Fox News and the Cycle of Sexual Harassment

I’m writing this blog without use of spluttering expletives, but please feel free to insert them where you think I might have.

I have spent several weeks wondering why the word “shocking” has been used so many times to describe the Roger Ailes sexual harassment case at Fox News and why the mainstream media seems to think of the case as so unusual.  Gabriel Sherman is the author of The Loudest Voice in the Room:  How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—And Divided a Country.  In Sherman’s interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Sherman used the word “shocking” or “shocked” five times.  For an author who has extensively researched Roger Ailes and Fox News, nothing about this sexual harassment case should be surprising.

*See this link at vox.com for a thorough and frequently updated summary of what we know about the Ailes case.

Senior Advisor to the London Metropolitan Police and Visiting Professor of Criminology at Royal Holloway, Elizabeth Stanko has collaborated with members of the Violence Research Program in the United Kingdom.  She summarizes the years-long research in this way:  “These lessons include the fact that violence is not hidden, that the meanings of violence are gendered, and that people’s accounts of violence matter” (“Theorizing About Violence.  Observations from the Economic and Social Research Council’s Violence Research Program” in Violence Against Women 12:6 (June 2006): 543-555).  Let’s remember the important lesson that violence is not hidden.  We generally are aware of discriminatory and violent acts in the workplace.  It’s what we do with this information that has a hidden character.  Many organizational managers see the discrimination and violence, circle the wagons to manage risk, and begin a long process of pretending that nothing negative has happened.  As Elizabeth Stanko pointedly states, “We need to know why official knowledge about violence is not often translated into action that supports, helps, or furthers policy to reduce violence and to make people’s lives following violence better” (547).

In Gender Shrapnel, I posit that sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are on a continuum with sexual assault and violence.  In other words, organizations that allow people to discriminate and harass are also likely to mismanage reports of even more acute issues, like rape and other forms of violence.  These actions are not only violations of Title VII Law, but they also reveal a deep trend towards dehumanization of the workplace.  Roger Ailes’ alleged decades-long campaign of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation at Fox News includes allegations of more profound problems of sexual violence.

Let’s think for a moment about the common denominators at the core of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation:

  • Hierarchy with powerful, high-salaried white men at the top [e.g. Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch]
  • Reinforcement of white, male privilege through the hiring and retention of more people who look the same, thus making people of color and women a rarity [Just look at the Fox News administrative team and line-up of anchors]
  • Institutional leaders who practice sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are not only protected by other organizational leaders [e.g. Bill Shine, Diane Brandi], including general counsel, but are also imitated by men below them in the hierarchy [e.g. Bill O’Reilly, who has also been the subject  of complaints of sexual harassment]
  • Establishment of a workplace environment that gives power to men and takes it from women.  Examples of this include giving more and higher quality airtime to men, regulating women’s appearance in highly scripted ways, and repeatedly airing sexist broadcasts as if they were news [Check out this vox.com series of clips of Fox News’ rampant misogyny]
  • “Boys-will-be-boys” indulgence of men’s illegal behavior [See that series of clips I just mentioned!]
  • Punishment of and retaliation against those lower in the hierarchy who make people aware of the illegal acts [Fox News firings of those who came forward about sexual harassment]
  • Silencing news of the illegal behaviors, through intimidation or pay-off
  • Condoning these behaviors through high-level protection afforded the wrongdoers.  The wrongdoers stay, and those who complain of the wrongdoing must go.
  • This cycle repeats itself.

While the law (see also Chapter 6 of Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace) distinguishes between quid pro quo (usually involving requests for sexual favors) and hostile work environment (HWE) harassment and discrimination, often where there is one form of harassment, the other is lurking as well.  There are multiple ways for the higher-ups in an organization to create a dehumanizing culture in which the lower-downs are not accorded respect for the work they do, are paid too little for the jobs they do, are silenced for taking a stand, and/or are removed because they challenge the hierarchy.  It is reported that Fox News employees, with Ailes at the helm, used both quid pro quo and HWE to foment a culture of harassment and dehumanization for decades.  This is textbook, people, and there is absolutely nothing shocking about it.  (Bryce Covert makes a similar point in this New York Times opinion piece.)

We should be particularly concerned by several factors in this case:

Fox News is one of the most powerful media outlets in the world.  It got away (and, given current hiring practices, appears still to be getting away) with a culture of harassment, both off-screen and on-, for decades.

A number of high-profile individuals knew of Ailes’ alleged acts and said nothing and, in several cases, made sure to defend Ailes and even to sing his praises.  (*See this piece in The New York Times.) Those who refuse to see the truth or who know the truth and refuse to speak it add to the culture of harassment and its damaging cycle.

Instead of publicly reckoning with the numerous complaints of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, Fox News appears to have concealed them through silencing those who came forward—by either paying them off or firing them.  Non-disclosure agreements in general should be questioned because they send the message that the organization has swept its culture and illegal actions under the rug and that its managers are unwilling to make real change.

In The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot writes that one of the surprising elements in the Fox News case is that powerful women were subjected to sexual harassment.  Talbot then examines the sexual harassment research that demonstrates that women in positions of power might be more prone to have to deal with these kinds of behaviors, precisely because sexual harassment operates by means of a power hierarchy.  At the same time, Talbot writes, “Still, the more that powerful women who have experienced harassment come forward, the less likely it will be that employers can get away with punishing them.”  This seems to be how things have turned out at Fox News when Megyn Kelly came forward to say that she too had been sexually harassed.  The lesson here is that there is an onus upon high-ranking people in the “protected categories” to report what they experience and/or see.

PERHAPS THE MOST DEEPLY TROUBLING PART OF ALL OF THIS:  Roger Ailes is an adviser to Donald Trump.  (See these pieces for links established between Ailes and Trump:  Washington Post [The Fix; Aug. 29, 2016] and Washington Post [The Fix; Aug. 17, 2016]; The New Yorker [Aug. 1, 2016].) Some have claimed that Roger Ailes helped to create Donald Trump.  Therefore, the deep hatred and generalized misogyny so prevalent at Fox News is part and parcel of the platform of one of our nominees for the President of the United States.

Finally, some reporters (Washington Post Style [why Style?] section; New York Times Style [again?] section) have been perplexed by lawyer Susan Estrich’s decision to defend Roger Ailes.  Estrich, known as a feminist legal scholar, defended Bill Clinton in the Clinton-Lewinsky case.  Two of the points against Bill Clinton that I believe she missed (see Chapter 14 of Gender Shrapnel) are (1) that there was no greater possible hierarchical disparity in workplace relations (President-intern) and (2) that the act took place in the most iconic workplace of the United States, if not of the world.  These are serious factors in the consideration of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in the workplace.

The Fox News-Roger Ailes case should serve as a lesson for the United States workplace.  We can make a list of the many things that went wrong and then use it to complete a sincere audit of our own organizations and institutions.

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