How Fox News Women Took Down Roger Ailes

Gabriel Sherman, How Fox News Women Took Down Roger Ailes. New York Magazine, 2 September 2016. “It took 15 days to end the mighty 20-year reign of Roger Ailes at Fox News, one of the most storied runs in media and political history. Ailes built not just a conservative cable news channel but something like a fourth branch of government; a propaganda arm for the GOP; an organization that determined Republican presidential candidates, sold wars, and decided the issues of the day for 2 million viewers. That the place turned out to be rife with grotesque abuses of power has left even its liberal critics stunned. More than two dozen women have come forward to accuse Ailes of sexual harassment, and what they have exposed is both a culture of misogyny and one of corruption and surveillance, smear campaigns and hush money, with implications reaching far wider than one disturbed man at the top.”

Update: Sarah Ellison, Fox Settles With Gretchen Carlson for $20 Million–and Offers an Unprecedented Apology. Vanity Fair, 6 September 2016.

It began, of course, with a lawsuit. Of all the people who might have brought down Ailes, the former Fox & Friends anchor Gretchen Carlson was among the least likely. A 50-year-old former Miss America, she was the archetypal Fox anchor: blonde, right-wing, proudly anti-intellectual. A memorable Daily Show clip showed Carlson saying she needed to Google the words czar and ignoramus. But television is a deceptive medium. Off-camera, Carlson is a Stanford- and Oxford-educated feminist who chafed at the culture of Fox News. When Ailes made harassing comments to her about her legs and suggested she wear tight-fitting outfits after she joined the network in 2005, she tried to ignore him. But eventually he pushed her too far. When Carlson complained to her supervisor in 2009 about her co-host Steve Doocy, who she said condescended to her on and off the air, Ailes responded that she was “a man hater” and a “killer” who “needed to get along with the boys.” After this conversation, Carlson says, her role on the show diminished. In September 2013, Ailes demoted her from the morning show Fox & Friends to the lower-rated 2 p.m. time slot….

It was common knowledge at Fox that Ailes frequently made inappropriate comments to women in private meetings and asked them to twirl around so he could examine their figures; and there were persistent rumors that Ailes propositioned female employees for sexual favors. The culture of fear at Fox was such that no one would dare come forward…. [Ailes] was known for monitoring employee emails and phone conversations and hiring private investigators….

More than two dozen Fox News women told the Paul, Weiss lawyers about their harassment in graphic terms. The most significant of the accusers was Megyn Kelly, who is in contract negotiations with Fox and is considered by the Murdochs to be the future of the network….

On the afternoon of July 21, a few hours before Trump was to accept the Republican nomination in Cleveland, Murdoch summoned Ailes to his New York penthouse to work out a severance deal. James had wanted Ailes to be fired for cause, according to a person close to the Murdochs, but after reviewing his contract, Rupert decided to pay him $40 million and retain him as an “adviser.” Ailes, in turn, agreed to a multiyear noncompete clause that prevents him from going to a rival network (but, notably, not to a political campaign). Murdoch assured Ailes that, as acting CEO of Fox News, he would protect the channel’s conservative voice….

The Murdochs must have hoped that by acting swiftly to remove Ailes, they had averted a bigger crisis. But over the coming days, harassment allegations from more women would make it clear that the problem was not limited to Ailes but included those who enabled him — both the loyal deputies who surrounded him at Fox News and those at 21st Century Fox who turned a blind eye. “Fox News masquerades as a defender of traditional family values,” claimed the lawsuit of Fox anchor Andrea Tantaros, who says she was demoted and smeared in the press after she rebuffed sexual advances from Ailes, “but behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-­fueled, Playboy Mansion–like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.”…

[Murdoch] hired Ailes to help achieve a goal that had eluded Murdoch for a decade: busting CNN’s cable news monopoly. Back in the mid-’90s, no one thought it could be done. “I’m looking forward to squishing Rupert like a bug,” CNN founder Ted Turner boasted at an industry conference. But Ailes recognized how key wedge issues — race, religion, class — could turn conservative voters into loyal viewers. By January 2002, Fox News had surpassed CNN as the highest-rated cable news channel. But Ailes’s success went beyond ratings: The rise of Fox News provided Murdoch with the political influence in the United States that he already wielded in Australia and the United Kingdom. And by merging news, politics, and entertainment in such an overt way, Ailes was able to personally shape the national conversation and political fortunes as no one ever had before. It is not a stretch to argue that Ailes is largely responsible for, among other things, the selling of the Iraq War, the Swift-boating of John Kerry, the rise of the tea party, the sticking power of a host of Clinton scandals, and the purported illegitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency….

Ailes used Fox’s payroll as a patronage tool, doling out jobs to Republican politicians, friends, and political operatives….

Ailes also positioned his former secretaries in key departments where he could make use of their loyalty to him….

But most striking is the extent to which Ailes ruled Fox News like a surveillance state. According to executives, he instructed Fox’s head of engineering, Warren Vandeveer, to install a CCTV system that allowed Ailes to monitor Fox offices, studios, greenrooms, the back entrance, and his homes….

Fox’s IT department also monitored employee email, according to sources….

When Ailes uncovered something he didn’t like, he had various means of retaliation and increased surveillance. Fox’s notorious PR department, which for years was directed by Brian Lewis and is now overseen by Irena Briganti, was known for leaking negative stories about errant employees to journalists….

Fox News also obtained the phone records of journalists, by legally questionable means….

Murdoch does not seem to have wanted to know how Ailes chose to spend company funds. Every year, Murdoch approved Ailes’s budgets without question. “When you have an organization making that much money, we didn’t go line by line through people’s budgets,” a former News Corp. executive said….

Over the past two months, I interviewed 18 women who shared accounts of Ailes’s offering them job opportunities if they would agree to perform sexual favors for him and for his friends. In some cases, he threatened to release tapes of the encounters to prevent the women from reporting him….

A former television producer described an interview with Ailes in 1975, in which he said: “If you want to make it in New York City in the TV business, you’re going to have to fuck me, and you’re going to do that with anyone I tell you to.”…

In 1998, two years after launching Fox, Ailes got married for the third time, to a woman named Elizabeth Tilson, a 37-year-old producer who had worked for him at CNBC. Two years later, when Ailes was 59, the couple had a son. But neither a new marriage nor parenthood changed his predatory behavior toward the women who worked for him.

According to interviews with Fox News women, Ailes would often begin by offering to mentor a young employee. He then asked a series of personal questions to expose potential vulnerabilities….

Ailes’s longtime executive assistant Judy Laterza — who became one of his top lieutenants, earning more than $2 million a year, according to a Fox executive — seemed to function as a recruiter of sorts. According to Carlson’s attorney, in 2002, Laterza remarked to a college intern she saw on the elevator about how pretty she was and invited her to meet Ailes. After that meeting, Ailes arranged for the young woman to transfer to his staff. Her first assignment was to go down to the newsstand and fetch him the latest issue of Maxim. When she returned with the magazine, Ailes asked her to stay with him in his office. He flipped through the pages. The woman told the Washington Post that Ailes said, “You look like the women in here. You have great legs. If you sleep with me, you could be a model or a newscaster.” She cut short her internship. (Laterza did not respond to a request for comment.)…

The fact that these incidents of harassment were so common may have contributed to why no one at Fox came forward or filed a lawsuit until now. Ailes’s attitudes about women permeated the very air of the network, from the exclusive hiring of attractive women to the strictly enforced skirts-and-heels dress code to the “leg cam” that lingers on female panelists’ crossed legs on air. It was hard to complain about something that was so normalized. Other senior executives harassed women, too. “Anyone who claimed there was a hostile work environment was seen as a complainer,” says a former Fox employee who says Ailes harassed her. “Or that they can’t take a joke.”

It is unfathomable to think, given Ailes’s reputation, given the number of women he propositioned and harassed and assaulted over decades, that senior management at Fox News was unaware of what was happening. What is more likely is that their very jobs included enabling, abetting, protecting, and covering up for their boss. “No one said no to Roger,” a Fox executive said….

Despite revelations of how Ailes’s management team enabled his harassment, Murdoch has so far rejected calls — including from James, according to ­sources — to conduct a wholesale housecleaning…. “Of course, they are trying to isolate this to just a few bad actors,” a 21st Century Fox executive told me….

As for the women who collectively brought an end to the era of Roger Ailes, their fortunes are mixed. Megyn Kelly is in a strong position in her contract talks, and sources say Gretchen Carlson will soon announce an eight-figure settlement. But because New York has a three-year statute of limitations on sexual harassment, so far just two women in addition to Carlson are said to be receiving settlements from 21st Century Fox. The many others who left or were forced out of the company before the investigation came away with far less — in some cases nothing at all.

It’s hard to say that justice has been served. But the story isn’t over: Last week, the shareholder law firm Scott & Scott announced it was investigating 21st Century Fox to “determine whether Fox’s Officers and Directors have breached their fiduciary duties.”