NEW YORK – Fox News chief Roger Ailes is leaving the network following sexual harassment allegations, 21st Century Fox confirmed Thursday. Rupert Murdoch himself is now acting CEO.
Ailes’ sudden exit is an ignoble end to a legendary, controversial twenty-year career atop Fox News, which he built essentially from scratch in 1996.
Ailes, 76, reshaped American television news and Republican politics simultaneously. By hiring hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and enforcing a conservative editorial point of view, Ailes developed a virtual public square for the American right and filled a void on television. It has dominated all other cable news channels for 14 years.
AIles once seemed untouchable due to the incredible success of Fox News, which also spawned a business news spin-off, Fox Business, and multiple radio networks.
But accusations of sexual harassment changed all that.
Thursday’s announcement came two weeks after former Fox host Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes, alleging sexual harassment and triggering an internal investigation of Ailes’ behavior.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday night that at least six other women told the lawyers conducting the internal review that he had behaved inappropriately toward them.
On Thursday, Carlson’s lawyers released a statement saying that they had received accusations of sexual harassment against Ailes from more than 20 women. The claims could not be independently verified.
In recent days, after being briefed on the initial findings from the investigation, the owners of 21st Century Fox, the Murdochs, decided that Ailes must leave. Exit talks then began. Rupert Murdoch, the 21st Century Fox patriarch, was on vacation, but flew back to New York early to participate in the talks.
Ailes will remain a consultant to Rupert Murdoch through 2018.
It is unclear whether he can hold other jobs at the same time.
Insiders have speculated that Ailes could jump to a rival channel or join a political campaign. He has had a friendly relationship with the GOP nominee Donald Trump for decades.
Trump, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on Ailes on Thursday.
Ailes has had health problems in recent years, which may affect his decisions about what to do next.
The alliance Rupert Murdoch and Ailes that officially broke apart on Thursday had resulted in one of the most successful channels in television history.
Murdoch tapped Ailes to create and run Fox News in 1996, ushering in a controversial new era in cable news.
The channel claimed to be “fair and balanced,” but in reality its programming was tilted in favor of conservative opinions and Republican politics, reflecting the views of Ailes himself. Fox mixed daily news reporting and nightly conservative opinion in ways that many critics found to be damaging to American discourse. But Fox’s many fans said it was a necessary counterweight to liberal media bias.
Within six years, Fox came to dominate cable news ratings, dethroning CNN, and it has been a wildly successful business, with annual profits believed to exceed $1 billion.
Last year Fox News was the number two channel on cable, behind only ESPN.
There are a wide variety of emotions, inside and outside Fox, about Ailes’ impending departure.
Inside Fox News, starting on Tuesday, when Ailes’ departure suddenly began to seem inevitable, A-list hosts and rank and file producers alike were in the dark and worried about what would come next.
Employees described a mixture of shock and sadness at the sight of Fox News’s creator brought low by a sexual harassment investigation.
“Roger is revered here,” one insider said. “I can’t even begin to explain how people feel.”
At the same time, some of the women who believe Ailes acted inappropriately around them were relieved that their accounts were being taken seriously.
“I can’t believe this is really happening,” said a former Fox employee who had previously told CNNMoney about harassment by Ailes.
Ailes and his attorneys have repeatedly denied the charges against him.
The drama at the network has unfolded even as Fox is having its highest-rated year ever and is three months away from the 20th anniversary of the channel’s launch.
Maybe that’s a convenient time for a change in leadership — or maybe not. The succession plan is unclear.
In Ailes’ absence, day-to-day operations have been run by Bill Shine, the head of primetime and opinion programming, and Jay Wallace, who oversees daytime and news programming, several sources said.
Both men are in the running to replace Ailes when he leaves, the sources said, and have guided the network when Ailes has been absent in the past.
Meanwhile, most of Fox News’ top talent is in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, struggling to charge ahead while their network is embroiled in chaos. Numerous hosts, correspondents and producers said they had not heard from Ailes in several days — unusual for him, especially with such a big political story going on.
While he participated in editorial conference calls and meetings earlier this week, he was M.I.A. on Wednesday and Thursday, the sources said.
“It’s a rudderless ship right now,” one longtime staffer said before Thursday afternoon’s announcement. “Everybody is just waiting. Everybody. All levels. Just waiting.”
There are conflicting reports about whether a talent “walkout” is possible in the wake of Ailes’ departure. Fox’s biggest stars, like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, have something called a “key man clause” in their contracts, allowing them to leave the network if a key executive, in this case Ailes, leaves.
One of the allegedly rebellious hosts told CNNMoney on Wednesday that, contrary to a report on Breitbart News, there is no organized exodus in the works.
But another one of the hosts left the door open.
A talent agent said the hosts have to consider a number of factors: “Who takes over at Fox? What’s the atmosphere like? What are the alternatives?”
The Fox News media relations office, notorious among journalists for its aggressive PR strategy, has gone completely silent and will not answer emails or phone calls. Network sources believe top spokesperson Irena Briganti is likely to exit the network with Ailes.
Many television news executives have described Ailes as irreplaceable.