To some it was a surprise – even a shock! Roger Ailes fired amid allegations that he sexually harassed former network anchor Gretchen Carlson. Yes, surprising. The creator of Fox News being fired after 20 years of building the network due to accusations of sexual harassment. Looking at Roger Ailes, I find it hard to imagine him and sex happening in the same vicinity, but them again, this is about power – and power’s ability to control people’s behavior. And, extreme power does often lead to abuse. Many people are transfixed by the ongoing news out of Fox News, the leader in the standings of cable news channels, and a bastion of “conservative values.”
Behind the scenes though, and for many years, Fox News has apparently fostered – from the leadership, a culture that condoned, and maybe even encouraged, sexual harassment. The New York Times has just published an article that reported on a culture of sexual harassment and intimidation in Fox News that seems to extend beyond Ailes. In the shocking article, a variety of interviews with current and former Fox News employees revealed “instances of harassment and intimidation that went beyond Mr. Ailes and suggested a broader problem in the workplace.” The article documented powerful stories of women’s careers being sidetracked due to their unwillingness to trade sexual favors for promotions – and being fired when they objected to the behavior. And it also noted stories where young women staffers succumbed to the pressure for sexual favors. The Times report noted that many of the women promoted to high levels of on-air reporting were forced to wear provocative clothing and often endured common sexist banter by male counterparts.
Anyone who has followed the history of Fox, or read some of the biographical material on Roger Ailes – including the recent “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” by Gabriel Sherman – knows the long history of reports about sexism within Fox News. Even a casual viewer would notice the emphasis on featuring young and attractive women mostly in leg-revealing clothing – no pants suits allowed at Fox News for women – as per Roger Ailes. It’s clear that Roger Ailes established and enforced the corporate culture at Fox News that allowed him to harass and intimidate women and established a tolerant attitude toward sexist comments and harassment by male employees. I often thought that it was the height of hypocrisy that politicians and commentators on Fox who focused on “family values” could be the worst offenders, protected by their fig leaf of lip service to proper behavior. All this while disparaging “political correctness,” a view that tries to eliminate sexist remarks and advances.
As often is the case with sexual predators, and corporate cultures that encourage sexual harassment, one public lawsuit encouraged many other women to come forward who had been silent – in some cases for decades. The Washington Post reported that 25 women had come forward to make similar harassment claims against Ailes. Often in these cases, people wonder why women would not confront those who harassed them. In past cases, we have often seen this due to shame and fear of additional humiliation. It is almost the norm.
But, in Fox’s case, the forced silence was also the result of a standard non-disparagement clause that many employees were forced to sign that kept them silent. In harassment cases, they would more often accept a settlement – if offered, but never reveal the details of what happened. If they did, corporate lawyers could sue them for breaking the contract they signed. I would urge that this type of employment contract be done away with – especially in the case of sexual harassment issues. Yes, many public orientated companies fear public controversies, but such contracts make it near impossible for employees to protect themselves against sexual predators. And, the practice helps protect serial violators against prosecution while keeping them in their positions. Some even keep getting promoted within a corporate culture like Fox News.
Fox News is not alone in having a corporate culture boy’s club that allows women – and men – to be sexually disparaged and abused. But, it is a flagrant example that reflects the extreme power that Roger Ailes wielded over 20 years. You shudder to think of all the talented and ambitious women over the years that were subjected to this culture of abuse. And, then contemplate all those who either left to rebuild their careers, lived with the abuse, settled quietly, or, challenged the abuse and probably were fired and black listed in the industry.
Rupert Murdoch’s son’s hold out hope that the Fox News culture will be changed going forward – but not without a fight. Even though Ailes was ousted as chief of Fox News, he still received a $40 million golden parachute and an advisory gig through 2018. As one wag commented on a message board, ”The cost of years of sexual harassment? A $40 million payout, a contract for more earnings, and a pat on the back.” It also seems that Ailes has tried to interfere with the investigation. His attorney, Barry Asen, is reported to have intimidated a former reporter for speaking out about her sexual harassment.
It’s time for Fox News to transform itself into a workplace that the leadership pledged its commitment to – a “commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.” I hope a few very costly lawsuits will focus the younger Fox leadership into cleaning house and fulfilling their commitment.
And, I hope that his story helps management in many other corporations focus on examining their corporate culture to assure that it provides the training an structure to promote a culture that supports all employees and eradicates inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment.
Finally, call it a bit of pay back, but I do long for Roger Ailes to be the recipient of some costly judgments on his personal harassment accusations that help remove that $40 million payday he received – as well as show other executives the eventual consequences of encouraging and/or allowing an abusive culture.