The bonus round of scrutiny that media mogul Rupert Murdoch invited with some clueless remarks last week is still roaring. “Fox News ruined people’s lives,” said Tamara Holder in a stunning interview with Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
“Let me be clear: I had a man pull out his penis in his office and shove my head on it,” said Holder, a former Fox News contributor who in February reached a settlement worth more than $2.5 million with the company over an incident in which Holder reported that an executive tried to make her perform oral sex on him. When the New York Times reported the matter, Holder issued this statement: “Yes, I was sexually assaulted. Immediately after I told the company where I worked about the incident, it promptly investigated the matter and took action, which I appreciate.”
Whatever the case, the incident was hardly “nonsense.” That’s one of the terms that Murdoch, the boss of 21st Century Fox, used in an interview with Sky News to discuss the sale of company entertainment assets to the Walt Disney Co. Murdoch will hold onto news and sports properties, including Fox News. When asked by interviewer Ian King whether Fox News’s sexual harassment scandal has hurt the company, Murdoch said, “All nonsense, there was a problem with our chief executive, sort of, over the years, isolated incidents. As soon as we investigated it he was out of the place in hours, well, three or four days. And there’s been nothing else since then. That was largely political because we’re conservative. Now of course the liberals are going down the drain — NBC is in deep trouble. CBS, their stars. I mean there are really bad cases and people should be moved aside. There are other things which probably amount to a bit of flirting.”
As this blog pointed out over the weekend, Murdoch’s self-interested revisionism of a bona fide scandal to a momentary distraction prompted a fresh round of interest in the roughly 18-month-old story. The implications may be legal, too, as Holder explained. In her discussion with Stelter, she noted that Murdoch and Co. were the “ones that wanted us to be quiet” — a reference to the ubiquitous settlement agreements that bound the accusers to silence.
By speaking out on CNN, Holder proclaimed, “Well, I’m in violation of the contract, except for the fact that I legally have a right to respond if I’m disparaged or defamed. … And what Mr. Murdoch said, in my opinion as a lawyer, not as a victim or a survivor, as a lawyer, is that this gives me a legal right to respond.”
Such sentiment is making the rounds. Earlier this month, a woman who reached a 2002 settlement over Bill O’Reilly’s conduct sued him for defamation and breach of contract. Rachel Witlieb Bernstein, then a junior staffer at Fox News, had found herself on the wrong end of an O’Reilly tantrum — this was not a sexual harassment case. The settlement that she reached bound both parties to refrain from disparaging the other.
Yet O’Reilly couldn’t contain himself. In interviews and statements, he has said that he is “vulnerable” to lawsuits from people who want money; that he reaches settlements not necessarily on the merits, but to protect his family; and that he drew no HR complaints at Fox News. Far from being a “target,” argues Witlieb Bernstein’s complaint, O’Reilly is “a serial abuser and Ms. Bernstein’s complaints against him were far from extortionate.”
As it turns out, O’Reilly and Murdoch have some traits in common: They’re workplace dinosaurs who are too stubborn and too prideful to admit wrongdoing. They also delight in attributing their difficulties to nonexistent political vendettas.
If there’s one message that Holder sent in her interview with Stelter, it’s that victims would prefer not to have to re-litigate their trauma at Fox News. They’d much rather find jobs in their chosen profession and talk about topics in which they hold expertise. “Fox News paid me time and time [again], and re-signed me over and over again, uprooted me from my law practice to New York,” said Holder. “And, suddenly, when I speak out that I was abused, they don’t want me anymore. And not only do they not want me anymore: I can’t ever work anywhere again. … Like, we just want to work. Bring us back. Allow us to do what we did before we were abused.”
Indeed, the list of female Fox News employees who’ve accused men of workplace harassment or mistreatment and left the company after settlements — which commonly include payouts — is a modern-day outrage. Higher-ups at the network and its parent company boast of all the institutional changes — an invigorated HR department, changes to the executive team, for example — that have followed the allegations. So if the environment is new and improved, why not take up Holder on her suggestion?