NEW YORK, N.Y. – Roger Ailes is out as chief executive at Fox News Channel, his career at the network he built from scratch and ran with an iron hand for nearly 20 years over with stunning swiftness following allegations that he forced out a former anchor after she spurned his sexual advances.
Network parent 21st Century Fox said Thursday that Rupert Murdoch, the company’s executive chairman, would run Fox News and its sister Fox Business Network, which Ailes had also led, until a successor could be found.
Murdoch and 21st Century Fox didn’t address the widening scandal in the statement on the resignation but lauded Ailes for his contributions. Ailes didn’t comment in the statement, and no details were given on a settlement agreement.
“I am personally committed to ensuring that Fox News remains a distinctive, powerful voice,” Murdoch said. “Our nation needs a robust Fox News to resonate from every corner of the country.”
Fox is heading into a general election campaign in its customary spot at the top of the ratings, but without the man who sets its editorial tone.
The blustery, 76-year-old media executive built a network that both transformed the news business and changed the political conversation. Fox News Channel provided a television home to conservatives who felt left out of the media, and played a part in advancing a rough-and-tumble style of politics that left many concerned that it was impossible to get things done in government.
Ailes’ downfall began with the July 6 filing of a lawsuit by Gretchen Carlson, who charged that he sabotaged her career because she refused his suggestions for sex and complained about a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment at Fox. Ailes has denied the charges, but 21st Century Fox hired a law firm to investigate.
In a statement, Carlson’s attorneys credited Carlson’s “extraordinary courage” with causing “a seismic shift in the media world.”
Several Fox employees jumped to Ailes’ defence, but notably not Megyn Kelly, one of Fox’s top personalities. In rapid succession, it was reported that Kelly was among other women who had told investigators about harassment — again denied by Ailes — and that corporate heads Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, determined that Ailes had to go. The company has no plans to make results of its investigation public.
Within two weeks of the court filing, Carlson’s lawyers also said more than 20 women had contacted the firm with stories of alleged harassment by Ailes either against themselves or someone they knew. Two came forward publicly.
Before the charges, Fox’s success had insulated Ailes despite some previous scrapes with the Murdoch sons over who he would report to. Fox News Channel is the parent company’s single most important property, said Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser, with some estimates that it accounted for nearly a quarter of the company’s profits.
Ailes was a prominent Republican media consultant who later ran CNBC before Murdoch asked him to create a cable news network to compete with CNN at the same time MSNBC was starting. Ailes’ slogans, “fair and balanced” and “we report, you decide,” appealed to an audience that believed mainstream outlets didn’t live up to those promises.
“He was ahead of his time in recognizing that dividing, not uniting, an audience would be the key to commercial success in the 21st-century cable news business,” said Matt Sienkiewicz, communications professor at Boston College.
Ailes hired a combative broadcast journeyman in Bill O’Reilly and turned him into the star of an opinionated prime-time lineup. He directed news coverage and emphasized issues like the so-called “war on Christmas” or the Benghazi investigation that otherwise got little attention. Republican politicians considered Fox the first stop for reaching their intended audience, and they learned to talk tough.
He was also a showman. Fox had flashier graphics, brighter colours and a vitality its staid rivals lacked.
Critics scoffed at Ailes’ promise that he’d lift Fox to first place. By 2002, he did, and Fox hasn’t looked back.
Ailes groomed no obvious successors, and has been so identified with the brand that many have a hard time envisioning the network without him. That could make Fox more broadly palatable, but also risks alienating the audience that has grown to love Fox and made it such a success.
“Whoever invented the Coca-Cola formula has long since passed this Earth, but the brand keeps selling because people like the taste,” said Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. “I think that’s how it’s going to be with Roger Ailes. He invented this winning formula and all you have to do is not mess with it too much and it will continue to mint money for you.”
AP Television Writers Frazier Moore in New York and Lynn Elber in Los Angeles and Business Writer Tali Arbel in New York contributed to this report.