The Fall of Roger Ailes: Can Sexual Harassment Claims Oust the Biggest Man in Conservative Media?
For 20 years, the former Republican operative, Roger Ailes, has been the most powerful man in the conservative media world. The scandal began when former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes. Now, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly has also accused him of harassment. Many are celebrating Ailes’s anticipated departure, though as Feministing founder Jessica Valenti notes, "Removing one lascivious man can’t turn around the mess of misogyny that is Fox News." Carlson’s suit also alleges Fox News has an overall misogynistic culture. We speak to longtime media critic John Nichols of The Nation.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to what’s happening in parallel. I mean, first I want to describe the Quicken Loans Arena. You know, you’ve got—it’s a Times Square-like atmosphere, very bright lights everywhere. You’ve got the news organizations that have their skyboxes, that can afford it. And among those, of course, is Fox News. And I wanted to turn to what is unfolding right now with Fox News. You have Roger Ailes’s lawyers confirming he’s in negotiations to step down as Fox News chair and more than a half-dozen accusations of sexual harassment. You’ve got former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson, who has sued Ailes. Now, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly has also accused him of harassment. Many are celebrating Ailes’s anticipated departure, though, as some are saying, it’s not just about Roger Ailes. In fact, Carlson, who sued, said that the newsroom itself was rife with sexual harassment. What about the fall of Roger Ailes, his significance within the Republican Party and conservative party politics, and what Fox News has done?
JOHN NICHOLS: There is epic stuff. I mean, there is a very good argument that we probably shouldn’t be discussing the Republican National Convention as much as we are discussing this transition, because if we accept that media is now such a dominant force in our politics, the change of command at Fox, an operation really created, conceptualized by Roger Ailes, is an incredibly big deal. And people need to know who Roger Ailes is. Roger Ailes is a guy who used to be a TV—he was a TV guy in the '60s, and this political candidate, Richard Nixon, came on his show. And off set, Ailes and Nixon started to talk about stuff, and Nixon said, "You know, you're the kind of guy I think I could work with." And Ailes left media to go into politics. He literally was a critical figure in defining the modern way that we do politics. When people say they hate politics, they hate how cruel it is, how negative it is, how much money is flowing from all these different places, that’s a Roger Ailes construct. He literally developed that. And famously, I think folks who know your show will reflect back and remember the 1988 campaign, which was really a transitional presidential campaign in this country. In that race, Roger Ailes helped to script an ad called the revolving door ad, which showed criminals—or, sorry, people convicted of crimes going in and out of a door, finishing their sentence and then coming back, suggesting that Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, was so soft on crime, he was putting criminals on the street.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, wait. Why don’t we turn to that ad.
JOHN NICHOLS: It’s a wild ad.
AMY GOODMAN: This is that ad from 1988, yes, arguing that Michael Dukakis was soft on crime. It shows actors portraying prisoners who are casually walking in and out of a prison.
>> As governor, Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers. He vetoed the death penalty. His revolving-door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes, like kidnapping and rape, and many are still at large. Now Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts. America can’t afford that risk.
AMY GOODMAN: That ad, again, produced by political consultant Roger Ailes, who went on to oversee the creation of Fox News. JOHN NICHOLS: And paralleled the Willie Horton ads at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain. This was the official ad.
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah. AMY GOODMAN: And the Willie Horton ad—
JOHN NICHOLS: Coming in from a side group, but the clear combination of messages. I mean, you want to think about our modern politics, you want to think where a Donald Trump came from. People say, "Oh, well, Donald Trump’s building on things that happened in the Republican Party." A lot of what happened in the Republican Party was started by Roger Ailes. There’s simply no doubt about it. This fear-based kind of—you know, the suggestion in that ad that there’s still people that lose— AMY GOODMAN: He was a consultant to Reagan. He was a consultant to George H.W. Bush.
JOHN NICHOLS: And to—well, to Nixon.
AMY GOODMAN: And to Nixon.
JOHN NICHOLS: And George H.W. And then he went—this guy, who started in the media and went into politics, defined so much of how our national politics works, then went back into media, with Rupert Murdoch at Fox, and created what can best be understood as a partisan media. People often think of Fox as conservative, but Fox often deviates from the conservative line. Where it gets its real traction—and we see this again and again—is sort of in defining the modern Republican Party. Look at this 2016 campaign. Look at the interplay of Donald Trump with Fox: Sometimes he’s in a fight with them; sometimes he’s, you know, getting along with them. There were negotiations on how Fox would cover Donald Trump. And so, here you have this amazing thing, Donald Trump running a campaign that fits into a modern Republican Party, in many ways defined by Roger Ailes, negotiating on how to appear on a network defined by Roger Ailes. This guy is now about to depart. I will tell you that it will be impossible to recreate him. He is an entity unto himself. But the reality is that he has set in place a way of doing politics and a way of doing media that is so definitional on the right in America, and, frankly, well beyond it, that we have to look at what’s developing there as a very historic moment, but, I would suggest, unfortunately, not a moment that will necessarily change our politics, because I think Roger Ailes’s imprint is baked in at this point. It’s real in our politics, and it’s real in our media.
AMY GOODMAN: And you are a well-known media activist and author. You and Bob McChesney write numerous books about the media. So it’s very interesting now, on this day that Donald Trump is nominated to be the Republican Party presidential candidate, that we’re talking about a network that, while they do not really particularly support Donald Trump, they may have well helped to create him.
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re talking about the future of the Republican Party, as well as this billion-dollar network.
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, this is huge stuff. And again, what Bob McChesney and I have argued for a very long time is, you know, be careful about trying to divide the stream of media from the stream of politics. The interplay has become so intense. And, you know, to give you a good example, just a week ago, Newt Gingrich was being considered as a potential Republican vice-presidential nominee, so he had to drop out of his Fox contract to come over and be, you know, a potential candidate for a week or so. And this is—you know, it was at Fox—
AMY GOODMAN: John Kasich—
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, was a Fox personality.
AMY GOODMAN: —when he was in between jobs, he was a Fox personality. Then he becomes governor of Ohio.
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah. A
MY GOODMAN: And actually, though he’s here in Cleveland, holding [inaudible]—
JOHN NICHOLS: He’s not attending the convention.
AMY GOODMAN: —he is not attending the convention, which has infuriated Donald Trump.
JOHN NICHOLS: Oh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But, of course, many people are not attending the convention, Republican leaders, from Jeff Flake in Arizona to—
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the entire Bush—I should say, pretty much the entire Bush family. The former nominee for president of the United States, Mitt Romney. I mean, they aren’t just not attending the convention, they are sending powerful signals that they do not like where this party is headed, where this candidate is headed.
AMY GOODMAN: And George W. Bush saying, "I fear I could be the last Republican president"?
JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely. We are—you know, we’ll pause and look back on this and recognize that we’re in a pretty epic moment as regards the Republican Party.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, you’re from Wisconsin. Ron Johnson, he spoke, but it’s very complicated here. He’s in a tight race with the man he beat, Russ Feingold, who’s now challenging him, mentioned what? Donald Trump once?
JOHN NICHOLS: I think one time. And Paul Ryan, the same way. Even Mitch McConnell. You know, this—they really were saying how desperately they want to have a Republican majority. That was a phrase that came again and again. And they know that if Trump collapses as a candidate, their chances of having Republican majorities in the House and Senate are harmed. And so, they came grudgingly. And it was fascinating with Ron Johnson. There was some real debate about whether he was even going to come, because the fact is this is not going to play particularly well for his re-election campaign. And what we’re seeing is something very much, Amy, like 1964, where Republican candidates, man to man, woman to woman, had to figure out how they were going to relate to the top of the ticket. Would they support it? Would they campaign with the candidate? All these complex arrangements. And that’s very challenging.
AMY GOODMAN: You note in your piece that the Human Rights Campaign has called the RNC platform, quote, "the most overtly anti-LGBTQ platform in history."
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, I wrote a lot about the platform. This—
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, one minute.
JOHN NICHOLS: Very bluntly, this is a theocratic platform in many, many sections. And the fact of the matter is that Trump has, I think, very irresponsibly, just handed the platform-writing process over to people who had wanted it for a long time. They got control of it, and they wrote a platform that is simply cruel in so much of its language. This is a platform that is so narrowly defined that in many ways it goes against even core Republican Party values, let alone broader values of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Plagiarized from any other party?
JOHN NICHOLS: No. It’s plagiarized—no, no plagiarism at all. I saw her on the floor last night, Phyllis Schlafly. I think she’s in her nineties now. This woman has been working for 50 years to create this party. She has seen the creation of the party that she wanted, a far-right economic party, but also a far, far-right social conservative party.