*UPDATE: Roger Ailes to be indicted? Judith Regan tapes could spell trouble for Fox chief

Last week’s bombshell report about Roger Ailes asking publisher Judith Regan to lie to investigators about an affair with NYC police chief Bernie Kerik, in order to protect Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid, could soon produce another headline: Roger Ailes indicted.

First, the New York Times story:

It was an incendiary allegation — and a mystery of great intrigue in the media world: After the publishing powerhouse Judith Regan was fired by HarperCollins in 2006, she claimed that a senior executive at its parent company, News Corporation, had encouraged her to lie two years earlier to federal investigators who were vetting Bernard B. Kerik for the job of homeland security secretary.

Ms. Regan had once been involved in an affair with Mr. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner whose mentor and supporter, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, was in the nascent stages of a presidential campaign. The News Corporation executive, whom she did not name, wanted to protect Mr. Giuliani and conceal the affair, she said.

Now, court documents filed in a lawsuit make clear whom Ms. Regan was accusing of urging her to lie: Roger E. Ailes, the powerful chairman of Fox News and a longtime friend of Mr. Giuliani. What is more, the documents say that Ms. Regan taped the telephone call from Mr. Ailes in which Mr. Ailes discussed her relationship with Mr. Kerik.

It is unclear whether the existence of the tape played a role in News Corporation’s decision to move quickly to settle a wrongful termination suit filed by Ms. Regan, paying her $10.75 million in a confidential settlement reached two months after she filed it in 2007.

Depending on the specifics, the taped conversation could possibly rise to the level of conspiring to lie to federal officials, a federal crime, but prosecutors rarely pursue such cases, said Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia University law professor and a former federal prosecutor.

Of course, if it were to be released, the tape could be highly embarrassing to Mr. Ailes, a onetime adviser to Richard M. Nixon whom critics deride as a partisan who engineers Fox News coverage to advance Republicans and damage Democrats, something Fox has long denied. Mr. Ailes also had close ties with Mr. Giuliani, whom he advised in his first mayoral race. Mr. Giuliani officiated at Mr. Ailes’s wedding and intervened on his behalf when Fox News Channel was blocked from securing a cable station in the city.

In a statement released on Wednesday, a News Corporation spokeswoman did not deny that Mr. Ailes was the executive on the recording. But the spokeswoman, Teri Everett, said News Corporation had a letter from Ms. Regan “stating that Mr. Ailes did not intend to influence her with respect to a government investigation.” Ms. Everett added, “The matter is closed.”

Ms. Everett declined to release the letter, and Ms. Regan’s lawyer, Robert E. Brown, said the News Corporation’s description of the letter did not represent Ms. Regan’s complete statement. …

Which brings us to this today from reporter Barry Ritholtz:

Here’s what I learned recently: Someone I spoke with claimed that Ailes was scheduled to speak at their event in March, but canceled. It appears that Roger’s people, ostensibly using a clause in his contract, said he “cannot appear for legal reasons.”

I asked “What, precisely, does that mean?”

The response: “Roger Ailes will be indicted — probably this week, maybe even Monday.”

David Corn, who I think goes a bit too far out of his way sometimes to be “fair and balanced” with the right, calls the tapes “Ailes’ blue dress” and he adds:

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.

UPDATE: A closer look at News Corp’s statement, which never does get around to stating that Ailes never told Judith Regan to lie…

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