If a television anchor were caught -- on tape! -- encouraging a colleague to lie to federal investigators in order to protect a high-profile friend, do you think he or she would still have a job? Probably not. But if you run a network and
if it's Fox, well, then . . .
On Thursday, The New York Times broke one of those deliciously dishy
New York political-media exposés involving bold-face names. According to legal papers filed in a civil suit, in 2004 Roger Ailes
, the pugilistic head of Fox News, encouraged Judith Regan
, a flashy publisher, to lie to federal investigators about an affair she had had with Bernard Kerik
, the former NYC police chief nominated by George W. Bush
to be the secretary of homeland security. Ailes' motive: to protect Rudolph Giuliani
, a close pal of Ailes' and a mentor and supporter of Kerik. Giuliani was at that time looking toward a presidential run in 2008, and any scandal involving Kerik, his close associate, would be bad news for him.
In 2006, after she was fired by Rupert Murdoch's
News Corp., which owns Fox News, Regan (who had proposed publishing O.J. Simpson's
hypothetical confession of the murder of his ex-wife) publicly claimed
that a senior exec at News Corp. had asked her to lie about her affair with Kerik, who was married. (Reportedly, Kerik and Regan used an apartment near Ground Zero -- which had been donated for recovery and rescue workers -- as their love nest.) But Regan did not ID the News Corp. honcho who had encouraged her to hush up. In a lawsuit filed against News Corp. in 2007, Regan said this executive had told her that if she disclosed information about her tryst with Kerik, it "would harm Giuliani's presidential campaign."
There's more to this twisted tale -- including accusations of anti-Semitism, a $10.75 million settlement for Regan, a novel that portrayed baseball great Mickey Mantle as a lascivious drunk, and Kerik's indictment on tax fraud and other charges. (Kerik was sent to the slammer last year.) But let's keep the focus on Ailes. The Times scoop, based on legal filings in a case in which Regan's former lawyers are suing her for not paying them (oy!), reveals that Regan taped the phone call during which Ailes pushed her to lie to the feds about a sexual matter.
This tape is Ailes' blue dress.
Fox News, founded in 1996, went to town during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment crusade. That saga made Ailes' network. I doubt anyone kept track, but there must have been at least 17 million occasions when a Fox host or guest said that lying about sex in a legal proceeding (to prevent political embarrassment) was a high crime deserving impeachment -- or worse.
Yet that's what Ailes encouraged Regan to do. And this might have been illegal: conspiring to lie to federal gumshoes is a crime. But prosecutors don't usually bother with such cases. (Remember all those high-minded Fox Newsers who fiercely dismissed the argument that Clinton ought not be prosecuted or impeached for this sort of lie because prosecutors rarely chased after this kind of perjury case?)
Crime or not, Ailes did wrong. Last fall, he told
the Daily Beast that it is important to maintain "the appearance of integrity" at a news network. (He was referring to MSNBC's recent suspension of Keith Olbermann for making donations to candidates.) But there's little integrity in a news exec leaning on a witness in a federal investigation -- especially when it's to help a presidential candidate who a few years earlier had used his political muscle
to help that news exec get his channel carried on New York City's main cable system. The levels of improbity in this story are many.
I know Ailes. I worked at Fox for several years as a commentator. (If only I could tell you the conversations I heard in the make-up room!) Ailes was a decent boss, always straightforward with me and eager for a good argument. Once we were arguing before the Iraq war about the invasion to come, and I said that intelligence reports indicated that al-Qaeda was present in 65 countries. "Good," he said, "after Iraq, it will be one down and 64 to go." Ailes clearly knows that his whole fair-and-balanced shtick is a clever (and profitable) gimmick designed to make conservative shut-ins believe they are the real mainstream.
Ailes also must know now that he's been nabbed -- and compromised. He encouraged a cover-up (possibly a criminal act) to help Giuliani. And it would not be surprising, given that this episode was a central part of the dramatic legal battle between Regan and News Corp., that Murdoch was aware of it. (Regan's lawsuit against News Corp. declared that several executives in the company knew of Ailes' conversation with her.) Yet Ailes and News Corp. kept the lid on this for years, and now, I expect, they're going to pretend that lid is still there. In any other media empire, a top executive who had acted in this manner -- and who had been exposed -- would be deleted. But a spokeswoman for News Corp. told the Times, "The matter is closed."
Ailes and Murdoch contend that Fox News is a legitimate cable network, like any other (just more profitable!), that it deserves to be treated fairly by the Obama White House and be seen as reliable news provider. But it's hard to believe that the heads of CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, CBS News, or ABC News could get away with shenanigans that reveal such hypocrisy and fierce political favoritism. This sordid affair shows that, yes, there is something different about Fox.
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.