To hear Roger Ailes tell it, the powerful CEO of the Fox News Channel has little or no control over what his employees say.
At least, that was the inference buried within Ailes' response to Arianna Huffington on ABC's "This Week" Sunday, when Ailes questioned the wisdom of playing "word police" with the network's mercurial, flame-throwing anchor, Glenn Beck.
But unless I'm grossly misunderstanding why Ailes makes millions of dollars, he's a lot more than just a traffic cop at Fox News. He chooses the talent, charts the editorial direction and establishes policy for the network. If his talent is saying something Ailes strongly disapproves of, one assumes he wouldn't be shy about passing around the memo.
Instead, Ailes responded to Huffington with the equivalent of the Pee-wee Herman defense — "I know you are, but what am I?" Asked about Beck's volatile tone, Ailes said that he gets called all kinds of names on Huffingtonpost, too — ducking the question, as opposed to addressing it. He also made a snide reference to "the media" protecting President Obama, as if the CEO of the top-rated cable-news network isn't part of it — leaving out the well-worn but in this case necessary modifier "liberal," as if that went without saying.
As I've stated before, it's no mystery why Fox loves Beck: Since arriving at the network, his shtick has helped float all boats around him. Even if some advertisers flee, the benefits to the surrounding programs outweigh the cost.
Still, I'm a little confused why Ailes would even bother playing coy at this stage of the game. His approach is clearly working in the area that matters most — the ratings — so much so that he's virtually untouchable within News Corp., despite the discomfort that Fox News sometimes creates within other parts of the company.
Ailes' ego doubtless explains why he couldn't resist the invitation from "This Week" (I haven't seen David Westin or Steve Capus doing the Sunday-morning circuit lately), but why chicken out once he got there? I'd have a lot more respect for him, frankly, if he'd simply said, "Fox supports Glenn Beck's right to speak his mind, and we stand behind what we put on our air. If you don't like it, go find someone else to watch."