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Fox News Chairman Ailes Forced To Steady Relationship With Trump


The rise of Donald Trump continues causing heartburn for Fox News. The Republican presidential candidate has repeatedly criticized network employees, and efforts at peacemaking between the billionaire and the influential conservative channel have not entirely held. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik sees a particular challenge for the chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: He seems to have his fingers almost everywhere. He likes to shape the field. If you think back to 2012, he wasn't particularly impressed with former Gov. Romney. He wanted to recruit Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey into the field. He also sent an emissary to try to convince David Petraeus, then a general overseeing military operations in Afghanistan, to come into the field. That didn't happen. And oftentimes, it turns out that a lot of these candidates have ties to Fox as well. This year, John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Gov. Mike Huckabee - all of them used to be on the Fox payroll as contributors to the Fox network. In this case, he really promoted Donald Trump as a serious figure, that Trump was someone who should be listened to. And I think that has helped Trump greatly among conservative voters in the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: How is Ailes promoting Donald Trump exactly?

FOLKENFLIK: You would see him on program after program being interviewed not just about his business acumen, but about his insights about public policy - why Donald Trump, a real estate titan with many interests, should be taken as an expert on things like whether we should strike a deal with Iran over nukes. Now that he's atop the Republican polls, of course, now we have to take him seriously indeed.

INSKEEP: Trump then rises in the polls after he declares his candidacy. And then what happened?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in that first debate, Trump faced a number of very tough questions from Fox's moderators. And this is not accidental. Ailes wants Fox to, in some ways, be the arbiter, be kind of like the bosses were in the back, you know, smoke-laden rooms in the old days of political parties. And he wanted to make sure that Fox was seen to be asking the toughest questions to make sure the Republicans had to run his gauntlet.

INSKEEP: So Trump was offended. He made it clear that he was offended.


INSKEEP: That in itself was unusual. Republicans don't necessarily like to cross Fox News, but Trump was out there and denouncing Megyn Kelly and denouncing the network. Ordinarily, you would expect Fox, a very combative network, to strike back and defend its people.

FOLKENFLIK: In this case, while saying a few nice things about Megyn Kelly, one of the anchors at the center of this debate, Roger Ailes essentially was trying to placate Donald Trump in public. And the two of them seemingly made up for a bit.

INSKEEP: Yeah. There was a moment in which Ailes called Trump several times and Trump ended up tweeting something nice about how Roger Ailes had given his word that he was going to be treated more fairly or something like that. Was that the end of it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, not at all. What happened in ensuing days was that Trump, you know, made a point of appearing on the shows of other networks. He did go back on Fox News, but notably not on Megyn Kelly's show, which is something that Ailes had solicited him to do. And while he's praised Roger Ailes, he's perfectly willing to construct a reality around and outside of what Fox can offer.

INSKEEP: Well, he talked about that in an interview the other day in The Hollywood Reporter, where he was asked about the importance of Fox News.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. So here's a guy with money. Here's a guy with name recognition, and here's a guy who says CNN is really into the Trump thing - whatever that is - a hilarious turn of phrase. But he was pointing out, rightly, that other networks are perfectly happy to put him on the air. And in a sense, he's saying I'm bigger than Fox. I can work around them. And this is an unusual and difficult situation for Ailes, not least because a lot of Fox viewers are very angry with the network for how they treated Trump and have complained to the network about it.

INSKEEP: Well, now, is there some long-term risk to the power and influence of this very powerful network from this episode?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Trump could always flame out, in which case not. And even if Trump prevails, you could make the argument that he's such a singular figure, so wealthy, so well-known and he doesn't have implications for other candidates. There is, however, the risk that for almost a two-decade period, Fox has built up an unrivaled influence over a single political party. Trump could unravel it by somehow taking away the myth that you can't win in this party, that you can't do things if you don't take care of this very important news organization.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.


INSKEEP: NPR's David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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