News ticker outside Fox News' New York headquarters. Photo by Jim Henderson.
Roger Ailes’ departure from Fox News represents a generational change that should make workplaces better for women, at least in America.
For now, that change is something of an ironic one, because the 76-year-old Ailes will be temporarily succeeded by the 85-year-old Rupert Murdoch. Yet even so, Ailes’ departure represents the slow yet welcome, if sometimes awkward, passing of a different era.
The allegations against Ailes consist of clear-cut instances of sexual harassment of a kind that has been illegal for a long time, and wrong for even longer. But there was a cohort of men who never got the memo. It took some time before overt demands of sex in exchange for favors – or the absence of retaliation – largely disappeared from the American workplace. Apparently the last bastion of that form of rape was in the office and hotel suites of some of the most powerful men in their respective fields.
Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes several weeks ago, claiming that over the course of her 11-year career at Fox, Ailes treated her inappropriately on multiple occasions, including direct sexual advances. Carlson claims that, after she refused him, he sabotaged her career by moving her from a high-profile show to a low-ratings slot, cutting her pay and eventually refusing to renew her contract.
After the lawsuit was filed, Carlson’s legal team announced they had heard from a variety of women who worked with Ailes over the course of his career alleging pervasive sexual harassment. Gabriel Sherman, who published a biography of Ailes in 2014, noted that four women had told him Ailes used his position to make sexual advances or comments in the workplace. Sherman also spoke to some of the women who came forward after Carlson’s suit, both on and off the record. As of this writing, Ailes has denied all of these allegations.
The pressure on Ailes, however, increased when an outside investigation into Carlson’s claims uncovered yet more alleged harassment of women at Fox News, reportedly including star reporter Megyn Kelly. While Ailes continues to deny the allegations, he resigned saying, “I will not allow my presence to become a distraction from the work that must be done every day to ensure that Fox News and Fox Business continue to lead our industry.” Ailes will continue to serve as a consultant to Murdoch, and an anonymous source told The Wall Street Journal that he will receive an exit package worth more than $40 million.
Ailes’ situation is the most recent example of a hateful relic from another era of the American workplace, but it does not stand alone. Many commentators have drawn an apt comparison to the allegations leveled at Bill Cosby, whose achievements in entertainment are easily on par with those of Ailes in journalism. It is a similar case of a man in power who seemingly felt entitled to continue a decades-long pattern of abuse. There is no shortage of other examples of prominent men using their position to leverage sexual favors, including perhaps most infamously then-President William Jefferson Clinton.
One of the surprising things about the situation at Fox News is that at least two of the women Ailes allegedly targeted were not themselves powerless, like many of women who say Cosby abused them on his version of the casting couch. The female on-air talent at Fox News, including Kelly and formerly Carlson, have their own professional credentials and prestige. They could have commanded a public audience at almost any time, certainly since the Cosby scandal broke. That Carlson did not come forward until she had lost her job – and that Kelly has still not spoken publicly, only to the private investigators – suggests they are still sensitive to the potential for professional blowback in one form or another.
The prolonged silence of many of the victims may also be due to restrictive contract language, including strict non-disparagement clauses, according to CNN. Former Fox employees who might otherwise speak out have refused to do so, or have done so only anonymously, because the wording protects not just the company but “senior management” as well, according to a talent agent who spoke to CNN, also anonymously.
Such clauses are not in themselves either unlawful or necessarily unethical. But the fact that they seem to have been used to shield Ailes’ misbehavior is deplorable. That the problem was evidently permitted to fester for so long and to injure so many represents a breakdown in corporate governance almost as bad as Ailes’ abuses.
The real changing of the guard at Fox occurred when Murdoch’s sons rose to power. James and Lachlan Murdoch, both currently in their 40s, are respectively the CEO and co-executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, Fox News’ parent company. Both have clashed with Ailes in the past. Their rise to power within the Fox organization ultimately made Ailes vulnerable to toppling from his Olympian perch, where he had long seemed untouchable due to his friendship with the Murdochs’ father.
Men in their 40s or 50s who are now reaching the peaks of their business careers are by no means perfect. They may sometimes be insensitive to women’s workplace needs. In some cases, they may even treat women unfairly. But, for the most part, they are well aware that the professional line is drawn someplace far before coercive sex.
Maybe cases like Ailes’ and Cobsy’s finally got the message across to those of any age who continue to cling to an antiquated mindset about the purposes and perks of power. If nothing else, at least we seem leaving the age of “boys will be boys” behind us.