Two weeks. That’s all it took from Gretchen Carlson’s filing a sexual harassment suit against Fox News chief Roger Ailes to the evident demise of one of the most powerful figures in American media and politics.
With Ailes’s departure expected as early as Friday (the exit terms reportedly are being negotiated), it was an Icarus-like fall from great heights. After all, it was Ailes — a former consultant to Richard Nixon and two other Republican presidents — who, from the network’s beginning in 1996, drove its sky-high ratings and legendary profitability. (And had an undeniable role in creating the political atmosphere in which Donald Trump has thrived enough to become the Republican nominee for president, happening, bizarrely enough, even as Ailes is forced out.)
Is it possible that all it took, after decades of alleged sexual harassment of women, was for one of them to come forward and say, in the clearest possible terms, what so many had murmured in the shadows?
It’s “stunning only that he survived so long,” said one former longtime network producer, Barbara Raab.
Why did it take so long, if the claims against Ailes — many reported by Gabriel Sherman, author of the Ailes biography “The Loudest Voice in the Room” — are true? In his 2014 book and in recent reporting for New York magazine, Sherman has brought forth appalling charges from women, allegations that Ailes has denied.
One reason is that the Fox News working environment seemed designed to make sure such stories never surfaced. When Carlson, a former Fox News host, filed her complaint, a hushed-up culture of nondisclosure agreements and arbitration clauses were exposed. (Those are far from rare in corporate America, but the Ailes-led company seemed especially aggressive in enforcing them.)
But over the past two weeks, an internal investigation was launched by Fox News’s corporate parent, 21st Century Fox, and those restraints were brushed aside as a prominent law firm was empowered to find out the truth.
So what has happened to change an entrenched culture, and show Ailes the door?
I see three factors. First, Carlson made a gutsy move in filing suit. Those who say she had nothing to lose (the former Miss America and Stanford graduate had already lost her job as a Fox News host) are wrong. It takes courage to come forward; the suit opened her up to counter-attacks, smears and blackballing.
Second, reporting by Sherman and others of similar claims against Ailes backed up Carlson, making it impossible to dismiss her suit as simply retaliatory. (Ailes, through his attorney, certainly tried.) When Fox News star Megyn Kelly broke her silence this week to say that she, too, had suffered Ailes’s come-ons, she may have delivered the final blow. There’s power in numbers.
Third and, perhaps, most important, the times — and Fox executives — have changed. With the vastly increased power and presence of Rupert Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan, Fox seems intent on joining the modern era.
That’s not about altruism but about responsible business practices — a workplace where sexual harassment claims are taken seriously is a place where expensive, reputation-killing lawsuits become far less likely.
So the leadership has changed, but so has the cultural moment. We live in the post-Cosby era. It’s a long way from the 1990s, when Anita Hill’s credible claims against Clarence Thomas and Paula Jones’s against Bill Clinton gained plenty of traction but left the powerful men in their top-of-the-world perches. No longer.
Ailes “has become Cosby,” conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck wrote on Facebook, where he also nodded to Ailes’s accomplishments.
Raab, the former NBC producer, told me that change is far from complete. The Ailes situation signals change in that “now he cannot survive.” But, until recently, and for years, “he left the landscape littered with other victims who either didn’t come forward or were ignored when they did.”
Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, the investigative news organization, and formerly the assistant publisher of the Wall Street Journal, observes “a significant generational turnover — sexual harassment is seen as a big deal by many more people (men as well as women) than it once was.”
Aberrant behavior that is deeply entrenched and covered up can seem normal, even acceptable. There’s little incentive to do anything except carry on and look out for your own paycheck and career.
But entrenched doesn’t mean intractable. Things can change, if all the pieces come together, as they did in the past two weeks.
In 2013, a behemoth media corporation began using the name 21st Century Fox. Now, the new millennium may have finally arrived there.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan