In 1980, the radical feminist Robin Morgan wrote, “Pornography is the theory. Rape is the practice.”
That’s not a perfect formulation; porn-positive feminism and feminist pornography both exist. But the idea that sexualized violence against women is the practice of a theory propagated by a form of media is useful for understanding the slew of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations that have been made against various figures at Fox News.
On Monday, the New York Times reports, political commentator Scottie Nell Hughes filed suit against Fox News, alleging that she was raped by Fox anchor Charles Payne, who coerced her into engaging in a sexual relationship with him for two years in exchange for promised professional favors. She says that when she ended the relationship and filed a report against him, she was blacklisted by the company.
Hughes’s suit is only the latest in a series of public scandals that have threatened Fox News of late. In April, Bill O’Reilly was dismissed from the network by its parent company, 21st Century Fox, ending his 20-year tenure. 21st Century Fox said in a statement that “after a thorough and careful review of” of sexual allegations made against O’Reilly, “the company and Bill O'Reilly have agreed that Bill O'Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel.”
The O’Reilly decision came nearly three weeks after the New York Times reported that O’Reilly had — with assistance from the network — quietly settled five sexual harassment complaints going as far back as 2002, with a total payout of $13 million. And just months before that, Fox News had weathered a series of disturbing allegations against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who was forced into retirement after 20 women publicly accused him of sexual harassment.
O’Reilly denied that the claims made against him had merit, noting in a statement published soon after the Times’s report that, “Just like other prominent and controversial people, I'm vulnerable to lawsuits from individuals who want me to pay them to avoid negative publicity.” Before his ousting, he enjoyed the vocal support of President Donald Trump, and the controversy actually seemed to help his ratings; his weekly audience jumped 12 percent after the story broke.
But while O’Reilly’s viewers stayed put, advertisers deserted him in droves, in part due to pressure from progressive activist groups. A telling divide emerged between the host’s loyal audience and The O’Reilly Factor’s fleeing advertisers — who would typically jump at the chance to market their products to such a large, devoted viewership. While the advertisers appeared to be motivated by the backlash of standing by The O’Reilly Factor, viewers (and Fox News executives) who were already steeped in the Fox News ethos may not have seen, or even cared, what all the hubbub was about. And it seems the Fox News ethos may have played a role in why it took three weeks for O’Reilly to be fired.
It may also be playing a role in the network’s staunch disavowal of Hughes’s suit against Payne, which it has dismissed as a “publicity stunt” in a statement.
That’s because Fox News and its ideology of misogyny are the theory. Bill O’Reilly — and Payne, and Ailes, and avowed Fox News fan Trump, and all the sexual harassment complaints and suits that have been brought against them — are the practice.
Fox News consistently sends the message that women exist to serve men
Fox News is a company at which female employees were encouraged, during Ailes’s tenure, “to wear your skirts short and your heels high,” and to avoid wearing pants at all, allegedly so that Ailes could ogle their legs more efficiently. (Ailes is said to have once yelled, “Tell Catherine [Crier, a former Fox News host] I did not spend x-number of dollars on a glass desk for her to wear pant suits.”)
Fox News is the network that in 2013 hosted an all-male panel to debate the question of whether it was okay for women to be a family’s primary breadwinner. Their conclusion: No, it was not okay, because men have to have control over women; that’s just science. “When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the rules of a male and a female in society and other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female is not competing,” said Erick Erickson, incorrectly.
Fox News is the network that in 2014 endorsed calling “date rape” “mistake sex.” It’s the network that has joked about how female soldiers are “boobs on the ground.” It’s the network that says women are paid less because they’re worth less in the workplace.
Making sexist jokes is not equivalent to sexually harassing one’s employees, but the specific kinds of sexist jokes that Fox News’s personalities are fond of speak to a specific ideology: one in which women exist to serve men.
And the subtext is that women exist to serve men sexually, hence women are required to dress in a way that their bosses find sexually pleasing; hence women get lower salaries, because a woman contributes nothing of value to an office beyond sex appeal; hence female soldiers are rhetorically reduced to their boobs; hence having sex with a woman without her consent isn’t really rape (that’s what she’s there for!), but if she complains enough, it might be “mistake sex.”
Under the Fox News ideology of women, it makes perfect sense that powerful men like Payne and O’Reilly and Ailes would sexually harass their employees. They’re not doing anything more than practicing the theory Fox News has been espousing for years.
The O’Reilly scandal taught Fox News exactly how long its misogyny can remain profitable
In the past, Fox News has dealt with controversies like O’Reilly’s by throwing money at them to make them disappear — that’s how the network handled the sexual harassment complaints and suits against both O’Reilly and Ailes when they first came up. The settlements were expensive, but O’Reilly’s ratings were enormous, and he consistently generated formidable ad revenue — reportedly $446 million from 2014 to 2016. That was more than enough to cover his reported $13 million in settlements.
So far, Fox News appears to be planning to handle the Payne case in the same way. “We will vigorously defend this,” the network said in a statement, calling Hughes’s lawsuit “bogus,” “downright shameful,” and a “publicity stunt.”
But when the allegations against O’Reilly became serious enough, that strategy stopped working. After the New York Times published its April 1 report, dozens of O’Reilly’s sponsors jumped ship, in part due to the efforts of progressive activist groups and social media campaigns. The O’Reilly Factor was able to accommodate up to 40 ads on any given night, and prior to the O’Reilly scandal had run about 15 minutes’ worth of ads during each broadcast, accounting for approximately a quarter of the program’s hour-long airtime. But after a week of activist campaigns, The O’Reilly Factor ran a total of only nine ads, accounting for less than seven minutes of airtime.
Still, the show’s ratings continued to climb.
So Fox News was left with a dilemma. The network’s core audience has listened to the Fox News ideology for years, and it didn’t seem particularly turned off by the idea of O’Reilly putting that ideology into practice. But O’Reilly’s advertisers had to contend with a wider market than just the Fox News audience — a market looks askance at supporting men who serially harass women.
In the past, Fox News has blared out the theory of oppressing women and done its best to dismiss or cover up the practice. When Ailes was ousted last summer, Fox News said it did not tolerate behavior that “disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment”; then it continued to settle harassment claims brought against O’Reilly, and quietly renewed his contract through 2020.
But when advertisers started deserting the host, the network’s usual strategy seemed to have stopped working. And the younger members of the Murdoch family, who run 21st Century Fox in partnership with their father, Rupert Murdoch, appeared to recognize that fact. Sources told New York magazine’s Daily Intel that James and Lachlan Murdoch were horrified by O’Reilly’s plummeting ad revenue, and the growing unrest among Fox News’s female employees. One anonymous source told Daily Intel that “employees are wondering if budgets have been cut to pay for sexual-harassment settlements,” and two more told the New York Times that Megyn Kelly left Fox News in part because of O’Reilly.
So O’Reilly was out. Not, apparently, because any of the executives at Fox News were grossly offended by the accusations made against him — if they were, they wouldn’t have paid out $13 million in settlements — but because making the practice of the Fox News theory of misogyny public proved, in the end, to be bad for business.
O’Reilly was replaced by Tucker Carlson, a man who has a history of making sexist jokes on air but doesn’t appear to have any known sexual harassment complaints against him. It’s a choice that suggests Fox News plans to continue promoting its extremely profitable theory of misogyny, while doing its utmost to keep the practice at the very least out of the public’s eyes.
What remains to be seen is whether that strategy will change the network’s traditional response to the Charles Payne lawsuit.