NEW YORK -- Fox News still dominates the cable news ratings, but chairman Roger Ailes wants something more: to help elect the next president.
That's the takeaway from Gabriel Sherman's New York magazine cover story hitting newsstands Monday. Sherman, who's currently writing a book on Fox News for Random House, looks at how Ailes -- who built up a stable of possible presidential contenders after the 2008 election, including Sarah Palin -- isn't so pleased with their chances at beating President Barack Obama in 2012.
Ailes doesn't speak on the record in the article, but several Republicans close to the Fox News chief describe his concerns going into an election year. [See Update]
"He thinks things are going in a bad direction," another Republican close to Ailes told [Sherman]. "Roger is worried about the future of the country. He thinks the election of Obama is a disaster. He thinks Palin is an idiot. He thinks she's stupid. He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven't elevated the conservative movement."
Ailes, a television titan, has schooled past presidential candidates on how to handle the media. Before helping Rupert Murdoch launch Fox News in 1996, Ailes worked as a strategist for Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (whom he still talks to regularly).
But Palin, a former Alaska Governor and current Fox News contributor, hasn't always listened to Ailes' sage advice, as Sherman reported a couple months back. Although Ailes reportedly told Palin to lie low after the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), she still went ahead with the infamous "blood libel" video.
So far, Ailes' other presidential hopefuls aren't exactly on the road to the White House.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee recently decided to continue hosting a Saturday night show on the network rather than run again for president. Fox contributor John Bolton, the U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush, hasn't ruled out running but also hasn't built any significant campaign infrastructure.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), both of whom recently left Fox News, have already hit some rough patches on the campaign trail.
Gingrich, in a brutal first week rollout, angered the Republican establishment with a statement on "Meet the Press," faced questions about a six-figure jewelry debt, and was even doused with glittery confetti in a straight-to-YouTube clip. And, of course, the statement!
Meanwhile, Santorum ran into trouble this past week by claiming that Senator and former P.O.W. John McCain doesn't understand "enhanced interrogation" techniques like waterboarding (which is widely considered a form of torture).
Another GOP source told Sherman that "every single [Republican] candidate has consulted with Roger." However, Ailes isn't a big huge fan of any of them.
Outside of running himself -- a somewhat ridiculous idea floated in October 2009 -- what's Ailes left to do if he wants to elect a Republican in 2012? Paging Chris Christie!
Sherman reports that Ailes called the New Jersey Governor a few months ago "and encouraged him to jump into the race." That's not the first time they've discussed the idea. Ailes brought Christie and talk show host Rush Limbaugh to his upstate New York home for dinner last summer. Despite Ailes' courtship, Christie isn't running.
In the piece, Sherman also provides a behind-the-scenes look at Ailes' split with Glenn Beck, network disputes over a Palin special, the 2009 feud with the White House, and how Fox News is trying to distance itself from the Tea Party movement -- which it heavily promoted in 2009 -- by now highlighting straight news stars like Bret Baier and Shepard Smith. (Disclosure: I previously worked with Sherman at the New York Observer).
Fox News PR is notoriously aggressive in pushing back against any seemingly negative stories about the network. And even before the New York piece ran online, there was a bit of push-back from the network against the notion that Ailes and Palin are on the outs.
Shortly after New York put out a press release Friday morning promoting the upcoming Fox News story, industry blog TVNewser published a response from Ailes in support of Palin. On Thursday, MSNBC host Chris Matthews blasted her recent appearance on Fox News -- and Ailes for hiring her in the first place -- as "pathetic." Ailes, in his characteristically combative fashion, fired back: "People tell me all the time it was truly pathetic that I was the one who gave Chris Matthews his start on television."
So we'll see how Ailes responds now after a Republican close to him anonymously claims he and Matthews may actually have the same opinion of Palin.
UPDATE: Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming for Fox News, now disputes New York magazine's source's claim that Ailes thinks Palin is "stupid" and "an idiot." Shine gave the following statement to the New York Times on Monday:
"I know for a fact that Roger Ailes admires and respects Sarah Palin and thinks she is smart. He also believes many members of the left-wing media are extremely terrified and threatened by her. Despite a massive effort to destroy Sarah Palin, she is still on her feet and making a difference in the political world. As for the ‘Republican close to Ailes’ for which the incorrect Palin quote is attributed, when Roger figures out who that is, I guarantee you he or she will no longer be ‘close to Ailes.’"
Incidentally, several readers have questioned why I linked to the New York magazine piece, considering that some information -- such as Ailes' alleged view of Palin's intellect -- comes from anonymous sources. I have worked with Sherman in the past, as I disclosed Sunday, and am very familiar with his coverage of the media. And I am confident that if Sherman reported he spoke with "a Republican close to Ailes" that he indeed spoke with a "Republican close to Ailes." I'm not defending his source's unwillingness to speak on the record or arguing that one shouldn't be skeptical of anonymous sourcing. But when profiling a powerful person such as Ailes -- who is not speaking on the record -- I understand the reporter's willingness to grant anonymity to someone who he feels can shed light on the subject's thinking. The piece offered a unique window into Fox News and was certainly worth linking to on Sunday.