When former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in early July, she named one person as a defendant: Roger Ailes, who supervised her as the network’s boss. She didn’t list the network itself or any other its other executives.
Despite the paucity of defendants, the lawsuit spared no time in making media history, on three fronts:
1) Carlson’s allegations prompted an internal investigation of Ailes’s management by New York law firm Paul, Weiss — an investigation that includes testimony from star anchor Megyn Kelly that Ailes harassed her years ago. A number of other former female colleagues of Ailes’s also came forward to speak about their treatment by Ailes;
2) The investigation prompted the departure of Ailes from Fox News; and
3) 21st Century Fox, the cable channel’s parent company, has settled the Carlson suit for $20 million. As part of the arrangement, the company apologized to Carlson: “We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.”
So why is Ailes so angry with New York Magazine?
Just last week, the former Fox News head dispatched a pair of lawyers to insult New York Magazine national affairs editor Gabriel Sherman in interviews with Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast. “Gabe Sherman is a virus, and is too small to exist on his own, and has obviously attached himself to the Ailes family to try to suck the life out of them,” said lawyer Marc Mukasey in comments to Grove. For her part, lawyer Susan Estrich stayed away from the parasitical references: “Gabe Sherman has made clear that nothing will stand in the way of his vendetta against Roger Ailes, and he will use any woman he can find—no matter how clearly and deeply troubled she is—to try to concoct allegations against Mr. Ailes.”
The clear aim of the quotes was to discredit Sherman in advance of a big story published last Friday showing “How Fox News women took down the most powerful, and predatory, man in media.” It was a hodgepodge of revelations that Sherman had reported earlier in the summer, along with some new details. Like the fact that Carlson herself started taping her conversations with Ailes in 2014. Summing up the burst of revelations since Carlson’s lawsuit, Sherman wrote, “Over the past two months, I interviewed 18 women who shared accounts of Ailes’s offering them job opportunities if they would agree to perform sexual favors for him and for his friends.”
Those 18 women have said some extraordinary things. Think of the case of Laurie Luhn, a booker for Fox News who told Sherman that Ailes had sexually harassed and psychologically tortured her for two decades. Though other outlets — including The Post — gathered stories of alleged sexual harassment by Ailes, Sherman has led the reporting on Ailes’s unraveling with genuine exclusives and killer details. The enterprise reporting is rooted in Sherman’s years of work compiling a biography of Ailes, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” which includes nearly 100 pages of source notes.
For all his sources and scoops, however, Sherman didn’t bring Ailes down; Carlson, an unappreciated afternoon host on Fox News, did that.
Here’s more evidence that Ailes wants to pin it all on Sherman: Another lawyer working on behalf of the former Fox News chief has warned New York magazine about a possible defamation case. A statement from the magazine reads, “New York Media and Gabriel Sherman were contacted by Charles Harder on behalf of Roger and Elizabeth Ailes, asking that we preserve documents related to the Ailes, for a possible defamation claim. The letter sent by Harder was not informative as to the substance of their objections to the reporting. Sherman’s work is and has been carefully reported.”
Harder is a big name in this business. He’s the fellow who handled the privacy litigation against Gawker on behalf of Hulk Hogan — a proceeding that ended with a $140 million judgment against the media company and essentially ended Gawker.com. Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire, later acknowledged having financed the litigation in an attempt to target the site. Another client is Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Harder sent letters threatening legal action to a number of media organizations for reports on Melania Trump, and filed a lawsuit against the Daily Mail — which ended up apologizing and retracting a story on her.
It’s unclear just what “objections” Ailes/Harder would raise in regard to Sherman’s reporting. Among many other things, Ailes is a public figure, meaning that any defamation action would need to prove that Sherman either published knowing falsehoods about him or published falsehoods with reckless disregard of the facts. Looking at Sherman’s recent ouevre, that would be a tough docket to fill: Many of the women he interviewed were on the record, and in many cases their accounts find corroboration from other sources, not to mention little, if anything, in the way of refutation from Fox News types. Ailes himself has denied the harassment allegations.
What’s more, Ailes’s ouster from Fox News and the $20 million vindicate Carlson as well as others who’ve told their stories. As Vanity Fair reported this morning, 21st Century Fox has reached settlement agreements with two others.
The irony of Harder’s threat letter is this: If he and Ailes were to follow through with a defamation action, New York Magazine and Sherman might well add juicy new stuff to their Ailes file. Remember — civil actions are two-edged affairs in which both sides of the dispute get to secure records and facts in discovery. A proceeding of this sort could do yet more to unlock the airtight trunk of secrecy that Ailes built over 20 years at Fox News, and whose hasps and hinges all came undone in a single summer.
A better bet is that Ailes is attempting to keep New York Magazine mindful of what happened to Gawker.com. When all else fails, intimidate.