Rupert Murdoch had long been the staunchest supporter of Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Now he is replacing him in the wake of sexual harassment charges that led to Ailes’ abrupt departure.
In a move aimed at calming the cable news powerhouse -- and a tacit acknowledgment that there was no obvious successor to Ailes – Murdoch assumed the role of acting chairman and chief executive of Fox News, in addition to his role as executive chairman of 21st Century Fox.
Ailes resigned only two weeks after being confronted with embarrassing allegations that he had sexually harassed former anchor Gretchen Carlson.
The Fox News chairman dismissed the allegations, but has been confronted with additional claims of misconduct by network officials investigating the matter.
The claims have been a public relations fiasco for 21st Century Fox, prompting Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James to move swiftly to end the 20-year tenure of one of the most powerful media executives. Murdoch, 85, disrupted his vacation plans in the South of France, returning from St. Tropez to deal with the corporate shake-up.
Despite his fall from grace, Ailes won’t leave empty-handed. He will receive about $40 million under a settlement agreement, which is the compensation he would have received through 2018 under his contract, according to a person close to Fox.
Ailes’ resignation, announced Thursday afternoon, is effective immediately, thrusting Murdoch into a management role at Fox while a search for a permanent successor takes place. But even after a replacement for Ailes is named, Murdoch will continue to hold the chairman title.
In a letter to Murdoch, Ailes said he “will not allow my presence to become a distraction from the work that must be done every day to ensure that Fox News and Fox Business continue to lead our industry.”
Several Fox News stars have clauses in their contract that tie their commitments to Ailes being in charge of the network. Having Murdoch, widely respected in the organization, should quell concerns over the departure of Ailes, who was in charge of Fox News since its launch in 1996.
Murdoch added that “to ensure continuity of all that is best about Fox News and what it stands for,” he will have the support of the company’s management team under Bill Shine, Jay Wallace and Mark Kranz.
However, the fact that Murdoch is temporarily in charge is an indication that there was no succession plan in place at Fox News despite Ailes’ age, 76, and ill health in recent years.
“It appears to be a holding action,” said Joe Peyronnin, a journalism professor at Hofstra University and former CBS News executive. “They were unprepared for his sudden departure. They clearly don't have an immediate successor, and Ailes' lieutenants are loyal to Roger so they will have to be carefully evaluated.”
Having the elder Murdoch in charge will also ensure that Fox News will keep its tone and maintain its appeal to viewers who want to see more conservative viewpoints represented.
“Ailes was such a loud and strong voice, it makes sense that you’d want to ensure a strong voice is in charge in his absence,” said Matt Sienkiewicz, communications professor at Boston College. “Murdoch fits that bill. He is the best fit.”
Although Ailes ran Fox News, Murdoch has always taken a strong interest in the operation, even sitting in on editorial meetings, according to one 21st Century Fox executive.
Ailes, who built Fox into the most influential force in the news media over the last two decades, has been under fire since Carlson alleged that her contract was not renewed after she spurned sexual advances by him.
In a Sept. 16 meeting to discuss the discriminatory treatment she believed she suffered, Carlson alleges that Ailes told her, “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.”
Since the allegations by Carlson became public -- she filed a suit in a New Jersey Superior Court on July 6 -- reports have emerged of other women who have worked with the executive in the past also saying that he sought sexual favors in return for employment. Ailes has denied those incidents as well.
Attorneys for Carlson had said they had been contacted by as many as 20 women who said they were subjected to inappropriate behavior by Ailes.
Only last year, Ailes signed a new four-year contract to keep him as the head of Fox News. While the elder Murdoch has long backed Ailes and his agenda-driven news, his sons have had a cooler relationship with the brash executive. His financial performance at Fox helped protect him from any personal disdain that Murdoch’s sons may have had for him. The younger Murdochs are now co-executive chairmen at 21st Century Fox and have a greater say in the operation.
The Murdochs acted fast in launching an internal investigation into Ailes’ behavior after Carlson filed her suit. Current and past employees for Fox News were interviewed, and others reportedly said they had experienced some kind of sexual harassment.
Megyn Kelly’s attorney confirmed that the star anchor cooperated in the investigation. There have been reports that she gave her own account of being sexually harassed by Ailes.
Her statements probably had a major impact on the decision to part ways with Ailes. Kelly is a rising star at Fox News and her contract expires in the middle of next year.
Kelly had been effusive in her praise of Ailes in recent press interviews, crediting him with her success at Fox News. But her silence after many of her other colleagues spoke out in support of Ailes after Carlson’s lawsuit was filed became conspicuous.
For Ailes, the departure is a stunning, ignominious ending of a remarkable career.
Ailes rose from working-class beginnings in Ohio to become one of the most powerful and influential figures in media and politics. After working as a TV producer for “The Mike Douglas Show,” in the 1960s, he became a media advisor for Richard Nixon’s 1968 successful presidential campaign. He was involved in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection effort in 1984 and engineered a turnaround for George H.W. Bush, overseeing the media strategy for his 1988 White House win.
Ailes applied his ability to move the hearts and minds of voters to television news when Murdoch enlisted him to launch Fox News channel as a competitor to CNN, which had the cable news market to itself.
The challenge appeared massive as the Fox brand name in television was associated with the upstart broadcast network best known at the time for “The Simpsons.” Fox had no legacy in the TV news business while CNN was entrenched as cable viewers’ go-to service for 24-hour news.
Ailes put together a mix of distinctive on-air personalities, a combative style of commentary and whooshing state-of-the-art graphics to create an alternative view of the world for conservative viewers. By 2002, Fox News passed CNN in the ratings and has been the top-rated cable network ever since.
Murdoch recognized that achievement in his statement announcing the changes.
“Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country,” Murdoch said. “Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years. Fox News has given voice to those who were ignored by the traditional networks and has been one of the great commercial success stories of modern media.”
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.
4:00 p.m. This article was updated with additional details. It was originally published at 1:25 p.m.