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Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, and Fox News: the ongoing sexual harassment scandal, explained

Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly
Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly
John Lamparski/WireImage; Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the New York Times published the startling revelation that in the weeks after Roger Ailes was ousted as CEO of Fox News for sexual harassment, Fox secretly paid off another on-air Fox personality, Juliet Huddy — who said she was sexually harassed in 2011 by Bill O'Reilly, the network's top host.

Huddy was reportedly paid six figures in exchange for not suing the network and for keeping quiet about her explosive allegations. Huddy alleged that O'Reilly tried to derail her career after she rebuffed his sexual advances — which included calling her repeatedly while it sounded like he was masturbating, trying to kiss her, and showing up in his boxer shorts to greet her at his hotel room door after asking her to return a room key.

"Juliet Huddy's letter of intent to sue contained substantial falsehoods which were vehemently denied by Bill O'Reilly," a Fox News spokesperson said in a statement.

O'Reilly has been accused of sexual harassment before; he settled a lawsuit filed by Andrea Mackris, who was a producer on his show, in 2004, reportedly for millions of dollars. Like Huddy, Mackris said O'Reilly called her while it sounded like he was masturbating. She also alleged that O'Reilly made lewd comments, like asking her to buy a vibrator and describing various sexual fantasies.

New York Magazine's Gabriel Sherman reported Tuesday on Twitter that Fox has made at least four secret settlements like this since late July, when Fox News CEO Roger Ailes — the 76-year-old media mogul who made Fox News what it is today — resigned amid a flurry of sexual harassment allegations, all of which he continues to deny.

Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes in early July, which was later settled for a reported $20 million. Fox anchor Megyn Kelly told attorneys investigating Carlson's claims that Ailes had also made unwanted sexual advances toward her about 10 years ago. In December, Fox 5 reporter Lidia Curanaj filed a lawsuit against 21st Century Fox alleging that Ailes sexually harassed her when she applied for a job in 2011. And at least 20 other women have come forward to tell reporters that Ailes has sexually harassed them at some point over the last several decades.

Ailes also reportedly used Fox's budget to quietly settle harassment claims, hide his indiscretions, and spy on his enemies — including reporters like Sherman, who has broken scoop after scoop about the Fox controversy for New York Magazine, and whose 2014 biography of Ailes also outlined Ailes's creepy behavior toward women.

When Fox settled Carlson's lawsuit, it issued a rare public apology for how she "was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve." It was clear that the network wanted to distance itself from Ailes, and send a message that behavior like his wasn't tolerated at Fox.

It seems the allegations against Ailes and O'Reilly are not Fox's only sexual harassment claims: Sherman's reporting revealed a pervasive culture at Fox where sexual harassment was tolerated and even encouraged, and where the women who were harassed felt pressured to keep quiet if they valued their jobs.

"There was no subtext. There was no subtlety to it," Sherman told NPR's Terry Gross on Fresh Air. "It was just almost blatantly stated. If you want this [promotion], you have to have sex with me or allow me to make sexually unwanted comments about you."

This is a story of an entire news network, not just one man, that seems to have enabled harassment as part of a toxic work culture.

Yet now, finally, that culture is being exposed and starting to crumble — an example of how far we’ve come as a society in dealing with sexual harassment and assault, and how far we still have to go.

After Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes for sexual harassment, it opened the floodgates for other women to come forward

Carlson was a well-known Fox news personality until June 23 of this year, when her contract wasn't renewed. She co-hosted Fox & Friends with Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade from 2005 to 2013 before hosting her own show, The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson.

But according to Carlson, both her 2016 firing and her 2013 departure from Fox and Friends could be explained by a longstanding pattern of sexual harassment and professional retaliation against her from Roger Ailes.

On July 6, Carlson filed a complaint against Ailes that alleged years of inappropriate sexual advances, comments, and retaliation, including:

  • Ailes saying, "I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better," when Carlson met with him last September to complain about ongoing discrimination and retaliation against her.
  • Ailes "ogling" Carlson; asking her to turn around "so he could view her posterior"; urging her to wear certain outfits every day because they compliment her figure; saying Carlson was "sexy, but too much hard work"; and telling her to stop worrying about being treated equally and getting "offended so God damn easy about everything."
  • Ailes retaliating against Carlson by cutting her pay "to a level that was disproportionate to that of similarly situated male employees and others who had not complained about discrimination and harassment"; giving her fewer hard-hitting interviews and shifting her to less desirable time slots; firing her from Fox & Friends in 2013 and failing to properly promote her new show; and cutting back on her appearances as a guest commentator and substitute host.

Ailes has vigorously denied all of these allegations in statements and through spokespeople, calling them "false" and "retaliatory" — basically claiming that Carlson filed the suit out of revenge for being fired.

But the $20 million settlement from 21st Century Fox suggested that the network wasn't willing to stand behind Ailes on that count — and that Carlson had strong evidence against Ailes, whom she spend a year secretly recording.

After news of Carlson's lawsuit broke, several anonymous former Fox employees spoke to news outlets like the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post — and at least 20 women contacted Carlson's attorneys with similar stories. (The allegations span decades, although many of those women can no longer sue Ailes themselves since New York has a three-year statute of limitations on sexual harassment.)

Sherman got six of those 20-plus women to speak on the record, and two agreed to use their real names. They say that Ailes made inappropriate comments, asked them to pose for him, made explicit quid pro quo propositions, and sabotaged their careers if they refused his advances.

"You know if you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys," Ailes allegedly told Kellie Boyle, who said Ailes used his influence to keep her from getting a job with the Republican National Committee in 1989 after she declined to accept his sexual proposition.

Former model Marsha Callahan said Ailes made her lift up her skirt and strike suggestive poses during an interview for The Mike Douglas Show in the late 1960s. Callahan said Ailes abruptly ended the interview after she balked at his demands to sleep with him if she wanted the job.

One anonymous woman said she was just 16 when Ailes exposed himself to her during a 1967 audition for The Mike Douglas Show. "I was a kid — I’d never seen a man’s privates before," she said.

Megyn Kelly came forward with her own story after Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, hired the law firm Paul, Weiss to conduct an internal investigation into Ailes’s conduct.

Kelly's allegations appear to have been the last straw that forced Ailes out: Rupert Murdoch and his sons James and Lachlan, the top three executives at 21st Century Fox, reportedly thought Kelly was the future of the network and was too valuable to lose. (They lost her anyway, as it turned out; Kelly recently left Fox News for NBC.)

Curanaj's more recent allegations in her December lawsuit fit the pattern of what other women say Ailes did to them: ogling them, making lewd remarks, and asking them to turn around or otherwise strike a suggestive pose so that he could examine their figures. Curanaj said Ailes asked her to stand up and turn around during a one-on-one interview so he could see her "from behind," and that he added, "I like what I see."

It’s also likely that even more women want to come forward against Ailes, but face legal restrictions in doing so. Brian Stelter of CNN Money heard from several women who had on-air jobs at Fox and have Ailes stories of their own, but who are reluctant to come forward because of unusually restrictive language in the non-disparagement clauses they signed when they left Fox. Even Huddy’s settlement reportedly comes with a $500,000 penalty for speaking publicly about its terms, according to the Times.

One woman said Ailes sexually harassed and "psychologically tortured" her for 20 years

Perhaps the most chilling story to come out in the wake of Carlson's allegations is that of Laurie Luhn, who let Sherman publish her story even though she was forbidden from talking to the media as part of a $3.15 million settlement with Fox. So far, though, Fox hasn't come after Luhn for violating her nondisclosure agreement.

Unlike many other women who tell stories of being propositioned by Ailes, Luhn says she went along with his demands. She accepted a $500 per month retainer to do "research," including filing Freedom of Information Act requests on Ailes's competitors Charlie Black, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone.

As part of her agreement, Luhn said she also had to be available when Ailes wanted to meet her. Those meetings often took place in a hotel and involved sexual domination, as Sherman describes: 

Luhn put on the black garter and stockings she said Ailes had instructed her to buy; he called it her uniform. Ailes sat on a couch. "Go over there. Dance for me," she recalled him saying. She hesitated. "Laurie, if you're gonna be my girl, my eyes and ears, if you are going to be someone I can depend on in Washington, my spy, come on, dance for me," he said, according to her account. When she started dancing, Ailes got out a video camera. Luhn didn’t want to be filmed, she said, but Ailes was insistent: "I am gonna need you to do better than that."

When she had finished dancing, Ailes told her to get down on her knees in front of him, she said, and put his hands on her temples. As she recalled, he began speaking to her slowly and authoritatively, as if he were some kind of Svengali: "Tell me you will do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it. At any time, at any place when I call. No matter where I call you, no matter where you are. Do you understand? You will follow orders. If I tell you to put on your uniform, what are you gonna do, Laurie? WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO, LAURIE?" Then, she recalled, his voice dropped to a whisper: "What are you, Laurie? Are you Roger's whore? Are you Roger's spy? Come over here." Ailes asked her to perform oral sex, she said.

Later, Ailes showed her the footage of her dancing. She asked him what he intended to do with it and, she says, he replied, "I am going to put it in a safe-deposit box just so we understand each other."

On three occasions, Luhn said Ailes demanded that she perform sadomasochistic sex acts on another woman while he watched.

Ailes also promoted Luhn to director of bookings, which gave her the authority to hire employees — and then allegedly asked her to recruit women for him:

"You’re going to find me ‘Roger’s Angels.’ You’re going to find me whores," Luhn recalled Ailes saying on numerous occasions, urging her to send young Fox staffers his way. … Luhn denied ever setting Ailes up with her staff for explicitly sexual purposes, but she did send them in for private meetings with him where she knew they could be exposed to sexual harassment.

Luhn says the ordeal gave her a nervous breakdown and made her attempt suicide.

Other Fox executives may have helped Ailes keep things under wraps

Sherman's reporting casts a suspicious light on at least two other high-level Fox executives — including Bill Shine, who was recently promoted to co-president of Fox News, and Dianne Brandi, Fox News’s executive vice president of legal and business affairs.

Luhn told Sherman that Shine set up the "booking meetings" that were really hotel liaisons with Ailes, and that Shine at one point reviewed Luhn's emails to make sure she wasn't telling anyone about her relationship with Ailes. Fox executives like Shine were "in charge of my life," Luhn said. (Shine confirmed to Sherman through a spokesperson that he called Luhn to New York for booking meetings, and denied Luhn's stories about the emails.) Luhn's father also says that Shine called him multiple times looking for Luhn after her nervous breakdown.

Brandi signed the $3.15 million settlement and nondisclosure agreement with Luhn on June 15, 2011. Luhn says that after she wrote Ailes a personal letter about her struggles, Brandi called her asking: "Are you trying to do something to Roger? What is this?"

Fox host Andrea Tantaros has also come forward claiming that Ailes sexually harassed her — making comments about her body, asking her to do "the twirl" so he could see her figure — and that Fox executives knew about it but did nothing. Tantaros told Sherman that she complained about Ailes harassing her to Shine, Brandi, and senior vice-president Suzanne Scott, and that Tantaros was demoted and taken off the air as a result.

"Roger is a very powerful man," Shine allegedly told Tantaros, adding that she "should not fight this."

Fox attorneys disputed Tantaros's account, telling Sherman that Tantaros was suspended with pay because she violated company policy by not letting Fox vet a book she wrote.

Sherman's reporting also raises the question of how much Fox executives knew about the questionable things Ailes spent Fox money on — like PR and surveillance campaigns against his enemies, including journalists who reported on him unfavorably. Ailes reportedly hired multiple consultants, political operatives, and private detectives who only answered to him, and who worked out of the so-called "Black Room" on the 14th floor of the News Corp building.

Fox's alleged harassment problem went far beyond Ailes and O'Reilly

Andrea Tantaros didn't just accuse Ailes of harassment; she also named four male Fox News personalities (two on-air contributors, a correspondent, and a host) who she said behaved inappropriately toward her. She says Fox didn't properly investigate those claims either, and Fox executives and sources gave conflicting accounts to BuzzFeed about whether such an investigation ever happened.

In addition to claiming that Ailes harassed her, Gretchen Carlson also said Ailes retaliated against her for complaining about harassment from her former Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy. Carlson's lawsuit didn't name Doocy as a defendant, but it alleged that Doocy engaged in harassing behavior, "including, but not limited to, mocking her during commercial breaks, shunning her off air, refusing to engage with her on air, belittling her contributions to the show, and generally attempting to put her in her place by refusing to accept and treat her as an intelligent and insightful female journalist rather than just a blond prop."

Former Fox News reporter Rudi Bakhtiar said she was fired after complaining about harassment both from Ailes and from former Fox News Washington bureau chief Brian Wilson. Bakhtiar also says Ailes's attorney, Barry Asen, intimidated her for talking to Sherman about her harassment. She was paid an undisclosed settlement after a mediation process.

In story after story, from women who have given their names and from women who are too afraid to do so, a similar picture emerges. They say that not only was Roger Ailes a serial harasser of women, others around him also enabled him, and he set the tone for a toxic culture at Fox News wherein women were consistently mistreated, often by more than one perpetrator.

These revelations could mean a major shift at Fox News, in more ways than one

The ouster of Ailes could have huge implications for the future of conservative media and even American conservatism. Fox News has a strong cultural influence on the right, and Ailes, 76, is largely responsible for that.

Murdoch's sons, Lachlan and James, are poised to take control of the network from their father with Ailes's ousting. As David Folkenflik reported for NPR, Fox News has become "an Ailesian alchemy of conservative ideology, fast-paced reporting, highly sexed and confrontational presentation of debate, patriotic fervor and grievance." But, Folkenflik noted, that model could change depending on how much Murdoch’s sons, who have "little affection" for Ailes, decide to shift the direction of the network to reflect "more 21st century values" now that Ailes is out of the picture.

The New York Times reported that Ailes received about $40 million as part of a settlement agreement — basically the salary he would have made through the end of his contract in 2018. Ailes won't be allowed to start a Fox competitor and won't be directly involved with Fox or Fox News anymore. He will, however, act as an adviser to Murdoch on an interim basis.

Fox is arguably letting Ailes off easy — and paying him twice the $20 million that Carlson is reportedly getting in her settlement — although the full consequences of the investigations and lawsuits are yet to be seen.

Still, many observers argue that Ailes would have never been forced to step down at all if it weren't for the influence of Murdoch's sons. Just look at how much more quietly the network has dealt with the previous harassment complaints against figures like Bill O’Reilly, and without major professional repercussions for the men accused.

Perhaps the Murdochs had no choice but to oust Ailes given how high-profile the claims against him are, and perhaps they have a self-interested reason to do so — they've reportedly had long-running disagreements with Ailes and have been looking for an excuse to get rid of him.

Still, it's hard to shake the sense that something has changed, and is changing — and not just at Fox.

Powerful men often get away with routine harassment or assault, but the tide is slowly shifting toward believing victims

Veteran TV producer Shelley Ross, who was also once propositioned by Ailes, points out that sexual harassment is rampant everywhere — especially in media, and not just at Fox.

"You can’t just have one villain, not even Roger Ailes," Ross wrote at the Daily Beast. "For 30 years I have witnessed a pervasive culture populated by more than a few morally repugnant executives and those who kept their jobs by not making waves around them."

It’s no wonder the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove speculates on whether Ailes could become the next Bill Cosby — a powerhouse media figure who has allegedly harassed or abused women for years, yet managed to escape public punishment for it until he was well into his 70s, when one public allegation led to another, and another, and another.

What's more, the allegations against both Ailes and Cosby were an open secret years before they actually caused controversy. Ailes wasn't known for being discreet about his activities, and anonymous sexual harassment allegations against him were made public as recently as 2014 in Sherman's book. Cosby was sued for sexual assault in 2005, and stories about him have been widely, if quietly, circulating for years in the entertainment world.

Yet neither story broke open until, somehow, one incident got people's attention: a 2014 joke from comedian Hannibal Buress in Cosby's case, a 2016 lawsuit from Gretchen Carlson in Ailes's. It may not be a coincidence that Sherman's book, released about 10 months before Buress blew up the Cosby story, didn't cause a bigger stir over Ailes's activities at the time — but that Carlson's lawsuit, which came out after nearly 60 women had already accused Cosby of sexual assault, caught fire.

Something, perhaps, is changing — but only just starting to change. And the history of sexual harassment helps explains why, especially now, it’s common to see these kinds of allegations only surface decades later.

"Sexual harassment" has only existed as a concept for about 40 years. It took even more time for society to understand the issue and broadly agree that it was a problem worth solving. And even then, this agreement often doesn’t play out well in practice. One of the ex-employees who spoke to the Daily Beast said there is a "conspiracy of silence" on this issue because Ailes’s victims are afraid to speak out.

"The problem is you don’t want to come forward because you don’t want to be personally and professionally destroyed," she said. "You don’t want to bring down Roger Ailes’s wrath on your head."

She added that Ailes is far from the only male executive who abuses his power and influence for sexual purposes. "Television is really a difficult, arbitrary, and competitive business, and you don’t want to give TV executives a reason to say no," she said.

Victims are at a serious disadvantage, especially when their attackers are powerful and influential men. "Sexual harassment has financial consequences for women," said Patricia Barnes, an attorney and an expert on workplace discrimination. Victims of harassment are often driven out of their jobs, Barnes said, and our legal system makes it "almost impossible" for women to get justice for this, since court cases can take so long and cost so much.

If one person breaks her silence and comes forward, though, it can open the floodgates and embolden other victims to add their stories as testimony. That’s what appears to be happening here.

And more importantly, it appears to be making an impact. Even for high-profile women like Carlson, it’s a struggle to be heard and believed when society would prefer not to and victim blaming is still very real. But at least we’re starting to see more in the way of real consequences for high-profile perpetrators.

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