Donald Trump’s threat to skip Thursday’s debate on the Fox News Channel is either a clever outflanking of his rivals or just the latest example of the businessman’s quick temper. Whatever Trump’s motive, it has escalated his surprising feud with Fox, the single most important conservative media institution in the country, and the biggest news channel on cable. Owned by Rupert Murdoch, Fox is run by Roger Ailes, the former Republican operative and master of the dark arts of marketing.
To discuss Trump’s battle with Fox, I called Gabriel Sherman, a reporter for New York magazine and the author of The Loudest Voice in the Room, the definitive biography of Ailes and a history of the channel he built. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Chotiner: You have written in the past that Rupert Murdoch is a little scared of Roger Ailes. And this week you reported that Ailes couldn’t boss around Bill O’Reilly, who hosted Trump on his Fox show on Wednesday night. Can you explain how this organization actually works?
Sherman: The way it works is that Fox is a place where everyone is trying to maximize their own power and everyone is trying to use leverage. Historically, Roger Ailes has had the most leverage. The network functions as an expression of his worldview, and the only main exception to that was Bill O’Reilly, because he built his own audience. He was, for years, the highest rated host on the network. He really had the only show that started working in the late ’90s, during the Clinton scandals. Ailes has less power with O’Reilly than he does with other talent.
Obviously Fox is very ideological, but you write a lot about it in terms of ratings. I was wondering where ideology comes in, when it comes to Trump and this nomination battle. Ailes is obviously a huge GOP power broker.
Yeah. There are giant tectonic plates that are shifting and this is reflective of the Republican Party at large. And the central fault line between these two plates is immigration, where Trump has staked out the most extreme position. Early on, Murdoch was very anti-Trump and told Ailes to tone down the Trump coverage because of this. In recent weeks, Murdoch has warmed to a Trump candidacy, mainly because he sees how enduring Trump’s power is. And if there is one thing we know about Rupert Murdoch it is that he will make concessions to power if it will advance his business interests. He made a pact in the 1990s with Tony Blair even though he was a Thatcherite. He sees that Trump may be the nominee and could be the next president and so he wants to figure out how to deal with this guy.
But again, the ideological issue is immigration, and Fox has generally been more favorable towards comprehensive immigration reform. And this is the case even though, in private, Roger Ailes, as I reported in my book, is completely in sync with Trump on the need for extreme border protection. He wanted Navy Seals on the border with orders to shoot people trying to cross illegally. But because Murdoch has been exerting himself more, he can’t put all that on the airwaves.
I was at a Trump rally in Cedar Rapids, and the people liked Trump because he was willing to say what they believe, and they don’t like Fox because Fox is triangulating and equivocating and strategic in the ways they try to achieve their ideological aims.
Do you think this will hurt Fox’s ratings?
This isn’t about the present; it’s about the future. Right now they don’t have a ratings problem, but on one hand you have Trump trashing Fox, and on the other you have the growth of digital media, and various internet platforms like Breitbart.com, Daily Caller, the Blaze, and so on. The danger is that the audience gets frustrated with Fox and moves on, and they will now have options. What I find so fascinating is that what’s happening to Ailes is what happened to the big three networks. He broke up their monopoly. Well now conservatives are introducing their own ideological competition and fracturing Ailes’ monopoly. And at the same time Trump is using the same playbook on Ailes that he used: claim bias, and rile up your audience. Megyn Kelly is the equivalent of Dan Rather this cycle. She is loathed. If you read the comments on right-wing websites …
She’s loathed to the degree Rather was.
Is this Trump cannily using the Ailes strategy, or is this Trump actually getting angry at Megyn Kelly because he doesn’t like a woman standing up to him?
It’s hard to impute specific motives to what he does because he is so reactive. There ends up being a strategic frame, but in the moment you don’t know why he is doing things. But he did think that the first debate, for Fox, was used as a premeditated attack, and I have done some reporting that kind of confirms that. Rupert Murdoch was involved in the crafting of those questions, and he wanted Trump’s momentum to be slowed down. Trump felt that Megyn Kelly was the vehicle, but whether this is personal or strategic, well, I don’t want to fathom what’s in his mind.
Please don’t. My one critique of your terrific book was that you overstated Ailes’ power.
Help me understand: How do you think I overplayed his power?
I thought Ailes actually had less power over the GOP, and in determining elections, than you did. Do you think of him differently now as a Republican power broker than you did in 2012?
Without question. Whatever happens with the Trump candidacy, whether he wins Iowa and New Hampshire and the nomination, or flames out, it has been proven that a Republican candidate can stand up to Fox and survive. His poll numbers, since he began going after Megyn Kelly, have not declined. It’s like The Wizard of Oz. We have pulled the curtain back, and he is just a television executive, although a very canny one. There’s no way he would ever remain that powerful because his industry is changing.