As 2016 began, it seemed like Fox News Channel would have plenty to celebrate. Ratings were up—way up—thanks to primary debates and the continuing popularity of hosts like the fast-rising Megyn Kelly and stalwarts Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Plus, the network was set to mark its 20th anniversary in the fall.
Now, those birthday candles are flickering in the breeze caused by Roger Ailes, FNC architect and Republican capo, being hustled out the door. This week, on the heels of another bombshell story by New York magazine’s Gabe Sherman, ex-anchor Gretchen Carlson settled with 21st Century Fox. Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit prompted Ailes’ ouster and netted her $20 million plus an apology. Full of passive, cautious language that never identified Ailes as the culprit, it was tepid as apologies go, but altogether extraordinary for an operation that long gave no quarter, let alone apology, to anyone. Also this week, 14-year veteran and vocal Ailes ally Greta van Susteren left the network, another sign of turbulence.
Heading into the home stretch of election season, a moment when Fox News should be feeling its oats, things are feeling uncertain. While the network continues to dominate in the ratings, there are suddenly questions in the air. Could Ailes, already an adviser to Republican presidential nominee and TV byproduct Donald Trump, amplify that alliance after the election to create a rival to Fox News? Is Kelly, whose account of her own treatment and encouragement of other female employees to go public helped doom Ailes, poised to rise higher at the network or earn a huge payday by switching to a competitor? And how much of a shadow will all of this cast on the Murdoch family, which has not personally offered much in the way of accountability? As the events of this epochal summer show, there is no rug big enough to sweep some things under.