter of the "far right" in America, and Fox News has been relentlessly urging Republican candidates to wage right-wing battles against Obama. But seven weeks before Election Day, Murdoch now thinks Romney should stop trying to impress the "far right"? He should stop trying to appeal to the Fox News audience?
What is Roger Ailes so afraid of?
Writer Gabriel Sherman hasn't even finished the unauthorized book he's working on about Ailes and the rise of Fox News, and already Ailes' minions are launching wild, unsubstantiated personal attacks against him.
Reminiscent of when Sarah Palin and Fox News instigated a nasty smear campaign against her biographer, suggesting sexual deviancy motivated his reporting, Fox now seems to be adopting the same offensive tactics against Sherman.
Make no mistake, this is an ugly attempt by Ailes' paid hit men and women to preemptively smear a journalist, to rally a right-wing Twitter mob against him, and to try to intimidate him from documenting the truth about Ailes. And the early name-calling, centered on hollow allegations of wrongdoing, represent the dark trajectory this unfolding attack will likely to take.
The truth is, these types of Fox-led assaults on journalists are often conducted behind the scenes by Ailes' public relations players. The current assault may signal that the Sherman book is so important, and so frightening to her boss, that on-air hosts are signing up as combatants to publicly denigrate a writer for having the nerve to write about a very public figure.
Quick background: Writing in New York this week, Sherman noted in passing that his subscription to the Putnam County News and Recorder had been unexpectedly canceled. The Upstate New York weekly is owned by Ailes and published by his wife, Elizabeth.
It turns out Sherman was specifically cut off from the newspaper because he's writing a book about the publisher's husband. "I don't want to get into a financial transaction with him and his credit card," Elizabeth Ailes told the Washington Post's Erik Wemple.
With that background, here's the wild attack Fox's Andrea Tantaros made on Twitter yesterday:
Apparently, the newspaper-publishing wife of world-famous Roger Ailes is a "private citizen" who cannot be written about. That's a unique perspective. It's almost as unique as a publisher scrubbing her subscription list of paid customers she doesn't want buying her weekly.
So yes, Tantaros' attack on Sherman was baseless. All he did was recount the curious tale of how Ailes' wife had taken the unusual step of canceling his newspaper subscription based on what Sherman might write about her husband.
What's also chilling is the loaded language Tantaros used in her Tweets, words like "harasser" and "stalker," as she portrayed Ailes' wife as the object of Sherman's obsession. (By singling out his subscription, isn't it Elizabeth Ailes who's oddly preoccupied with Sherman?)
That is unmistakably language that conjures up the specter of sexual assault. And the obvious, disturbing inference Tantaros made on Twitter, without a hint of substance to back it up, was that Sherman poses a looming physical threat to Ailes' wife and that the journalist has crossed all kinds of ethical bounds in his attempt to harass and stalk her.
To borrow a phrase from Baltimore Sun television writer David Zurawik, the fact that a Fox News host would stoop so low confirms it's an outlet that's "rotten to the core."
Hopefully events from the last couple days, including Fox News' brazen decision to launch a four-minute, anti-Obama campaign attack ad, will convince university administrators that Fox chief Roger Ailes has no business lecturing students and faculty on the finer points of news gathering. And that the Fox chief is perhaps the last person in a position of power who should address students about the craft of journalism as practiced in a thoughtful, fair-minded way.
As we noted recently, Ailes this spring was invited by the University of North Carolina and his alma mater Ohio University to pontificate about Fox News. In both instances Ailes uncorked a string of whoppers that simply highlighted his inability to be factually accurate for any sustained period of time. (It's a trait he closely shares with Fox News.)
Since then, we've learned that at Ohio University Ailes rolled out a startling lie about the New York Times while going on a long rant about what "scum" its reporters are. (Ailes claimed the paper based a front page story that he was about to be indicted on something somebody "overheard in the waiting room of a Barbados airport." That never happened.)
And then yesterday came Fox's shocking entry into the attack ad business, as the cable channel dropped any pretense of being in the news industry and simply embraced its propaganda roots. The stunning move was denounced not only be media observers, but even by a prominent conservative blogger who felt Fox News had crossed over an obvious line between (would-be) journalism and naked partisan campaigning.
Fox News was quick to inform the press that Ailes didn't know about the attack ad in advance. (Why would he have?) But that distinction is irrelevant since it's Ailes who has created a culture of irresponsibility where producers think it's a smart idea to create partisan, campaign-style attack ads.
So, a note to college administrators: Stop inviting Roger Ailes to address students about journalism. That's like asking Rupert Murdoch to lecture about workplace ethics.
It's a really bad idea.
From the May 27 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
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From WOUB's Conversations from Studio B, published online on May 20:
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A British government panel investigating the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal has released a report concluding that Rupert Murdoch is "not a fit person" to lead a major company, citing his "willful blindness" to unethical behavior. At Fox News, which is a division of News Corp., this indifference has consistently manifested itself as an absence of journalistic ethics.