Exclusive: Roger Ailes Taking a Backseat Is ‘Bullshit,’ Rupert Murdoch Says

2015 Time 100 Gala
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: News Corp founder Rupert Murdoch attends the 2015 Time 100 Gala at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 21, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)
Photograph by Taylor Hill — Getty Images

The headline of the article, published to New York’s Daily Intelligencer column on Wednesday, doesn’t mince words: “With Roger Ailes Absent, Fox News Is Drifting — There Isn’t Even a ‘Trump Strategy’

Written by longtime Fox News watcher Gabriel Sherman, the story cites several unnamed sources who say that Roger Ailes, the onetime political consultant who rose to lead the popular network, “has become less visible” to its anchors and producers on a day-to-day basis. In his place? Business magnate Rupert Murdoch, who as founder and CEO of News Corporation has long controlled the network.

(News Corporation split into 21st Century Fox and News Corp in 2013. Murdoch is now executive co-chairman of 21st Century Fox and executive chairman of News Corp.)

The suggestion is that Murdoch, 84, is paying careful attention to who might replace Ailes, 75, atop Fox News. (Sherman named news chief Michael Clemente and Bill Shine, senior executive vice president of Fox News and Fox Business, as likely candidates.) But a spokesperson for 21st Century Fox (FOX) declined to comment to Sherman.

Why not ask Murdoch himself, then? Fortune called the executive to ask him directly. What follows is that conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: Hi, this is Andrew Nusca from Fortune.

Murdoch: How do you do. Yep?

I’m just calling because I thought you might want to say something about the Gabe Sherman report about Roger Ailes taking a backseat at Fox News.

Oh, I thought you were calling Roger and they put you on to me.

I’ve got every confidence in Roger, you know? His health is fine. It’s true he had a little problem with his back for awhile, but otherwise, he’s micromanaging the place just as much as ever.

Obviously Gabe Sherman has been reporting a lot on you folks over the years.

He’s got an agenda. Mmmhmm.

What is misunderstood about how this company is run? What insight can you lend me how responsibilities are divvyed up?

Well I’m the boss and I tend to dip into things a lot. Basically, big decisions come through me. Lachlan is my right hand, he’s co-chairman [of News Corp], and my son James is chief executive. I still have, you know, Chase Carey in the next office to consult on big issues and I have the rest of the corporate suite—the CFO is terrific.

Given the reports, are there misunderstandings between how things are balanced between you, your sons, and Roger?

I didn’t read much [of the coverage] to be honest. Things are that—Lachlan is co-executive chairman, actually at both companies. James is chief executive. You know, everybody has to report to both of them. In practice, Roger tends to report to me. But that’s fine with everybody.

Is this all just overblown, the idea that Roger is taking a backseat?

Oh, it’s bullshit. Absolutely.

Why would people come to that conclusion?

It’s not true. When I go down to him he’s always talking to talent or fixing things or making decisions about debates. He’s, you know, got a great and loyal team but he’s totally involved.

I saw your tweet congratulating him on the debate.

Yep. The set he approved, the people who do it, the follow-up—everything.

In the wake of the split of these companies, there has been talk of succession and next steps. You’ve obviously got your sons there. Is there any insight as to how you’re thinking about that?

Yeah, I’m very pleased with my sons. I’m proud of them. It’s a healthy partnership. The older one, you know, is I guess to some extent the senior partner, but you know, that’s up to the board. Honestly, it’s a very strong board and I would just…you know, I’m going to be 85 in a couple of months. I’m not going away…I guess it’d be quietly. Over the years I guess I’ve taken more of a backseat, but that’s not the case at the moment at all.

Do you have thoughts on how Roger should look at that himself?

Oh look, he’s training people—I don’t think he’s even got to make a choice. A recommendation, certainly, but you know, he’s not planning any retirement either. (chuckles)

I can’t imagine.

No. So that’s a very honest picture. And of course my time is split between that and News Corp (NWS), where Robert Thomson reigns supreme. He doesn’t attract much attention, but for those in the know, he’s the real guiding hand there.

One last question: Are you folks going to move and join us downtown?

Um…I don’t think we’ve given an announcement on that. Beginning of next week. So I’d better keep quiet. So I’m sorry—you’ll have something quite soon.

How do you like it down there?

It’s very different. Midtown is very busy in the day and the sidewalks heave with people. That’s still the case near the Wall Street area, but over by the [National September 11 Memorial], it’s a bit more quiet and residential. The construction continues to be a challenge, but it’s definitely welcome. It is nice to be down here. Folks who come from Brooklyn enjoy the shorter commute. Folks who come from the other direction, not so much.

People from Westchester [County] have to change trains or something.

Right. I have the benefit of coming from Brooklyn. [Fortune editor] Alan Murray has the detriment of coming from Greenwich.

Oh God.

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