Fox News Channel has long been considered an influential kingmaker in Republican politics. But what happens when it gets into a fight with a possible heir to the party's throne?
The cable news network is about to find out in its public battle with Donald Trump, the front-runner in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, who has never gotten over his confrontation with FNC anchor Megyn Kelly at the first primary debate on Aug. 6.
Trump — angry over Kelly's question about the real estate mogul and reality TV star's derisive comments about women over the years — attacked the anchor in interviews and on social media. His campaign turned up the heat with anti-Kelly rhetoric in recent days, publicly and privately pressuring Fox News to remove her from the panel of moderators for tonight's GOP primary debate in Des Moines just four days before the Iowa caucuses.
When faced with the choice between Trump, the candidate who has become a ratings magnet in the campaign season, and Kelly, its home-grown rising star, Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes never budged in his support for Kelly.
Ailes even personally authored the mocking statement ("We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president...") which prompted Trump to announce he will skip the debate.
The statement was seen as unorthodox for a news executive and raised questions about the network's impartiality in its Trump coverage going forward.
Joe Peyronnin, a former CBS News executive and journalism professor at Hofstra University, said the statement "may have crossed the fair and balanced line." But one executive close to Ailes said he had enough of threats by Trump's campaign. Ailes believed it would make Kelly uncomfortable if the two clashed again and believed a humorous approach would take the heat off of her, the executive said.
"Roger will sacrifice the potential ratings for one night to protect the journalistic integrity of the network and its top journalist," said the executive, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Industry experts say if FNC wants to continue to be considered a real news organization, sticking by Kelly was only proper response.
"Fox has to prove that they can't be pushed around and they have to prove that their primary mission is not to drive ratings for debates, but drive information and exposure for the candidates," said Jonathan Klein, who competed against Ailes when he served as president of CNN from 2004 to 2010. "That's what's at stakes for all news networks. That's what seemed to inform their decision."
Along with being a solid statement of journalistic independence, the defense of Kelly is also good business.
Kelly has only seen the audience for her prime time program "The Kelly File," grow since Trump started attacking her. She is featured on the cover of the current issue of Vanity Fair with a glamorous cover shoot. She signed with the talent agency CAA after her debate performance, which drew positive notices from both sides of the political spectrum.
If Fox News wants to keep Kelly when her contract with the network expires, said to be up in 2017, it had to show unwavering support. Kelly would be in heavy demand by other networks if she became available.
While right-wing Republicans and Trump supporters are said to be upset with Kelly and FNC's treatment of the candidate, any losses are being more than balanced out by the moderate viewers she is bringing in, Fox insiders say.
Still, taking on Trump carries risks for Fox, whose brand is very popular with Republican voters.
Fox News Channel is a massively successful unit of 21st Century Fox with more than $2 billion in annual revenue. It was built by attracting politically conservative-leaning viewers who believed their side was not being adequately represented in established media outlets.
But it has shown a willingness in the past to cut ties with candidates outside the Republican mainstream.
Fox News has given platforms to tea party favorite Sarah Palin — a network contributor after being on the failed 2008 Republican presidential ticket — and libertarian firebrand Glenn Beck. Even with a large audience , Beck's show was canceled over some of his outlandish statements which scared away advertisers. Palin's lucrative deal was dropped when her relevance faded.
The dust-up with Trump is different as it occurs while he is leading in the national polls and gone from novelty candidate to a real contender for the Republican nomination. There will still be heavy news viewers interest in his campaign over the coming months and Fox News has to cover it while being a part of the story.
That doesn't appear to be an issue as Trump is going to appear on other FNC programs. He was a guest on Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" on Wednesday night — his 133rd appearance on Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network. The candidate is also a pal with Sean Hannity, the most conservative commentator on Fox News Channel's line-up who wears Trump's ties on the air.
There is a long history of candidates picking fights with journalists. In 1988, Vice President George Bush deflected a question from CBS News' Dan Rather by bringing up the time the anchor walked out of his broadcast because it was delayed by tennis coverage. Bush's advisor that day was Roger Ailes.