Ailes’ Legacy Lingers: Truth and Reconciliation at Fox News

By Casey Bukro

Television bosses normally like stories involving powerful men, beautiful women, sex, intrigue and big money. But the Roger Ailes story hits too close to home.

Roger Ailes
Roger Ailes

The longtime chairman of Fox News resigned in a sex scandal while Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox investigated accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation.

Ailes was sued by former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson for sexual harassment. That triggered more allegations against him, from both named and anonymous sources.

Now add questions about Ailes’ use of company funds “to hire consultants, political operatives and private detectives who reported only to him,” according to a New York magazine report, as part of a campaign to discredit Ailes’ personal and political enemies.

“Highly placed sources” tell Gabriel Sherman that in 2011 Ailes established a “Black Room” to conduct public relations and surveillance campaigns against people he targeted, including journalists. The article asks how Ailes was able to spend millions of dollars quietly to settle sexual harassment claims.

In reporting on the magazine’s allegations, CNN Money suggests the operation could violate of rules against corporate executives using company funds for personal reasons. “If true,” reported Dylan Byers, “such actions could make 21st Century Fox liable to its shareholders.”

Shelley Ross
Shelley Ross

Powerful men leave big trails. Vanity Fair contends that unnamed staffers still fear reprisal if they discuss Ailes.

Ailes cut a wider swath than anyone realized and now could become a poster boy for fixing what has been described as deep-seated sexual harassment habits at Fox, and maybe the rest of the television industry.

Shelley Ross, described as once one of the most powerful women in TV news, offers her “big idea” for addressing sexual harassment in the workplace.

It’s patterned after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After the official end of apartheid in 1994, victims of brutality were invited to speak publicly about their experiences. Attackers were invited to testify and ask for amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution.

Ross wrote about her idea in The Daily Beast “after watching, dodging and experiencing sexual harassment for 30 years.”

Too bad she did not speak up while in power.

After the official end of apartheid in 1994, victims of brutality were invited to speak publicly about their experiences.

Ross contends that Ailes invited her to have a “sexual alliance” with him, but apologized after she told powerful executives about his proposition.

Her proposal for a Truth and Reconciliation committee at Fox News is a “bold way forward” in the American workplace, she says.

“But it’s clear that executives have failed to police their own staffs, as have human resources departments. We know they work to keep the company out of trouble by offering settlements and having victims sign non-disclosure contracts, while in too many cases the perpetrators and enablers are never asked to acknowledge misbehavior.”

At a Truth and Reconciliation meeting, Fox News staffers would be offered “the one chance in a lifetime” to tell their stories about sexual harassment, either in writing or on tape, without coming under attack. Perpetrators and enablers could confess and ask forgiveness.

Sexual harassment is a national disgrace, said Ross. It involves predators and sometimes their willing accomplices.

Ross cited the case of Laurie Luhn, a former Fox News booker and event planner who enjoyed Ailes’s protection for 20 years while she provided sexual favors. Luhn also arranged closed-door meetings between Ailes and young female staffers, according to Ross.

Powerful men leave big trails.

Luhn’s story indicates that sexual advances in the workplace are not harmless flings, especially when the boss is involved. Jobs, livelihoods, ambitions, reputations and self-respect are at stake. Luhn also makes it clear that not all women reject such advances. They go along, usually for the sake of career advancement or reluctance to “rock the boat.” Or they might be looking for romance. It’s been known to happen.

It’s fair to say there are not many women with the kind of power wielded by Ailes. Yet it’s not always clear who is abusing power in a relationship. It would be great if the Ailes affair led to some clear thinking about sexual harassment in the workplace. Ross’ idea is probably unworkable, yet intriguing.

I like Ross’ idealistic attempt to do what is right and put a dent in workplace sexual harassment. That’s what ethics is all about.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

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