How a Roger Ailes departure could reshape Fox News

Roger Ailes, credited with making Fox News a major player, is reportedly negotiating his exit from Fox News after allegations of sexual harassment.

Fred Prouser/Reuters/File
Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Television Stations and shown here speaking in 2006, is negotiating a departure from Fox after sexual harassment allegations.

Roger Ailes's tenure leading Fox News channel appears to be drawing toward a close, following sexual harassment allegations against the channel's chief executive. Mr. Ailes's leadership helped turn the 20-year-old outlet into a massively influential news source, as well as a lightening rod for debates over media bias.

Negotiations between Ailes and 21st Century Fox that would lead to his departure from the network are in advanced stages, as The New York Times reported.

The negotiations follow a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Ailes by Gretchen Carlson, a former anchor. She alleged she had been fired after rejecting sexual advances from Ailes, and Fox anchor Megyn Kelly reportedly also came forward to tell investigators she had been harassed by Ailes. 

A former high-profile Republican operative who had worked for politicians including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Ailes has had a major impact on the US political and media environment since building Fox News into a national powerhouse after helping to start it 20 years ago. 

"It's hard to find a living American who has had more impact on US politics than Roger Ailes," Jeff Cohen, the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and founder of progressive media-watch group FAIR, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Roger Ailes may be the most powerful Republican alive, may have been that way for years ... Fox News Channel is the sun around all other Republican and conservative institutions circle." [Editor's note: This reporter studied under Professor Cohen.]

The idea that news channels reflect partisan leanings, is well-embedded among US news-watchers. 

In a 2009 survey from the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of respondents said they consider Fox "mostly conservative." The next-highest numbers for a perceived bias belonged to CNN, NBC, and MSNBC: 37, 36, and 36 percent of respondents said they believed those channels were "mostly liberal." 

Meanwhile, 40 percent of Fox's viewers call themselves Republicans. On the liberal-leaning side, 58 percent of MSNBC's viewers say they are Democrats. As for CNN, 50 percent say they are Democrats. 

There's a chance that Ailes's removal could make the channel more politically moderate, Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University, tells the Monitor. Although the station's owner, Rupert Murdoch, leans conservative on many issues, Murdoch's children are more apolitical and focused on business, she says.

"The Murdoch boys are looking at the demographics and see it as skewing very old, very white, very male," she says. "I think they're definitely looking for a different demographic, certainly not a left-wing one, but one that goes more where the country is going." 

But if Fox News ever moderates, Cohen says its "going to be a long, slow, change," partially because the current system has led to record viewers: as of June, the channel has enjoyed its best ratings year to date. 

"Right now, it's still one of the most profitable channels, certainly the most profitable news channel, and it's not a new thing that they have a demographic problem," he says. 

"Ailes is hard to separate from Fox, and has played an extremely important role in Republican politics, especially in linking Republicans and Republican elected officials with conservative media," Matt Grossman, an associate professor of politics at Michigan State University, tells the Monitor. "He's also, of course, played a role in the rise of cable as a form of news, separate from its political motivations. He was very successful at doing that."

A "concerted effort" from Fox News and other conservative media has convinced the Republican electorate that the mainstream media has a liberal bias, Professor Grossman argues – and surveys have found that only a small minority of full-time journalists identify as Republican, with just over half calling themselves independent, and another 28 percent identifying as Democrats.

"The Republican electorate has received that message and now believes it, that the mainstream media is biased and they need an explicitly conservative alternative to get that viewpoint," Grossman says. 

In the past, research suggests, Fox News exposure may have encouraged voters to vote for Republican candidates. In 2006, economists Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan released a study comparing voting data for towns where the station did, or did not, roll out between 1996 and 2000. 

"About five to ten percent of the people who were exposed to Fox News and who were not already pre-disposed to vote Republican were influenced to vote Republican," says Dr. Kaplan, an associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland. "That's actually quite a substantial push."

Despite Ailes's expected departure, Grossman says he expects Fox News to maintain its position as a major influencer in US politics. 

"It has a very stable audience, and an important and stable role in American politics and I don't expect that to change," he says.

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