I had to laugh when President Donald Trump got mad at Fox News. He really did think Fox News was no more than the mouthpiece of the Republican National Committee. I’m sure he would say that he made Fox News, which is simply not true.
Roger Ailes made Fox News.
I can’t talk about his exit and the various machinations around it, because I was part of those machinations. I was his friend for many years, and he was mine, which is why I came to New York when he asked me to be his lawyer. But I can talk about other things.
I went to work for Fox News in the late ‘90s. I had an offer on the table from the fledgling MSNBC, which was where I belonged, but I was on the way to a divorce; my kids were still children; and money mattered. Fox was offering me twice as much money for half as much work. The other thing that mattered was location: The Fox studio was five minutes from my house. Burbank, on the other hand, is rush hour all the way from where I live, which any mother will tell you matters when the kids are little.
I had been part of two earlier efforts by very experienced television producers to create a Fox News network, and they fell flat. Building a network is not as easy as it might look to those who are speculating about Fox’s competition. Newsmax TV, currently the biggest challenger on the table and the subject of much speculation, spent years getting into homes via cable, requiring deals with all the major cable providers to do so. And even with many of those deals in place, until this Trump spat with Fox, its ratings were negligible, which is how it is when you try to break into a new market.
And then Roger came along. His mantra was that Fox News covers stories other networks don’t, pursues angles others didn’t, speaks to an audience — a guy from Ohio who didn’t make it big, like him — that is often ignored by other networks. He hired real reporters, a great team led by Brit Hume in Washington that included former ABC and NPR correspondents, among others.
Daytime was supposed to be news, not advocacy. Daytime was when you heard about an issue from both sides, when you saw an investigative piece, when you saw stories from a different perspective. But it was still news, not an alternate reality. Every four years, I would brief the producers about what to expect and how to ensure that coverage was fair. At Roger’s request, I dealt with big-deal Democrats in an effort to convince more Democrats to come on the air. Imagine that.
Roger promised me the day I started that I could say whatever I wanted. And I did, though for years, people asked me why I wasn’t on TV anymore, because Fox’s audience took years to build. So did the pool of talent. Take a look at Sean Hannity’s early tapes if you doubt me. He’d tell you the same thing. Roger saw a spark in a little-known radio talk-show host from Long Island and in producer Bill Shine. Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, who took Roger’s place, started at Fox as a programming assistant; he gave her the opportunities to succeed. I can’t imagine anyone but Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch has much control of the nighttime screamers, even the ones who have totally alienated mainstream advertisers. But what about daytime? What about the world people see on TV? What courtesy or chance do they show to a newly elected president?
Trump helped the ratings at Fox but not with advertisers. Feeding his supporters’ fantasies that we live in a crooked democracy was not tenable as a four-year strategy. And competing to see which network is the most pro-Trump is a fight Fox can never win — and doesn’t need to be part of.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.