Unlike most corporations, Fox News went a bit further: “We are continuing to explore legal recourse against Mr. Muto and possibly others.” Sure enough, Muto later reported that his home had been searched and, months later, he pleaded guilty to some misdemeanor charges. In retrospect, Muto said in an interview, he “never would have embarked on this path if I suspected it was going to end with me walking into that courtroom handcuffed and belt-less.”
Yet the prosecution of Muto served the interests of then-Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who appeared gleeful at the developments, judging by the statement of a Fox News rep: “We are very grateful to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office for their dogged pursuit of this case and for obtaining justice in this matter.”
Iron-fisted treatment of even a rinky-dink actor, combined with other methods of leak-suppression, including every legal device in the book — nondisclosure agreements, nondisparagement agreements, forced-arbitration clauses (common across many industries, to be fair), requirements to refer all media inquiries to Fox News PR, etc. They all worked — or “worked” — to stifle the usual whispering that takes place between staffers of media organizations and outside reporters.
And so there was a dearth of behind-the-curtain coverage of Fox News. Indeed, we often heard glowing things about Ailes’s management from Fox News talent. “I really care about Roger,” said then-Fox News star Megyn Kelly in a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose. “And he has been nothing but good to me. And he’s been very loyal. And he’s had my back. And he’s looked out for me.”
For years, the most scandalous things to emerge from the network went right onto the air. There was quite frequent race-baiting; there were prolonged campaigns against President Barack Obama, including the birther conspiracy theory, the stretching of the Benghazi tragedy, the commentary on his golf habits; there was the serial idiocy on the morning show “Fox & Friends,” including the fake news that Obama had made an offer to donate to the International Museum of Muslim Cultures and a joke about the Ray Rice domestic violence incident; there were Bill O’Reilly’s various embellishments/exaggerations/lies about his long-ago reportorial exploits; there was the airing of a live, post-car-chase suicide; and there was so, so much more.
The effluence of nasty and bigoted and slanted and often false Fox News reporting — especially from the network’s so-called opinion hosts — raised a question: From what poisoned well does it all originate?
The past 10 months have yielded some answers. Onetime Fox News host Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes last July for sexual harassment at Fox News. Though her former employers attempted to steer the complaint into the well-shaded confines of forced arbitration, Carlson’s complaint did what hundreds of prying reporters hadn’t managed to do, which is to place a full, on-the-record account of Fox News’s corporate culture in front of the public. As it turns out, on-air sexism germinates best in a work environment steeped in off-air sexism.
A gusher opened up. Ailes was sacked amid an internal investigation. Carlson scored a $20 million settlement plus an apology from 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company. Other women came forward, both on the record and anonymously, to tell their tales of sexual harassment. Andrea Tantaros, a host on “The Five” and “Outnumbered,” sued the company for this offense and claimed that now-former host O’Reilly made made some advances in her direction (though she didn’t name O’Reilly as a defendant). Now-former host Kelly detailed her own experiences with Ailes in her book “Settle for More,” an ugly account that included Ailes allegedly attempting to kiss her on the lips. (Ailes has denied all allegations against him). Along the way, Kelly’s memoir shed some light on all those positive comments about the boss over the years. Saying “nice things” about Ailes, wrote Kelly, was an “absolute job requirement.” “[F]ailing to compliment him enthusiastically in any press interview would always result in a rebuke.”
The post-Ailes info-thaw eventually claimed O’Reilly. We already knew about a 2004 sexual harassment settlement with now-former “O’Reilly Factor” producer Andrea Mackris. But the New York Times weeks ago broke news of additional settlements, additional mistreatment of women, additional sexism and misogyny. Advertisers began fleeing O’Reilly’s show, and after he took a vacation, he was sacked. Now O’Reilly will have to leverage his own website, BillOReilly.com, for dates. “We all knew that the best way to get a guest on the show with Bill was to have her be a gorgeous women,” Muto tells the Erik Wemple Blog. “Even a marginal segment that you were working on could be put over the top if she was good-looking.”
As it turns out, the awful, awful man on air is a lot like the awful, awful man off air.
All the above would be enough to qualify Fox News as the media story of the decade. But as with all bad things and Fox News, there’s yet more. At a court hearing this year in the Tantaros litigation, attorney Judd Burstein declared that a client had received a subpoena in connection with a criminal investigation of Fox News. Sure enough: The Justice Department is investigating settlements paid out to Ailes’s accusers, and CNN’s Brian Stelter reported this week that the probe also involves the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), which looks into mail and wire fraud.
Could a race-bating news network also have a problem with racial discrimination? Eleven current and former Fox News employees have filed a class-action suit against the network — as well as its parent company, executive vice president of legal and business affairs Dianne Brandi and former comptroller Judith Slater — in State Supreme Court in the Bronx, alleging that Slater, whom Fox News fired in February, had followed a pattern of racist conduct and racist remarks. The suit expands on a civil action filed earlier this year. One line in the complaint best captures the encyclopedic nature of the allegations against Slater: “As evident, it is simply not workable to list each racist and discriminatory statement to which [plaintiff Tichaona] Brown has been subjected, including many in the presence of top Fox executives.”
That disclaimer notwithstanding, the complaint makes a pretty valiant effort to inventory such statements. For example:
- “[W]hen Ms. Brown would stop by Slater’s office to say good-bye at the end of the day, Slater responded by raising her hands up in the ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ movement.”
- “Slater asked Ms. Brown and [plaintiff Tabrese] Wright to teach her how to ‘beat box.'”
- “As with Ms. Brown and Ms. Wright, Slater mocked [plaintiff Monica] Douglas for her purported inability to pronounce various words because she is Black, including the words ‘month’ and ‘ask.’ ”
- “Similarly, Slater asked Ms. Brown whether she knows why a Black Entertainment Television (‘BET’) station exists and why it is necessary for a separate BET awards show. Slater stated that Black people and minorities would be ‘up in arms’ if a group of White people created a station called ‘WET.’ ”
- “Slater once asked Ms. Brown if she knew why there was no ‘White History Month,’ and complained that it was ‘not fair’ that Black people have ‘all of February’ to celebrate ‘the Blacks.’ ”
- Slater asked Brown, “ ‘How do you feel about us White women taking all the good Black men?’ and ‘How does it feel when Black men want the Kardashians instead of you all?’ ”
- “Slater told Ms. Brown that she ‘refused to make eye contact with people in Brooklyn’ because she did not want them attempting to rob her. Slater told Ms. Brown that ‘They will see me and say look at this ‘whitey,’ … she probably has some money, let’s rob her.’ ”
- “There is no shortage of disgusting examples that show how often Slater seized on opportunities to insinuate that Ms. Brown is ‘lesser than’ similarly-situated White employees. For example, Slater calls Central Islip, where Ms. Brown is from, the ‘hood.’ ”
- “Slater condescendingly asked Ms. Brown if she wanted to be invited to Slater’s friend’s house in Smithtown/Hauppauge, so that she could experience what ‘a lily-white town’ looks like.”
- “After a discussion at work about a funeral for a co-worker’s relative, Slater asked Ms. Brown ‘if people from Central Islip’ bury bodies in their backyards.”
- “Slater also forwarded Ms. Brown a YouTube video of a Black woman arguing with a White woman where the Black woman punches the White woman and a physical fight ensues. Slater captioned the video, ‘Central Islip peeps?’ ”
- “In this regard, Slater repeatedly uses the phrases ‘down with the Blacks,’ or ‘not down with the Blacks’ to distinguish which executives may cause problems for Black employees, including Ms. Brown.”
- “Notwithstanding this claim, Slater also showed Ms. Brown an email thread from September 2012 written by Brandi that referred to Ms. Brown as an ‘idiot,’ in connection with a check that needed to be sent to Fox Contributor, Colonel Hunt. In this email, Brandi referred to Ms. Brown as a fictional employee, ‘Felicia from Finance.’ Slater corrected Brandi by writing back, ‘you mean, Tich from payroll,’ because there was no employee named ‘Felicia’ who worked in finance.”
- “Slater also told Ms. Brown that [former Fox News chief financial officer Mark] Kranz would never give Ms. Brown any ‘trouble’ because he was afraid of ‘Black people.’ ”
- “Slater constantly referred to Ms. Brown and Ms. Wright as ‘dummy’ and ‘numb nuts,’ and said they are ‘nice girls but dumb’ ”
- “Slater commented that Ms. Brown must make more money than any of her friends because they are Black”
- “Slater remarked that her tax money was probably supporting some of Ms. Brown’s Black friends who receive federal benefits”
- “[Fox News employee Susan] Lovallo and Slater asked Ms. Brown if she knew why Michelle Obama ‘did not like Whites,’ and whether Ms. Brown knew if it was because ‘Mrs. Obama was from the ghettos of Chicago’ and believes that ‘White people have held her down over the years.’ ”
Therewith a look at alleged comments made in the company of Brown, who is just one of 11 plaintiffs in the case.
Catherine M. Foti, a lawyer for Slater, said, “These are meritless and frivolous lawsuits and all claims of racial discrimination against Ms. Slater are completely false. We have yet to see the alleged additions to the original lawsuit. Given how outrageous and offensive these suits are, it’s incomprehensible to imagine how anyone has joined or would join these legal actions.” As for the network: “Fox News and Dianne Brandi vehemently deny the race discrimination claims in both lawsuits. They are copycat complaints of the original one filed last month. We will vigorously defend these cases,” said a spokesperson.
Former Fox News employee Adasa Blanco has also filed a racial discrimination suit against Fox News, Slater and Brandi — this one in a New York federal court.
Whipsawed yet? Tantaros this week brought a legal action against the network, executives and another company for allegedly surveilling her. Fox News denied the claims. And don’t forget that CNN host Alisyn Camerota, who previously worked at Fox News, told Stelter on “Reliable Sources” that she herself had been sexually harassed by Ailes, not to mention strongly encouraged to toe the network’s conservative line. Why the timing? “When Roger Ailes was ousted in July, there was a lot of talk about what the culture was there, and now, with Bill O’Reilly having been fired, it feels as though, if I take the Murdochs at their word, they really want to know what was wrong there and what the culture was like, and I don’t know how you get that from silence. So, it feels like this might be the right time to just have this conversation and let some daylight in.”
Clearly a lid has been removed from the network. Though the cascade of complaints and settlements and lawsuits seems like a lot of material, consider that Ailes was deviously effective over two decades in stifling bad publicity about Fox News, though some hints about the place’s paranoid ways did leak out from time to time. It’s possible that what Fox News terms “copycat complaints” are, in fact, legitimate gripes by Fox News employees with similar experiences, and that there’s a lot more of them forthcoming.
A federal investigation and civil actions, too, have the sort of discovery power that people such as New York Magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman — the top reporter on Ailes and internal Fox News happenings — have lacked. “As reporters, we don’t have subpoena power. All we have is the ability to convince people to tell the truth, and we are limited by our sources,” says Sherman in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. The exhaustive Sherman biography of Ailes, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” relied on interviews with more than 600 people, though that towering figure wasn’t quite large enough to enable him to break the story of Ailes’s alleged serial sexual harassment at Fox News. He did nail down some creepy episodes from earlier moments in Ailes’s career, but his sources wouldn’t go on record about the Fox News tenure.
“I knew of instances at Fox of that behavior continuing, but I was limited by the fact that these women would not go on record,” says Sherman in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. “It just took time for the women to come forward,” continues Sherman, who credits Carlson for getting the truth squad fired up.
The silence of “The Loudest Voice in the Room” on Fox News-era sexual harassment by Ailes appeared to clear the brilliant TV mogul. “Even a reporter devoted to exposing Roger offered no hint that Roger was a serial harasser. I felt reassured that he wasn’t what I’d feared,” writes Kelly in “Settle for More.” That was a false reassurance.”
The irony? That someone like Ailes may have been a necessary binding agent for a network threatening to cannibalize itself. Clowns like O’Reilly, the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters have always hindered the work of Fox News’s beat reporters and generally sane people — Bill Hemmer, Jennifer Griffin, Catherine Herridge, Bret Baier. What source, after all, wants to cough up sensitive information that’s sure to get hijacked and distorted by this crowd? Just this week, Watters made an oral-sex joke regarding Ivanka Trump and her facility with a microphone.
How long can a news organization featuring Jesse Watters and Chris Wallace hold it together without a loyalty-obsessed control freak at the top?
Speaking of which, Sherman yesterday reported that Fox News Co-President Bill Shine is concerned that the ruling Murdoch family is not standing firmly behind him in the face of all this bad press. Sean Hannity expressed himself:
Ailes wouldn’t have permitted this form of interior-tent urination. “Roger Ailes built and ran a cult of personality full of paranoia and intimidation and so nothing surprises me, and I’m not surprised that network seems to be unraveling in plain sight,” says Sherman.