Is Fox News on the brink of becoming (as Pinocchio might say) a "real news organization" instead of the wooden de facto propaganda wing of the Republican Party? This might have been seen as a wildly speculative (and unrealistic) question just a short time ago, but events seem to be moving quickly and it now can be seen as a distinct possibility.
Change is coming soon to the entire 21st Century Fox media conglomerate, since Rupert Murdoch recently announced he'll be stepping down as its head. He'll be turning the operations over to his two sons James and Lachlan, who are 42 and 43 years old, respectively. Both sons (as Salon put it) "reportedly detest" Fox News.
When the news broke about Murdoch stepping down, there was an interesting little footnote attached. Roger Ailes, the mastermind behind making Fox News what it is today, would still be directly reporting to Rupert Murdoch, even after the reins of the Fox empire were handed over to his sons. Why do we know about this footnote? It was reported on Fox News, of course. According to Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, this footnote was created out of whole cloth by Ailes himself:
According to a well-placed source, Ailes directed Fox Business executive Bill Shine to tell anchor Stuart Varney to read the statement on air. "Ailes told Shine to write the announcement of the move for Varney to say," the source said. "In it, Ailes inserted language that he would report to Rupert."
Again, as Salon put it: "That's the Roger Ailes way, just make stuff up to feed to your anchors who enthusiastically repeat the baseless claims on-air. News." Well, maybe not for much longer. A correction of sorts was just issued by 21st Century Fox, which baldly stated that Ailes will indeed be reporting to James and Lachlan, and not Rupert. This arrangement is set to begin on the first of July.
What will happen if the Murdoch sons demand major changes at the network? What will happen if they make the valiant effort to reform Fox News as a real, objective, fact-checking, non-partisan media operation? What happens when Pinocchio becomes a real boy, in other words?
A clash of titans seems the likely answer. Ailes is likely to resist any editorial policy changes, it almost goes without saying, which could easily result in either his sudden resignation or even him being fired by the new Murdochs in charge. How long this process would take to play out is anyone's guess, dependent mostly on how fast the Murdoch sons tried to change things and how tolerant they would be if Ailes defied such changes. Both of those are unknown quantities, for the moment. Ailes reportedly has a contract which runs through the winter of 2016 (conveniently just beyond the presidential election), so perhaps any changes will be delayed until then.
That's really the most interesting aspect of the situation -- we've already begun the campaign season for the 2016 presidential race. The first debates are roughly two months away. If Fox News is able to quickly transform itself into a non-partisan journalism outfit, how would that affect the Republican nomination race? How will Republican base voters react if Fox News metaphorically hangs up its Republican cheerleader outfit right as the contest begins? Would Ailes even eventually bolt and try to set up his own right-wing "news" organization, to go into competition with a transformed Fox News? That's certainly a possibility worth considering.
I'll admit this is all nothing short of speculation. Even in the most optimistic scenario, the Fox News tiger isn't going to be able to change its stripes overnight. Even assuming the Murdoch sons get their way (with or without Roger Ailes), the transition period may take a while. There'll be a lot of deadwood to carve away before the network can truly be said to have changed direction. Personnel changes would be almost inevitable, not only for on-air talent but for editorial staffs as well.
To say this would be a major change in the American news media landscape is actually a bit of an understatement. If Fox News truly began attempting to live up to its "fair and balanced" slogan, would its viewers consider it to be nothing short of just another member of what they derisively call "the liberal media"? The viewership base might radically change as Fox News changes, and if Ailes did move on to set up his own "conservative news only" organization, then the current fans of Fox News would have somewhere to go.
Again, the timing of any possible change may be important. If the Murdoch sons allow Ailes a lot of slack and only push for very gradual change over a long time, it means it probably won't affect the 2016 race all that much. But if the younger Murdochs decide to move quickly, we could see radical change happen even before Iowa and New Hampshire kick off the primary season. That could shake up the Republican race in a way no other news organization could, to put it mildly.
Whatever ultimately happens, the one thing that seems assured is that we'll be hearing more about the internal battles between Ailes and the Murdochs. The real question is whether we'll start hearing accurate reporting about these battles on Fox News itself, or whether they'll continue to allow Ailes to dictate what "news" will be read on the air. Is the era of Fox News as the propaganda machine for the Republican Party almost over? That, as I mentioned, is a stunning question to even pose, but the time is soon coming when we all may get the answer. Which brings up our final Pinocchio-inspired query: What will the puppet master do with himself when the strings disappear and a real boy emerges into the light?
Chris Weigant blogs at:
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