Power Shifts

The move to California in 1981 was cool. That was trading a small apartment near a strip mall on the east side of Rochester, New York, for a small walk-up apartment a few steps from the sand here in happening Manhattan Beach – with the girls in the tiny bikinis on rollerblades on the strand and the surfers out there waiting for the next wave, and the sun setting over Malibu across the bay each night. There would be no more endless dark days of snow – but the career change was another matter. Teaching English at a prep school didn’t pay much, but it was satisfying in its way, and thoroughly predictable. Hamlet was still Hamlet, every single year. Late adolescents also have predictable struggles, as intense as they seem at the time – and then they leave for college and the big wide world. Others, a bit younger, take their place each September – and then they leave. The job is to make these folks better writers and better readers, and thus better thinkers, and to make them better people, if possible – and that’s challenging hard work – but it’s the same work.

The new career wasn’t going to be like that. Aerospace was hiring at the time, so it was Training and Organizational Development at Northrop and then Hughes – they were hiring former teachers and paying them triple what they had earned before. But that didn’t last. Next it was general Human Resources – the staffing and salary and discipline stuff – because they needed warm bodies for that and there you were. You needed only minimal training. Learn new things – and this was the early eighties. Suddenly there were desktop computers everywhere. Everything could be automated – so it was building Human Resources systems from scratch. Many of us taught ourselves to code. We became programmers, we built applications, and stick with that long enough and sooner or later you become the one supervising other application developers, and suddenly you’re in systems management. How did THAT happen? It just did.

Then it got interesting. In the mid-nineties, Computer Sciences Corporation convinced Hughes that they should stick to satellites and radar and whatnot, and let them do the IT stuff. This would save Hughes a lot of money and allow them to focus what they were supposed to be doing in the first place. Hughes liked that and outsourced all the information technology stuff to CSC – so after seventeen years at Hughes it was showing up at work as a contractor, a CSC guy. That was odd, even if the job was the same – and then the job wasn’t the same. CSC was out to grab business from EDS – now long gone but a powerhouse back then. CSC did that. The General Motors locomotive operation in London, Ontario, decided to dump Ross Perot’s EDS (Electronic Data Systems) for their computer work and brought in Computer Sciences Corporation. They thought we could run things better, or at least no worse. That was the next assignment. Go to Canada.

Things were a mess in Canada – but we brought in every clever CSC person we could find from Tucson to Maine to sort it all out. It took two years to sort it all out. The commute was a bitch – two weeks at a stretch in London, a weekend at home here in Hollywood, to pay the bills and water the plants, and then back to London on Sunday evening – the late flight to Pittsburgh and then the puddle-jumper up to London. Then it was time to leave. CSC had stuck it to Ross Perot. Bully for them. It was time to move on.

It wasn’t that hard to find a job with some predictability. Catholic Healthcare West, a chain of thirteen hospitals in Southern California, needed a business applications manager. Cool. That would be stable, but after one year there they outsourced all of us to Perot Systems. Ross Perot had founded EDS in 1962, had sold the company to General Motors in 1984, and then founded Perot Systems in 1988 – and they came to Pasadena and let most of us go. It was time to retire. There was no escaping this Perot fellow.

Perot Systems was bought by Dell in 2009, so it’s long gone too, as it should be. Ross Perot is a an amazing success story – and he was also the spoiler who made Bill Clinton president in 1992 – but, being an old man at the turn of the century, he had turned Perot Systems over to his son, and the kid didn’t have the same spark. Perot Systems was going nowhere. Dell could run it better. That came too late for those of us in Pasadena.

That’s what was different in the private sector, in the world of big business. This wasn’t like teaching Hamlet each year. Nothing was predictable. There were power shifts far above you – odd power struggles between the mighty, men you’d never meet, and some of that was dynastic. Those who had built empires would hand those empires over to their sons. There would be disruptions. Things could change in a heartbeat. Someone was going to get hurt, probably you, but this had nothing to do with you. You really didn’t matter.

That took some getting used to, but the odd thing is that this is now happening at Fox News:

The nearly omniscient chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes, was publicly rebuked on Tuesday when his parent company released a statement contradicting him on who he will answer to now that chief executive Rupert Murdoch is stepping down.

The elder Murdoch, currently chairman and CEO of 21st Century Fox, is set to christen his younger son, James, as CEO while retaining his title as chairman. His other son, Lachlan Murdoch, is set to join his father as co-executive chairman of the company.

So what does this mean for Roger Ailes?

Fox Business Network reported last week that Ailes would continue to “report directly to Rupert Murdoch” – a line that came directly from Ailes according to New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman.

But on Tuesday, a spokesperson for 21st Century Fox issued a statement saying that Ailes would answer to Murdoch’s sons before the big man himself.

“Roger will report to Lachlan and James but will continue his unique and long-standing relationship with Rupert,” spokesperson Nathaniel Brown told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday.

Gabriel Sherman does have the details:

For much of the past 15 years, Roger Ailes has operated with virtual impunity inside Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Nothing, it seemed, could induce Murdoch to rebuke Ailes publicly, even if Ailes forced Murdoch to choose between him and his sons. Such was Ailes’s power that he has been able to run a right-wing political operation under the auspices of a news channel.

This week, for the first time, there are signs that this remarkable era may be entering its twilight. Yesterday, 21st Century Fox announced that Ailes would be reporting to Lachlan and James Murdoch. For Ailes, it was a stinging smack-down and effectively a demotion.

Ailes did what he could:

Just five days earlier, Ailes released what now appears to be a rogue statement to his own Fox Business channel declaring that he would be unaffected by the announcement that Lachlan and James will take control of Fox as part of Rupert’s succession plan. “Roger Ailes will continue to run the news network, reporting directly to Rupert Murdoch,” Fox Business reported. According to a well-placed source, Ailes directed Fox Business executive Bill Shine to tell anchor Stuart Varney to read the statement on air. “Ailes told Shine to write the announcement of the move for Varney to say,” the source said. “In it, Ailes inserted language that he would report to Rupert.”

That was a miscalculation:

What makes the reversal most remarkable is that, until now, Rupert always backed Ailes during his messy feuds with Murdoch’s children. Ailes’s tangles with Lachlan were legion. Not long after 9/11, Rupert gave Ailes a new contract after Ailes threatened to resign following a heated argument with Lachlan in the Fox newsroom. Four years later, Lachlan quit his job as deputy COO in charge of the Fox broadcast group after Rupert supported Ailes in a dispute over a TV show that Ailes wanted and Lachlan didn’t. In 2014, Rupert did nothing publicly after I reported in my Ailes biography that Ailes once bragged to a Fox News executive about moving into Lachlan’s vacant office, thereby putting himself closer to Rupert than Lachlan. “Do you know whose chair I’m sitting in? I’m sitting in Lachlan Murdoch’s chair,” Ailes boasted to his colleague. “Do you know who’s sitting on the other side of that wall? Rupert Murdoch.”

Things don’t work that way in a dynasty. Ailes had become The Loudest Voice in the Room – which is, in fact, the title of the Roger Ailes biography by Gabriel Sherman. There had been a rather intense campaign to discredit Gabriel Sherman’s unauthorized biography of Ailes, perhaps for good reason – Sherman reports that Ailes agreed with Glenn Beck’s claim that President Obama has “a deep-seated hatred for white people” and thinks that Navy SEAL guys should “have to personally kill an illegal immigrant” as part of their certification, and he may have offered an employee a salary increase if she would have sex with him on demand, and Ailes once called a rival executive “a little fucking Jew prick” – which offers a sense of the man.

Sherman simply reports this:

Ailes and James have maintained a distant, if frosty, relationship. James is an environmentalist who led News Corp’s campaign to be a carbon-neutral company. His wife once worked for the Clinton Foundation. Ailes, a fierce climate-change denier, openly badmouthed James to friends and colleagues. He’s called him a “fucking dope” and “Fredo,” according to sources.

Ailes didn’t seem to understand that things can change in a heartbeat:

No one I spoke to in the hours after the news broke could remember a time when Ailes has been so publicly diminished. “History was made,” a longtime Ailes associate told me. “It is terrible for Roger,” said another. “It is a public contradiction. Roger takes these things personally. Worse, it shows that Rupert did not give him a heads-up of the management change in advance. That alone was a slight to his ego.”

And power has shifted:

Ailes’s contract is up in the winter of 2016. According to the many Murdoch-world sources I’ve spoken with in recent weeks, Ailes has been expecting to renew his deal. “Rupert is going to need me to elect the next president,” Ailes is said to have told an associate.

But Ailes may have grossly overplayed his hand. According to sources, the fact that Fox’s ratings held steady during Ailes’s leave of absence last year over a health scare has given the Murdochs confidence that Fox could endure in the post-Ailes era. It’s an era that now seems to be closer.

Ailes has kind of been outsourced, and an era may be over. In 1967, Roger Ailes, who was producing the Mike Douglas Show, had a long discussion about television in politics with one of the guests, Richard Nixon, who thought television was a gimmick. Nixon, however, listened carefully and called on Ailes to serve as his Executive Producer for Television. Nixon’s 1968 election victory might have been Ailes’ doing – he worked hard to make the very odd Nixon more likable and “accessible” as they say.

That story is told in The Selling of the President 1968 – Joe McGinniss tells how Ailes made Nixon one of the cool kids again. And then, years later, in February 1996, Roger Ailes left America’s Talking (now MSNBC) to start the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch. The job was the same – make the angry conservative stiffs the cool kids again. Ailes could do that, he did that for Nixon, and Fox News launched on October 7, 1996, and they’ve been working on that ever since.

That was the plan. They say they alone are “Fair and Balanced” – a counterweight to CNN and certainly MSNBC, and to the three broadcast networks, and to the New York Times and Washington Post and all the rest of the liberal mainstream media that persists in questioning the wisdom of angry rich conservatives. That is, however, no more than their saying that they’re the cool kids, who know what’s what, not those other guys. It’s almost a high-school thing. That may be why Roger Ailes hires all those pretty and leggy and young blond women to sit around with the angry old white men – for every Bill O’Reilly a Megyn Kelly. The angry old white men get the hot chicks. That makes them cool, doesn’t it? It really is like being back in high school. The taunt is there… Check her out! She’s with me! I’m cool and you’re not!

That’s part of it, but Ailes had been the media advisor for the Nixon campaign in 1968 and a consultant to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 campaign – he helped to coach Reagan in the second presidential debate with Walter Mondale. In 1987 and 1988, Ailes also worked closely with the quite nasty Lee Atwater to help George Bush, the first one, in the Republican primaries and then in defeating Michael Dukakis in the general election. Ailes denies producing that famous Willie Horton ad – the face of the convicted rapist furloughed by Michael Dukakis scaring the hell out of everyone in America. Some believe his denial, some don’t. “Rupert is going to need me to elect the next president?” Ailes thinks he’s the man for that.

Maybe so, but there was Isaac Chotiner in the New Republic on Sherman’s book on Ailes:

Sherman is so awed by Ailes’ skills that he ends up overstating his influence, and taking Ailes’ own narrative too much for granted. “Roger Ailes has the power, more than any single person in American public life, to define the president,” he writes in his prologue…. Ailes has certainly revolutionized television news, but winning audience share is a far cry from winning the White House…

Sherman quotes Ailes saying in 2010, “I want to elect the next president.” And: “If there was anyone who could deliver on such a boast, it was Ailes.”

Sherman sticks to this belief, even though the picture his reporting draws doesn’t really support it. Ailes couldn’t stand Romney, who didn’t have an easy ride on Fox News, but the former Massachusetts governor nevertheless won the Republican nomination in 2012; Ailes tried to convince Chris Christie and David Petraeus to run, to no avail; and the portrait Ailes sketched of Obama for over four years was not nearly entrenched enough to keep the president from handily winning re-election.

Despite liberal paranoia over the effect that Fox News has, the rise of Fox has changed the Republican Party: it’s more close-minded, more anti-intellectual.

So there’s no point in getting too upset here:

The idea that we live in a country where Roger Ailes – or any television executive – can decide who is president is horrifying. Fortunately, we don’t. Roger Ailes will go down in history as a disturbed genius who is indeed the loudest voice in the room. But even the loudest voices can be tuned out.

They can also be shut out. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. Murdoch handed his empire to his sons. Roger Ailes didn’t matter one bit.

Welcome to the club, Roger. You’ve been effectively outsourced. Rupert Murdoch brought in his sons. You report to someone else now, and Fox News, as we now know it, is effectively over. This is how things work. Power suddenly shifts. It has nothing to do with you, and if you don’t like it, become a high school English teacher. It’s not a bad life, actually.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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