The infrastructure that enabled serial sexual harassment at Fox is still working

The infrastructure that enabled serial sexual harassment at Fox is still working

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Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

A new report from The New York Times has revealed still more horrifying details of both former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s serial sexual misconduct and the almost equally horrifying extent to which 21st Century Fox executives attempted to keep his pattern of harassment from the public eye. The Times report, detailing actions taken earlier this year, offers compelling evidence of an entire infrastructure of misogyny and abuse still at work at 21st Century Fox.

On October 21, The New York Times’ Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt reported that 21st Century Fox, Fox News’ parent company, had known of a recent settlement O’Reilly made following sexual harassment claims when it renewed his contract at the start of this year.

The case was settled with now-former Fox legal analyst Lis Wiehl for an astounding $32 million, and it reportedly addressed complaints of “repeated harassment, a nonconsensual sexual relationship and the sending of gay pornography and other sexually explicit material.” The extraordinarily high sum that O’Reilly paid, along with the limited reporting on the contents of the case, suggest very serious reports of assault were made. (As a condition of the settlement, Wiehl signed an affidavit saying she “would no longer make the allegations contained in the draft complaint.”)

The $32 million settlement is shocking because of its amount, but arguably less so in what it suggests about the extent of O’Reilly’s misconduct. The public is, after all, all too familiar with the toxic patterns of abusive, powerful men.

The truly astounding aspect of this new report is the way the settlement was handled at 21st Century Fox and by its leaders, the Murdochs: with the uncompromising goal of preserving business (and profit) as usual. As the report says:

In January, the reporting shows, Rupert Murdoch and his sons, Lachlan and James, the top executives at 21st Century Fox, made a business calculation to stand by Mr. O’Reilly despite his most recent, and potentially most explosive, harassment dispute.

Their decision came as the company was trying to convince its employees, its board and the public that it had cleaned up the network’s workplace culture. At the same time, they were determined to hold on to Mr. O’Reilly,  whose value to the network increased after the departure of another prominent host, Megyn Kelly.

But by April, the Murdochs decided to jettison Mr. O’Reilly as some of the settlements became public and posed a significant threat to their business empire.

Sources told Steel and Schmidt that 21st Century Fox executives knew of the Wiehl settlement as they moved to renew O’Reilly’s contract in the beginning of the year. In a statement to the Times, 21st Century Fox said that it was not privy to the unusually high amount paid in the settlement. Even if the Murdochs were somehow not taking into account any other report made about O’Reilly’s serial harassment -- the earliest known incident of which took place in 2004 -- they were undoubtedly aware of this very new and specific reported misconduct as they oversaw contract matters at the start of the year. On the Times podcast The Daily, Steel and Schmidt further explained:

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: The larger context here is that Fox knew about all of [O’Reilly’s settlements for misconduct], except they say they didn’t know about the size of the Lis Wiehl deal, when they gave him a contract extension in February. Now the important thing is that Fox News never investigated these accusations, and they never asked O’Reilly’s lawyers what the dollar figure was.

EMILY STEEL: Something interesting about that, though, is that the woman that he reached the settlement with was a 15-year legal analyst at Fox News.

MICHAEL BARBARO (HOST): So there was, it sounds like, a pretty meticulous attempt by Fox to take this out of the realm of employment law and of employee relations.

21s Century Fox and the Murdochs’ response to Wiehl’s alarming report and the news of a settlement was not to raise said alarm, but to encourage active silence. They simply decided to add language to O’Reilly’s new contract that would allow Fox to fire him should new reports of harassment surface. This was more or less the same course of action taken elsewhere in the entertainment industry just two years earlier, when we now know that members of The Weinstein Co. board similarly added language to serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein’s 2015 employment contract to account for any new reports of misconduct.

A statement from O’Reilly’s attorney, in response to the October 21 Times report, bafflingly offers the claimed defense that Fox itself has paid nearly $100 million in settlements for workplace sexual harassment to “dozens of women [who] accused scores of male employees.” If this statement is accurate, not only is it not a defense in any way, but it also magnifies how structural and cultural misogyny has flourished at Fox for so long.

What we’re seeing now at Fox, more and more clearly with each new revelation about O’Reilly and many other employees, is what Times culture writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris called an “infrastructure of abuse” when describing the Harvey Weinstein reports. Of course, workplace sexual harassment is prevalent across industries and communities, and to some extent said “infrastructure,” unfortunately, simply seems to be society at large. But on a micro scale, 21st Century Fox, like Weinstein’s Hollywood, is a remarkable case study of how privilege for powerful men is embedded into entire institutions, from top to bottom, department to department, in public and in private.

21st Century Fox has developed an entire cultural infrastructure of actors and systems that enabled misogyny and abuse to continue for decades without interruption. And the details of the Times report, focused on actions taken just months ago, reveal this infrastructure has yet to be removed. This is how we know it operates, in practice.

Fox's signature on-air misogyny translates into real-life harassment, or worse

Fox leaders, like former CEO Roger Ailes, and on-air personalities, spewing misogyny in their daily work, sometimes translate that hatred for women into real-life harassment or worse. Like the on-air actions, it is also often repeated behavior.

Ineffective internal reporting systems offer no real justice

Fox decision-makers create systems where reporting to human resources doesn’t feel like a real option or has proven itself not to be. In a Times report from July 2016, nearly a dozen women who experienced harassment at Fox told the Times that “they were reluctant to go to the human resources department with their complaints for fear that they would be fired.” And just this morning, former Fox News host Megyn Kelly agreed that “Fox News was not exactly a friendly environment for harassment victims who wanted to report, in my experience,” and said O’Reilly was “permitted, with management’s advanced notice and blessing, to go on the air and attack the company’s harassment victims.” She also noted the “vindictiveness” of Irena Briganti, who still works as media relations chief at Fox and is known for pushing negative stories about women who reported Ailes.

And yet, in his statements about the sexual harassment reports, O’Reilly has chosen to use this structural flaw at his workplace as though it’s evidence of his innocence: “In the more than 20 years Bill O'Reilly worked at Fox News, not one complaint was filed against him with the Human Resources Department or Legal Department by a coworker, even on the anonymous hotline.” (This fear and distrust of a weak internal reporting system is also one we’ve heard in the reports about Harvey Weinstein, whose company’s human resources department was described as “utterly ineffective” -- and it’s another aspect of the Fox infrastructure that’s reflected in society at large. One study concluded that about 70 percent of women who experience workplace harassment do not report it, for fear of retaliation.)

If an employee chooses to report, she will face internal attempts to silence her

If Fox employees do choose to report sexual harassment or other misconduct, they may face internal attempts to keep them silent. During Ailes’ reign, those attempts reportedly included personal meetings and surveillance designed to intimidate women into withdrawing complaints, as well as individual efforts to bury reports. After Ailes left Fox, he was replaced, at the Murdochs’ command, by two individuals who were reportedly implicated in these efforts. One, Bill Shine, was forced out of the network. The other remains on staff, along with many others who were complicit in silencing employees who came forward, all under the continued leadership of the Murdochs.

An employee who reports misconduct could also face legal challenges

Employees reporting sexual misconduct may also face legal challenges stemming from their employment contracts or from powerful lawyers hired by Fox itself or the men they’ve reported. Former Fox host Gretchen Carlson, who reached a $20 million settlement following her reports that Roger Ailes had repeatedly sexually harassed her, has discussed the legal difficulties she faced in coming forward. Her activism now specifically focuses on combating forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts, which can keep survivors of harassment or assault from pursuing legal justice publicly.

Such legal challenges mean that the women who are harassed at Fox often quietly reach settlements and leave. They may have signed nondisclosure agreements designed to keep them from speaking up. They may have written letters or affidavits rescinding their reports as conditions of the settlements. (These were also common tactics used by Harvey Weinstein.) Or they may simply have recognized what little power they really had and decided not to speak publicly.

21st Century Fox does whatever else it can to keep reports from becoming public

Fox executives then do whatever else they can to keep news of sexual misconduct from becoming public information. They commit their company to paying over $100 million, according to O’Reilly’s lawyer, in settlements. Perhaps they work to bury those settlements from public view, or hide them through financial tricks that may be improper or even illegal. And they add clauses to new contracts to keep it from happening again, maybe, hopefully.

If reports do become public, 21st Century Fox only acts to save its bottom line

If news of sexual misconduct does become public at any point, Fox News executives take action only in so much as they must to save their bottom line. Fox fired O’Reilly only when he began to cost the network too much money -- not just in the settlements it may have helped him to pay, but in advertising dollars. He was also making 21st Century Fox look bad in a very public way, at a time when it was eager to appear “fit and proper” to expand its reach in the U.K. by taking over Sky news.

When 21st Century Fox is forced to publicly act as a “fit and proper” employer might, as during the height of the O’Reilly reports in the spring, it has launched “independent investigations.” But these examinations are almost always conducted by the same law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, that conducted its sham investigation after Ailes was fired.

The proof that these actions -- the suspensions, investigations, and even firings -- have only ever been about the bottom line is all too clear: With that U.K. bid still under review, but with Fox News’ Hannity now up against the very popular MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, O’Reilly was invited back onto the network for a ratings-thirsty appearance on the show last month.

If someone is fired amid reports of sexual misconduct, they are free to launch public attacks 

When Fox is forced to fire someone reported for serial sexual harassment, it pays him millions of dollars on the way out and speaks only nicely of him going forward. Its other on-air talent, however, is left to publicly take sides (actually, just the one side) and smear at will anyone who came forward. Scottie Nell Hughes, a conservative commentator who stepped up earlier this year to say Fox Business host Charles Payne raped her, told The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan she’s now being ostracized by media writ large. (Payne was reinstated at the network following an internal investigation by, you guessed it -- Paul Weiss -- stemming from earlier reports made by Hughes.)

And the men who Fox was forced to suspend or fire are allowed to defend themselves, and publicly attack the women who reported them, by all means available, sometimes with the active encouragement of current Fox employees. Fox's Sean Hannity, for example, not only hosted O'Reilly on his show just last month, but also hosted O'Reilly on his radio program to attack one of the women who reported him. Today, Hannity promoted an appearance by O'Reilly on fellow former Fox news host Glenn Beck's radio program -- an appearance in which the former host claimed his firing was a "hit job" by biased media. O'Reilly continues to enjoy a platform to speak his mind, courtesy of the media and his friends at Fox. 

This is what it means to have an entire infrastructure working against you, as a survivor: Imagine that you work at Fox News, and tomorrow you are sexually harassed by a supervisor at work. What paths would seem like real options for justice? 

What you’re thinking right now? That’s how we know nothing has changed at 21st Century Fox.

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