President Donald Trump tapped a man with 20 years of experience enabling and covering up rampant sexual harassment, assault, and abuse at Fox News to run the White House office that speaks to the public on his behalf.
Former Fox News Co-President Bill Shine, who resigned from the company in May 2017, accepted the job of deputy chief of staff for communications after months of thinking about it. According to reports, this spring he told confidants he was worried the whole covering-up sexual harassment thing might come back to haunt him.
But the White House was ready to sell a different story, one about his professionalism: “He brings over two decades of television programming, communications, and management experience to the role,” the statement reads.
Trump’s internet surrogate, his son, Donald Trump Jr., fired off a tweet that took it further:
“On your marks, get set.... how long till the liberal media and snowflakes start taking shots at the great Bill Shine? Competent, hard working and a believer in making America great again!”
If the definition of competence is making money, Shine could qualify. Shine and Roger Ailes made 21st Century Fox a lot of money — somewhere in the ballpark of $1 billion a year. Paying off accusers was a marginal cost of doing business, even if the price tag was in the tens of millions. (Fox paid out $13 million over the years to O’Reilly accusers. Gretchen Carlson settled for $20 million, which seemed like a lot of money until it came out that O’Reilly paid a woman $32 million himself.)
But the decades-long strategy of covering up unprofessional behavior (or even criminal behavior) backfired. Shine believed he was making the smart business decision at each turn, propping up powerful men who brought in the money, but, in the end, his actions set in motion one of the most dramatic scandals in American media, seriously damaged Fox’s reputation, and led to his own downfall.
Shine aided sexual harassers for many years
Shine’s name runs through all the threads of the sexual harassment saga at Fox. He’s been named in multiple lawsuits by women who say he was involved in covering up or otherwise aiding in their abuse, particularly by Ailes.
In a case settled in December (the dollar figure is under wraps), Shine was accused of retaliating against a woman who declined to have a sexual relationship with Ailes. In another lawsuit, a woman who complained to Shine about Ailes’ behavior said he told her that he was “a very powerful man” and that she “needed to let this one go.” A third woman, who said she was psychologically tortured by Ailes for 20 years, was, at one point sent to live in a hotel for six weeks where senior leaders at Fox could “monitor” her. She claims that Shine reviewed all of her emails, which he denies.
All of this behavior was meant to keep the powerhouses, the “talent,” at Fox in place, and to keep Fox making money — at nearly any moral cost. Business is business. O’Reilly’s contract was even extended after they found out he’d personally paid a woman $32 million to keep quiet about accusations that they, themselves, knew about. Their reason, The New York Times reported: “he was the biggest star in cable TV.”
Shine’s strategy backfired
Shine spent shareholder money for decades to buy his way out of enforcing standards of professional conduct. When shareholders learned of the payouts, they revolted. New management saw him as a huge liability. And, along the way, he chased away many talented women who could have made contributions themselves.
When the New York Times broke that five women received settlements over claims of harassment by O’Reilly, advertisers fled en masse. Nearly half of all of the advertisers on the show, which pulled in $126 million in 2015 alone, bowed out. Then Fox cut him loose.
Later in the year, shareholders sued Fox for how executives handled harassment, reaching an agreement where principles, including Ailes, his estate, and insurers, would pay the company $90 million for the benefit of shareholders. Shine wasn’t required to pay personally, but the decision is a clear indictment of his performance.
Shine was fired because it became clear that, in fact, he was not competent.
Fox is making more money than ever
Since Shine’s exit, and since Fox News more broadly cleaned house, the cable news network is making more money than ever. The fear that losing the Big Guns would hurt the bottom line hasn’t come true. What was seen as the “smart” business decision — covering up for the network’s stars, no matter the damage to their victims along the way — doesn’t seem to be true so far.
Research written up recently in the Harvard Business Review suggests that the best strategy to deal with sexual harassment is the opposite of the Shine approach.
The researchers, Serena Does and Margaret Shih of UCLA and Seval Gündemir at the University of Amsterdam, found “that a single sexual harassment claim can be enough to dramatically shape public perception of a company.” Participants viewed companies as less equitable when they heard about harassment, but not when a company was accused of other misdeeds, like fraud or financial crimes.
The researchers concluded the best way to mitigate the harm is for companies “to be responsive and pro-active when it comes to sexual harassment claims, which not only benefits alleged victims, but public perception as well.”
Shine made Fox a lot of money for a lot of years. But he missed an opportunity to do the right thing and perhaps make the company even stronger.
If the Trump White House thinks they’re getting someone competent, even if they are cynically looking for a fixer who can cover up scandal, they’ve made a bad hire. Shine blew up Fox and ruined his own TV career in a long, but ultimately failed cover-up. They’re just getting a man who wasn’t very good at his job.