By Casey Bukro
As chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes peddled sex appeal.
News anchors often were chosen for their looks: young, pretty, blonde, leggy and shapely. That’s the way Ailes liked them. A lot. Maybe too much.
It’s a formula that led to his downfall, apparently because he could not resist temptation or the raptures of the casting couch. Ailes resigned amid sexual harassment allegations after a 20-year reign as head of Fox News, where he devised a highly successful broadcast formula of vitriolic partisan right-wing commentary.
Ailes’s own alleged comments are part of a lawsuit against him by former Fox News Anchor Gretchen Carlson.
“I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago,” Ailes supposedly “>told Carlson. Carlson charges that Ailes sabotaged her career in retaliation for rebuffing his sexual advances and complaining about a hostile work environment. In a statement, Ailes contended her contract was not renewed due to low ratings and her lawsuit was her retaliation for the dismissal. Her lawyer claims the suit was considered even before the firing.
Carlson’s lawsuit prompted 25 women to come forward with what they describe as similar harassment claims against Ailes over five decades.
The Washington Post reported that interviews with four of the women “portray the 76-year-old television powerhouse as a man who could be routinely crude and inappropriate, ogling young women, commenting about their breasts and legs, and fostering a macho, insensitive culture.” One women accused Ailes of groping her. Ailes’s lawyer said the accusations are false.
The sudden departure of a top broadcasting figure would not have been prompted by a single case of unproven accusations by a disgruntled worker. The Los Angeles Times said “an internal investigation by Fox News parent 21st Century Fox turned up other instances of harassment by Ailes from other employees, including star anchor Megyn Kelly.”
This story of an industry powerhouse offering to advance the careers of women in return for favors is familiar, though some of the details differ.
Comedian Bill Cosby is accused by more than 50 women of sexual misconduct, often drugging them. A Pennsylvania judge ordered Cosby to stand trial on three counts of felony aggravated indecent assault upon a employee of Temple University, his alma mater.
Commenting on the case, Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists said it is an example of the complications in alleged sex crimes, and restrictions on naming rape victims. Controversy can simmer for decades. Journalists and authorities were accused of protecting the popular entertainer. Some women kept silent in the belief nobody would believe them. Years later, some identified themselves as women who were allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted.
Swift action to oust Ailes, said the Los Angeles Times, might bring a speedy conclusion to the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Carlson. The case touched off a flurry of comments on creepy bosses, and Ailes’ legacy as a broadcaster and conservative provocateur.
“Why did it take Roger Ailes so long to fall?” asked Michelle Cottle in the Atlantic. “The real surprise may be that some accusers were willing to step forward despite the likely consequences.”
As in the Cosby case, the alleged Ailes molestations went on for decades. “Way too many women still find themselves putting up with way too much inappropriate nonsense from bosses for all kinds of reasons,” wrote Cottle. “Is there an ideal approach for handling out-of-line bosses? Probably not. In an ideal world, bosses like Ailes would keep their grubby mitts and perky propositions to themselves.”
The New York Times also recounted the case of Rudi Bakhtiar, a Fox News Washington weekend correspondent, who was allegedly let go for fending off sexual advances.
Journalism professors, meanwhile, try to assess Ailes’s place in journalism history.
His resignation “is nothing short of the end of an era,” said John Jewell, director of undergraduate studies at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.
“The 76-year-old Ailes has enjoyed decades of remarkable influence in U.S. cultural and political life,” wrote Jewell. “As a former advisor to Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, he reputedly had the power to make or break presidential campaigns. He is credited with building Fox News into America’s most watched cable news channel with unquantifiable value to the Republican party.” Ailes also advised the Reagan campaign.
Jewell also noted that the resignation “sent shock waves through a media industry exhausted by reacting to seismic events on an almost daily basis.”
Another scholar, Russell Frank, associate professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University, said Ailes “will be remembered by journalism ethicists as the poster boy for conflict of interest.” Most egregious, said Frank, was hiring John Ellis, a cousin of presidential candidate George W. Bush, to work on the 2000 election.
The case touched off a flurry of comments on creepy bosses, and Ailes’ legacy as a broadcaster and conservative provocateur.
“We talk a lot about conflict of interest in my journalism ethics class,” wrote Frank. “And, especially, why no news executives should assign stories that promote their allies or attack their enemies. The prohibitions are grounded in the belief in the importance of journalistic independence — the belief that journalists’ first allegiance should be to the public they serve.”
In the 2000 election, said Frank, it is argued that the networks, “starting with Fox, influenced the outcome by prematurely calling the election for Bush,” and possibly changed American politics forever.
Once Bush took office, Ailes sometimes served as an informal adviser to the president.
“Ailes brought a political agenda to an entire news organization,” said Frank. “The master propagandist became a master news producer, enjoying 20 years of powerhouse ratings.”
Ailes reigned, said Frank, “in an era of unprecedented political partisanship.” Other networks tried to mimic Fox News’ success. “The result has been a proliferation of partisan outlets that have only further polarized viewers, while the public’s trust in the media is at a historic low.”
Given time, which image will emerge to define Ailes: A master political manipulator, or a corporate sexual predator?
Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.