How Fox News’ Toxic Culture Is Finally Catching Up To It

Mary Altaffer/AP
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The claims have an eerie familiarity. An older, male Fox News higher-up would invite a young, female colleague to his office, make comments about her looks, and ask her out for drinks or to accompany him to a hotel. In some cases, he would forcibly kiss her, or explicitly ask for sexual favors. If she did not comply, her star at the network would be swiftly extinguished.

Fox lawyers have argued that these common threads prove the dozen-plus women who have accused former CEO Roger Ailes and recently ousted anchor Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment are copycats out for money or attention. But more women just keep coming forward, and the company and its top executives have now also been accused of racial discrimination and illegally surveilling employees.

In public comments and multiple lawsuits filed against the company, former employees are alleging that actionable behavior was pervasive, involving more than the privileged leader (Ailes) and entitled star (O’Reilly). The old boys’ club environment cultivated on camera existed behind the scenes, too, the suits claim, and almost all of the high-level network executives who protected this behavior remain in their posts.

“Ailes was a powerful head and the people who enabled and were incredibly loyal and knew about his behavior are all still there; they’re leading the network,” Nancy Erika Smith, a lawyer representing former Fox contributor Julie Roginsky in her gender discrimination suit against Fox, Ailes, and the network’s co-president Bill Shine, told TPM. “So it shows that the culture really hasn’t changed.”

Shine, Ailes’ former right-hand man, public relations czar Irena Briganti, and Fox’s general counsel Dianne Brandi have also been accused of providing cover for perpetrators and orchestrating smear campaigns against ex-employees who speak out against the network. They all retain top posts at the company.

And in just the past week since O’Reilly, the highest-rated star at Fox, was let go, the network has been hit with a slew of new negative stories.

New York Magazine reported that seven black Fox employees intend to join a racial discrimination suit filed in March by two payroll staffers who alleged that Judy Slater, Fox’s recently fired comptroller, subjected black employees to “top-down racial harassment.” This included racially charged suggestions that black men were “women beaters,” as well as demands that black female employees arm wrestle white female employees, according to New York.

Former Fox News guest and conservative columnist Debbie Schlussel told the Detroit Free Press that anchor Sean Hannity yelled at her after she declined to accompany him back to his hotel (which he denied), while CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota went public with allegations that Ailes talked about her body parts, asked her to go to a hotel with him, and criticized her work after she declined.

Then on Monday, Andrea Tantaros, whose 2016 claims against the network and its top executives for sexual harassment claims are pending in arbitration, filed a new lawsuit accusing the same defendants of “illegal electronic surveillance and computer hacking.” Tantaros alleged that to convince her to drop her sexual harassment case, her former employers hacked her computer and cell phone and used “sock puppet” social media accounts to provide ominous hints she was being surveilled.

Asked about pervasive cultural problems at Fox, a spokeswoman pointed to a statement from the network’s outside counsel, Dechert LLP. The statement only spoke to Tantaros’ second lawsuit.

“Fox News and its executives flatly deny that they conducted any electronic surveillance of Ms. Tantaros,” it read. “They have no knowledge of the anonymous or pseudonymous tweets described in her complaint. This lawsuit is a flimsy pretext to keep Ms. Tantaros and her sexual harassment claims in the public eye after the State Supreme Court directed her to bring them in arbitration.”

Lawyers for Ailes, O’Reilly and the network have in the past denied all sexual harassment allegations and rejected characterizations of the company culture as a toxic hierarchy.

Fox includes arbitration clauses in almost all of its employee contracts, meaning the legal proceedings that have resulted in a string of big-ticket payouts for accusers occur in secret. The New York Times recently reported that 21st Century Fox or O’Reilly paid $13 million in settlements to at least five women who accused the host of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior.

More details may come to light soon. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have taken an interest into whether Fox misled investors about paying millions of dollars in settlements, with the Southern District of New York launching a grand jury investigation this year. Tantaros’ lawyer, Judd Burstein, suggested the probe will look into the method in which they were paid.

“There is a grand jury investigation that it is being conducted by the securities fraud division of the U.S. Attorney’s office. And I do know that when Fox News talked to settle with Andrea Tanteros [sic] they wanted to pay the settlement out as salary,” Burstein told CBS last week.

“The inference I draw from that is there may have been a studied effort to hide the fact that there were all these settlements being paid out by disguising them as salary,” he said.

The network could also face a public trial. Nancy Smith told TPM that her client, Roginsky, a liberal commentator who sued the network in April, did not have an arbitration clause in her contract because she was a contributor instead of a full-time employee.

Smith said they hope to “try the case in front of a jury in New York, and bear it out there for the whole world to see.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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