Much is known about how Fox News reacted to the sexual harassment lawsuit of former host Gretchen Carlson against network boss Roger Ailes in July 2016. Per Ailes tradition, there was defiance and denial. There was also lawyering, with Ailes attempting to push the matter into arbitration.
And behind the scenes, there was chaos, as clarified in a new documentary titled “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.” A highlight of the documentary — which hits D.C.-area theaters on Friday — is the highly on-the-record input of Karen Kessler and Warren Cooper of the New York-area crisis PR firm Evergreen Partners, Inc. They secured a privileged view of the post-lawsuit madness at a July 8 meeting at Ailes’s home in Cresskill, N.J.
“We pulled in and we were greeted by a woman … and she took us into the living room, which was very heavy chintz, floral sofas and seated against the windows in this huge armchair was Roger himself, larger than life, hooked up to an intravenous bag attached to one of those … high metal stands,” says Kessler in the documentary, whose highlights come from the statements of Ailes’s victims. The PR specialists got involved through an attorney who was assisting Donald Trump to find some professional help for his friend Ailes.
There’s more such delicious insiderism in “Divide and Conquer,” courtesy of the Evergreen folks. Kessler: “They said all statements will be run through Irena Briganti, the head of public relations for Fox, who he told us was a ‘stone killer.’ And she was intensely focused on getting as many of the highest profile, and frankly, best looking, women on Fox to say that indeed he was not a harasser. … And Irena was really proud that, in one day, she was able to enlist 22 people …‘We’re up to 22, Roger.’ ” Cooper says in the film: “Everybody was a guardian at the gate to protect Roger.”
In the meeting, Kessler said that most cases such as Carlson’s end in settlement. At which point, Beth Ailes, the network boss’s wife, said, “We will never, ever settle this case. You need to understand something: Roger is more important than America.”
Statements of that sort amount to an exclusive for “Divide and Conquer,” a Magnolia Pictures documentary directed by Alexis Bloom. As Kessler and Cooper told the Erik Wemple Blog in a recent interview, they had kept a low profile over two years following their work with the Fox News sexual harassment response team. They felt no great compulsion to attach their names to this headline-making episode, until Michael Cohen came along.
Michael Cohen? As Kessler explains it, Cohen, known as a “fixer” for Trump’s various crises, tainted the profession of crisis public relations, and the team at Evergreen wanted to make a statement about the industry’s true colors. So they spoke up. “We were concerned that that was the definition of what it meant to do crisis control and crisis management, and we didn’t want to be lumped in with that approach,” says Kessler.
As the PR professionals told the Erik Wemple Blog, they worked with the Fox News people for about three weeks before resigning. During that period, they failed to satisfy their temporary bosses. They were responsible for monitoring media coverage of the suit against Ailes and trying to frame the matter as a legal clash and nothing more. When the pair drafted statements and the like, however, they received negative feedback from the Fox News braintrust. “Whatever we wrote and whatever we suggested, it wasn’t nasty enough, it wasn’t strong enough,” says Kessler.
A particular point of contention related to denials. Kessler and Cooper were “happy” to tell media outlets that Ailes said he denies the allegations against him. Yet Fox News types, they say, wanted the PR folks to say, straight up, that the allegations against him were false — which is to say, they wanted Kessler and Cooper to place their own credibility on the line for the head of a network famous for its deceptive programming. They refused.
The marching orders from Fox News, say the Evergreen executives, focused on character assassination. The idea was to seed stories that would cast Carlson as “self absorbed. How flirtatious she was and how coquettish she was,” says Kessler. To stress that point, she adds, Ailes pantomimed a scene of Carlson unbuttoning her shirt. “They really wanted to get into her personal life in a big way.”
When the Erik Wemple Blog concluded that the Fox News approach was to fight, fight, fight, Cooper corrected us: “Attack, attack, attack.” The aggression proceeded on the PR and legal fronts. Among the first courtroom maneuvers of the Ailes/Fox News side was to push the Carlson claim out of a New Jersey court and into a friendlier venue. Toward that end, say Kessler and Cooper, Ailes on that July day signed documents about his residency. “He asked what the papers were and he was told that the papers were to attest that he didn’t live in New Jersey,” says Cooper. That took place at Ailes’s house in New Jersey.
As the pair recall, Ailes told his peers at the meeting that the incident claimed by Carlson “never happened.” In the next breath, he said, “she may have taped it.” Indeed, she did have tapes, an asset that helped seal a $20 million settlement and deep apology from Fox News’s parent company.
Do crisis PR people commonly talk about their clients? They do not, as the Evergreen executives make clear in the documentary. But Fox News was different. “In this case not only did we not have a contract, not only did we not have [a nondisclosure agreement], not only did we not have any legal reasons why we couldn’t” talk, but Evergreen found the Fox News response “wrong,” says Kessler in the film. “It’s so wrong, and I can’t be part of that. And not only am I not going to be part of that, but I’m going to expose it so that these men one day can get some of what they deserve. Which is justice for their victims.”
Evergreen decided to forgo payment for their few weeks of work, say Kessler and Cooper. “We were nervous to resign because we saw what they did to people who were not on their side, and we knew a lot,” says Kessler. They knew a lot precisely because Fox News — a company known for strong-arm PR tactics — pulled them into its most intimate discussions, and then failed to lock them into a hush arrangement. Kessler tells the Erik Wemple Blog that she was surprised she didn’t have to sign a piece of paper the moment she and Cooper walked into the room.
Briganti did not respond to a request for comment.