Gabriel Sherman: Look for post-election ‘wholesale housecleaning’ at Fox News

Graphic by Christie Chisholm

Roger Ailes, the genius behind Fox News’ rise as a dominant force in conservative politics, may have been ousted amid a sexual harassment scandal that began roiling the cable channel in early July. But the ripple effects of his forced departure—both inside and outside the network—are only beginning to be felt, said New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman in a conversation at the Columbia Journalism School Thursday evening.

“In the crush of daily headlines, it can seem like the story has really played out,” added Sherman. “But we are still in the middle of what I think will be remembered as one of the seismic shifts in the American media landscape.”

Sherman discussed Ailes, Fox, and their impact on politics in an interview with Columbia Professor Bill Grueskin. He urged media watchers to take the long view of Ailes’s downfall at the cable network, which has functioned as something of a lone superpower among conservative media over the past two decades. The resulting transition at Fox could shift the balance of power in that ecosystem. In the short-term, Sherman added, more changes could be afoot within the nation’s highest-rated cable channel.

“What I understand from talking to people up and down the network is it’s really in a holding pattern,” Sherman said. “They’re looking for a permanent CEO. And most likely, there will be, after the November election, more of a wholesale housecleaning.”

Sherman has owned the story of Ailes’s ouster since news broke in early July that former anchor Gretchen Carlson was suing the network boss for alleged sexual harassment. Earlier this week, Fox News’ parent company settled with Carlson for a reported $20 million, half of Ailes’s golden parachute.

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Despite the settlement, it’s possible more details may dribble out from Carlson’s experience. In Sherman’s New York cover story this week, he reported that Carlson began secretly recording Ailes during meetings beginning in 2014. “It’s my understanding that those tapes still exist,” Sherman said on Thursday, “so if there’s future litigation—say another woman would file a lawsuit—they could always be subpoenaed in court.”

Sherman had previously reported similar allegations by two women in his 2014 Ailes biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room. He speculated on Thursday that those on-the-record accounts may have given Carlson and her lawyers confidence to file suit in early July. In the wake of Carlson’s actions, multiple other women came forward alleging harassment in stories reported by Sherman and others. The New York writer also broke news that Megyn Kelly, a star Fox News host approaching contract negotiations next year, complained of harassment in an internal inquiry by Fox’s parent company.

“She’s in a very strong negotiating position,” Sherman said. “Megyn Kelly is the anchor and the lynchpin in this primetime lineup, which is where the network makes all of its money….If she leaves, then the entire machine that Ailes had put together will be dismantled.”

Regardless of what happens, Sherman will no doubt be in the center of it. The dean of the Fox News press corps has become a frequent target of attacks by Ailes’s surrogates. The former network boss has hired the same attorney who represented Hulk Hogan against Gawker to explore possible legal action against the journalist or New York.

As Sherman told me in an interview Thursday afternoon, initial communication from that attorney “does not outline any specific things they take issue with in my reporting. So if and when they raise any specific issues, we’ll listen carefully and respond as appropriate.”

For now, voters and television viewers alike will see the human embodiment of many Fox values on the campaign trail in Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. “The style of politics—the bombast, the entertainment values, the loose connection with the truth—that Trump has made his trademark really has been the staple of Fox News from the moment Ailes founded the network in 1996,” Sherman said. Fox spoke to the Republican base in a way no other media company had previously, remaking the party in its image. Trump may be the endpoint of that 20-year project.

“[Ailes] transcends the world of television news,” Sherman said. “In the same way William Randolph Hearst and other media moguls were icons of their eras—who shaped their eras in their image—Ailes will be remembered for shaping the latter part of the 20th and the 21st century.”

More broadly, the post-Ailes Fox could accelerate a sea-change among conservative media that has already begun. As I wrote in late July, the proliferation of numerous right-wing digital outlets, such as Breitbart News, has collectively threatened Fox’s supremacy over the right-wing echo chamber. Whereas Fox was founded as a critique of mainstream news coverage in 1996, creating a major fissure in the larger media environment, an abundance of choice in 2016 has exposed additional cracks along more narrowly focused ideological lines.

“This audience that Ailes had, of 2 million [a day], is just going to be carved up by niche websites,” Sherman said. “You’re going to see conservatism micro-targeted to all of these individual audiences.” 

Ailes has never granted Sherman an interview in the six years he has covered TV news. When Sherman was asked to share the one question he’d ask the former network boss were he in the room, the journalist responded, “What are your regrets?” 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.