Q and A

Q&A: Gabriel Sherman on how Ailes’s vendetta is more fodder for his reporting

September 8, 2016

New York National Affairs Editor Gabriel Sherman was returning from a vacation in France in early July when news broke that former anchor Gretchen Carlson sued Fox News boss Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. Sherman, who penned a 2014 biography of the network chief, has owned the story in the two months since, reporting lurid details of Ailes’s alleged depravity and ongoing damage control within the nation’s most powerful cable news channel.

Fox’s parent company settled with Carlson for a reported $20 million this week, while Ailes was given double that to leave the network quietly in July. The latter’s surrogates have meanwhile escalated their counterattack on Sherman, most recently with a laughable attempt at character assassination to prebut the journalist’s New York cover story this week.

Sherman will discuss Ailes, Fox, and their effect on American politics at a Columbia Journalism School event tonight. I caught up with him beforehand to chat about his many scoops, what it feels like to be in the crosshairs of a PR machine, and the future of conservative media. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

In your book you have a lot of pretty damning Ailes anecdotes, including past accusations of sexual harassment that are eerily similar to what we’ve all been hearing about the last couple of months. Do you have any take on why these are catching the public imagination more now than they did then?

It’s really been fascinating to watch how this story has played out. Sadly, when Gretchen Carlson filed her lawsuit, I wasn’t completely surprised because I did report episodes of alleged sexual harassment by Ailes in the past, and I heard whispers and rumors about this behavior continuing at Fox. I think one of the differences is that Gretchen Carlson is the highest-profile Fox News woman to come forward and allege harassment. 

Secondly, this is all playing out in a post-Cosby culture, where women are more likely to be believed when they make allegations against a powerful man. And then thirdly, Ailes’s position at Fox News was much more precarious today than it was when my book came out in the winter of 2014. It was this confluence of events that combined to lead to his ouster from Fox 15 days after Gretchen filed her suit. 

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Can you talk a bit more about why Ailes’s position at Fox was more precarious this summer than it had been earlier?

It’s a couple of things. One, the rise of James and Lachlan Murdoch, two avowed antagonists of Ailes who have wanted him out of the company for years and who were the catalysts behind hiring the outside law firm Paul, Weiss that investigated Ailes. Secondly, as I reported in the past, Rupert Murdoch has become confident that Fox could run in a post-Ailes era, because Ailes had taken extended leaves for health reasons. He’d been out of the office for weeks and sometimes months in the time since my book came out. That allowed Murdoch to see that the lights would stay on if [Ailes] wasn’t there. So again, when this candle blew up this summer, [Murdoch] said, Ok, Ailes can go and Fox will survive.

I don’t take it personally at all. I just treat it as more reporting. When Ailes and surrogates level these personal attacks, which they [also] did when my book was coming out, I just treated it all as more reporting. He was revealing himself.”

From a reporter’s perspective, one of the fascinating things from the last couple of months is the degree to which Ailes allies have leveled personal attacks against you while you reported the story. How do you compartmentalize that so it doesn’t influence your broader goal? 

Actually, I don’t take it personally at all. I just treat it as more reporting. When Ailes and surrogates level these personal attacks, which they [also] did when my book was coming out, I just treated it all as more reporting. He was revealing himself. While he didn’t sit down with me for formal interviews—I did meet him on two occasions at public events [while reporting my book]—these actions revealed probably as much as he would if I ever sat down with him. So I try to use it to my benefit to show the lengths to which he’ll go to control his own story and shape his own narrative. I just use it all as more material. 

There have been a couple of reports over the last week or so that Ailes has hired Hulk Hogan’s attorney to explore legal action against New York. I understand he’s been in contact with the magazine in some way—what was your editors’ response? 

We received a letter from Charles Harder, who says he’s been retained by Roger and Elizabeth Ailes. The letter 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. But I’ve been supported incredibly by New York magazine, and really my goal through all of this is just to keep my head down. If and when anything else develops, we’ll take it from there.

The other big news on the Fox front this week is host Greta van Susteren leaving the network. Based on your reporting and your observation of Fox’s programs, what’s the state of Fox News right now?

Fox is definitely in transition. There’s not the daily message that we’ve seen in the past when Ailes was running the network. Clearly, Fox has taken an anti-Hillary Clinton position. But they are playing it relatively restrained in terms of boosting Trump. I think they’re really in a holding pattern until after the election, when they develop a new editorial strategy for the post-Ailes era.

When I think about conservative media in the past 10 years in particular, I see a lone superpower in Fox and then a bunch of smaller places in or out of its orbit. And broader changes in media, coupled with this transition at Fox, seem to be turning conservative media into a more multi-polar environment.

What’s fascinating is that Ailes built this conservative media empire by attacking the rest of the establishment media–the news media–as liberal. Now what we’re seeing on the conservative side is Fox being attacked with the same tactics that Ailes used on CNN, MSNBC, and The New York Times. You have Breitbart and a lot of the far-right sites attacking Fox as a creature of the Republican establishment.

This is a part of a long tradition of the media splintering along ideological lines. For 20 years, Fox News was this umbrella bridging all elements of the conservative media, from the far-right conspiracy fringe to the DC-establishment GOP. Now that’s breaking apart, and I think the conservative media will become just as fractured as the rest of the media. There’s not going to be one dominant monopoly the way Fox was in the past.

And now Ailes is advising Donald Trump in his debate prep. What’s your understanding of their relationship, and have you noticed Ailes’ fingerprints on Trump’s messaging yet? 

Ailes and Trump are personal friends, and my understanding from various sources is that [Ailes] is acting as an informal adviser. He’s on the phone with Trump regularly. He’s done a few debate prep sessions with Trump at Trump’s golf club in New Jersey. And my sense of the advice is that he’s trying to get Trump to be more focused.

Ailes’ trademark in his advising of politicians is to get them to communicate in zingers and one-liners. Trump is very good at that, but he’s also unfocused. So I think Ailes is trying to harness Trump’s talent for communication and come up with really memorable zingers and one-liners that will puncture and dominate the news cycle.

Notably, we should point out that Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and the senior leadership of the Trump campaign are not acknowledging Ailes’s role. In fact, they’re trying to distance him from Trump. So I think that’s revealing of some discomfort that the Trump campaign has. Roger Ailes is ensnared in this sexual harassment scandal, and it doesn’t look good for the campaign, especially since Trump has his own problems if you look at his poll numbers among female voters. I think they’re trying to have it both ways, where they get Roger Ailes’s advice but they don’t have to deal with the baggage that he brings to the campaign.

You’ve really been owning this story, so I have to ask: Is there a sequel to your book on the horizon?

Right now I have such tunnel vision. It’s been a breaking news story all summer, so I’ve been down in the trenches trying to report this story as it unfolds. I haven’t had a second to come up for air yet.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.