Why Roger Ailes Let Glenn Beck Leave

ailes1 Why Roger Ailes Let Glenn Beck LeaveEDITOR’S NOTE: Click here for four reasons we are running an excerpt from Roger Ailes: Off Camera [Penguin/Sentinel, $26.95].

In the fall of 2011, Roger Ailes told journalist Howard Kurtz that he was turning down the partisan heat at the network. Ailes didn’t say so, but he had already decided that, in the interest of a more moderate tone, he would have to get rid of Glenn Beck.

Beck came to Fox from CNN in 2009, and turned five o’clock—a perennially weak hour on the Fox schedule—into a bonanza. Beck contained multitudes—nerdy professor, slap-stick comic, born-again preacher, shock jock, weepy recovering addict, man of destiny—and they all fought for airtime with chaotic results. Some of his colleagues at Fox considered him insane. But it was hard to argue with success. Beck was the biggest thing on the air at five o’clock, and five leads into the six o’clock news and then into prime time. For a while, he was worth the aggravation.

Beck had a way of settling on odd subjects, such as the villainy of Woodrow Wilson, and riding them for days. He compared victims of a mass murder at a camp near Oslo, run by the Workers’ Youth League, to the Hitler Youth. He did a three-part series on George Soros, who, as a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy in occupied Hungary, had helped a Nazi seize Jewish property to protect his own life. Beck’s source was Mr. Soros himself, who told the story in a 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft, adding that he felt no guilt about it and that if he hadn’t done it, someone else would. The ADL’s Abe Foxman issued a statement denouncing Beck’s description as inappropriate and offensive. “For a political commentator or entertainer to have the audacity to say—inaccurately—that there’s a Jewish boy sending Jews to death camps, as part of a broader assault on Mr. Soros, that’s horrific.” There was jubilation on the left—not usually a Foxman fan club—for this condemnation, but Beck responded by displaying a letter he had only recently received from Foxman thanking him for being “a friend of the Jewish people and a friend of Israel.” Foxman subsequently explained that Beck was no anti-Semite, he was simply not aware of the nuances and sensitivities at play.

The following Holocaust Remembrance Day, a group of four hundred rabbis published an open letter in the Wall Street Journal asking its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, to sanction Ailes and Beck for the use of the word “Nazi” and other Holocaust imagery. Ailes dismissed them as a bunch of political rabbis—a not unreasonable characterization of the organizers of the letter, the left-wing Jewish Funds for Justice.

“Roger’s politics are less crazy than everybody thinks they are,” says Rick Kaplan. “When something goes off, he deals with it. That’s why he replaced the five o’clock show.”

The final straw was the mass rally Beck staged at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Beck was already despised by many blacks for speculating that Obama hated white people. Convening a mass gathering at the site of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—and featuring King’s niece, the Reverend Alveda King, delivering a conservative “I have a dream” message of her own—was infuriating to many viewers. Ailes didn’t like it much, either. When Al Sharpton called him to complain, Sharpton was surprised to hear Ailes say he would “take care” of it.

Ailes’s method was patience and diplomacy. “To be fair, Glenn showed signs of wanting to leave,” he said. “He felt restricted here. Sometimes he seemed too busy to concentrate on the show. And his emulating Martin Luther King was over the top.”

Not only that: An advertising boycott organized by ColorOfChange.org hurt revenues, and Beck’s ratings declined after his march on Washington. Ailes spent months making him see that it would be in their mutual interest for him to leave Fox. “I could have done it in a harder way, but I didn’t want to give MoveOn and Media Matters the satisfaction,” he told me.

In April 2011, Beck announced he would be leaving Fox to start an Internet channel, Glenn Beck TV. As a face-saving move, it was announced that he would be cooperating with Fox to produce television and digital properties, although none have yet been undertaken. Ailes replaced the Glenn Beck show with The Five, whose ratings surprised everyone by approximating Beck’s, and left the five o’clock hour firmly in the hands of Fox News. At the same time, Ailes could plausibly say that he had moved Fox safely away from the fringe. As for Beck, Forbes magazine reported that in 2011, he earned $80 million—more than any other political celebrity and much more than he had earned at Fox. Ailes was right again: Everybody came out ahead.

Excerpted from Roger Ailes: Off Camera, published by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright (c) Zev Chafets, 2013.