Thinking about Roger Ailes these days, it’s hard to banish the image of Alec Guinness’ British officer in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” who — after intensely pursuing a mammoth undertaking — awakens as if from a deep sleep and mutters, “What have I done?”
In the case of the Fox News CEO, who should be basking in the glory of his influential role in shaping the Republican presidential race, the problem has less to do with the consequences of building a bridge than tearing one down. Specifically, that has meant seeking to discredit other media in order to advance Fox’s business agenda, and strengthen its bond with conservatives by positioning the channel as a lonely island of “fair and balanced” coverage.
The strategy worked beautifully, leaving Ailes with few professional mountains left to climb. Indeed, Fox News is such a lucrative asset, he has earned the right to operate with great independence, even with 21st Century Fox kingpin Rupert Murdoch as his boss. When the elder Murdoch announced plans to pass daily stewardship of the company to his sons, Ailes indicated that he would still report to the old man, and the subsequent clarification left the impression that Ailes wouldn’t readily be managed by these relative whippersnappers.
About the only thing left for Ailes, as victory laps go, would be to elect a president. And that’s where — as more than a few conservatives have noted — the interests of Fox News don’t always necessarily align with those of the Republican Party.
Simply put, if the candidacy of Donald Trump, and his buoyant poll numbers, have become a source of consternation in establishment GOP circles, the angry contingent that Trump represents has frequently found its voice on Fox. That includes a general disdain for the political class, a sentiment Fox News identified and advanced during the rise of the Tea Party movement.
The issue now is whether Ailes fully recognizes the dilemma — namely, how Fox has helped push Republicans so far to the right, at the possible expense of reaching an electable center — and what he can do to address it. If the first Republican presidential debate was perceived as an effort to let air out of the Trump balloon with tough questioning (a process Ailes has insisted he didn’t direct, which, given his hands-on reputation, is difficult to completely believe), Trump’s candidacy threatens to inflict collateral damage no matter how or when it ends.
Remember, too, that Fox News assisted in building Trump’s stature as a political figure, including regular exposure on its morning program “Fox & Friends,” which might be the network’s closest Ailes surrogate. So it’s small wonder that when Fox sought to exhibit its fairness toward Trump — after his seemingly boorish remarks about anchor/debate moderator Megyn Kelly — that he would be welcomed back by Steve Doocy, who treated him like an old pal.
Still, the distinction between Trump and Fox really isn’t all that vast. After all, the network is crawling with personalities who sound a lot like him: What are Eric Bolling and Brian Kilmeade, really, in terms of bluster and bravado, but Trump with less money and more reasonable haircuts?
Outside voices, such as former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett, have contended that Fox’s influence is potentially toxic to Republicans, citing those conservatives who “live in a bubble where they watch only Fox News on television, they listen only to conservative talk radio.” It’s a notion that Fox has repeatedly brushed off.
Watching Trump disrupt the GOP primary process, however, one wonders what Ailes’ success has inadvertently wrought, and whether repairing this damaging nexus of politics, showbiz and reality TV might be, for him, a bridge too far.