It’s one of the most intriguing stories of the summer, a tale of sex, money, politics and corporate skulduggery that would seem especially ripe for coverage and discussion by the firebrands at Fox News.
Except Fox News barely seems to have noticed.
Ever since former Fox host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit July 6 against the network’s co-founder and chairman, Roger Ailes, Fox has been tight-lipped about telling its viewers about the allegations, which have turned the network upside down.
Fox mentioned the lawsuit and Ailes’s subsequent resignation July 21, but that’s about all it has done since the news broke. It has not conducted a single on-camera interview with any person connected with the news, including Ailes, who built Fox into a clarion of the American conservative movement. According to Fox’s news-clip archive, there have been no panel discussions, no diatribes from Fox’s famously aggressive hosts, no follow-up investigations, no tributes to the Ailes era.
In all, Fox has devoted a total of about 11 minutes of airtime to the news about Ailes over the past five weeks, a review of the archive shows. That’s less time than Bill O’Reilly spent criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement on “The O’Reilly Factor” over a couple of days this month.
Fox’s last word on the subject was Sunday, when media reporter and analyst Howard Kurtz offered a minute-long synopsis of Fox boss Rupert Murdoch’s appointment of Ailes’s successors, Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy. (Fox Business Network on Friday aired an even briefer version of this news, without mention of Ailes or sexual harassment.)
Before that, Fox had gone 21/2 weeks without saying a word about the news unfolding down the hall from its newsroom, including any mention of allegations that Ailes had harassed multiple women over five decades and used corporate funds to settle other sexual harassment claims and to employ consultants and detectives to spy on perceived enemies, including reporters from other news organizations.
Before Sunday, Kurtz, the host of a weekly media-review show on Fox called “Media Buzz,” had devoted just one brief segment to Ailes on his program since the news broke. In that segment, on July 10, he summarized the basic elements of the news, aired Ailes’s lengthy written denial and concluded: “Now, I understand why the media would jump on such allegations, but lawsuits by their very nature contain exactly that — allegations. With some outlets now quoting anonymous sources, we’ll stick to the facts in covering this case.”
Kurtz declined to comment on his or the network’s coverage. He referred questions to a Fox spokeswoman, who offered a prepared statement from Kurtz: “I’ve often had to report difficult stories on my employers. In this case, Fox executives handled the situation with the utmost professionalism. I was able to cover the controversy how and when I wanted with no editorial interference.”
News organizations embroiled in controversy, particularly TV networks, tend to be no more transparent about themselves than the people and institutions they seek to hold to account, said Mark Feldstein, a former network reporter and now a University of Marylan broadcast journalism professor who’s writing a book about media scandals.
Often, he said, news media companies in such circumstances engage in the same sort of damage control as any other company, including Enron, the energy firm that collapsed in scandal in 2001. “Typically, they start with silence or spin as [independent] reporters dig up new stuff,” he said. “Then they hunker down into crisis mode until the worst blows over.”
Feldstein cites a long list of recent examples that he will use in his book: NBC News’s handling of allegations last year that anchor Brian Williams exaggerated some of his reporting exploits; Fox News’s response in 2015 to similar allegations against O’Reilly; ABC News’s reaction to revelations that anchor George Stephanopoulos had contributed to the Clinton Foundation in 2015, in contradiction of its internal policies; CBS News’s response to a false “60 Minutes” report in 2013 about the attacks on an American facility in Benghazi, Libya.
Although it’s more the exception than the rule, news organizations sometimes offer self-reflection about their alleged errors. In the wake of a disputed report in 2004 by anchor Dan Rather about President George W. Bush’s military service, CBS convened a panel to investigate flaws in its reporting and later made the panel’s results public, as did Rolling Stone magazine last year after it published a debunked article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia in 2014.
But there was no such public accounting from NBC about Williams, from Fox about O’Reilly, from ABC about Stephanopoulos or from CBS about its Benghazi report. (Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, has engaged a law firm to investigate Ailes’s conduct, but it has not said whether it intends to make its findings public.)
The most aggressive reporting about such scandals tends to come from reporters outside a news organization.
The biggest revelations about the long-running phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s now-defunct British newspaper, the News of the World, came from the rival Guardian newspaper, for example. Similarly, New York magazine has been dogged on the Ailes news, as have the New York Times, The Washington Post and Vanity Fair.
In contrast to Fox, CNN has talked at length about the Ailes news. On Sunday, correspondent Brian Stelter, the host of a weekly media show called “Reliable Sources,” interviewed Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison about Fox’s new management — which meant that CNN has discussed the changes at Fox News for longer than Fox News has.
Stelter has tackled stories even closer to home on his show. CNN’s controversial hiring of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, as a network commentator was the subject of a nine-minute discussion segment in June that included criticism of the decision from commentators.
“Covering ourselves is difficult, but covering ourselves is important,” Stelter said in an interview. He added: “I think transparency wins us readers and viewers. It doesn’t lose us readers and viewers.”
As for Fox, Carlson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, said she has done more than 100 interviews with news organizations all over the world about the lawsuit and has turned down a similar number of requests. But, she said, she has never been contacted by Fox.