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Fox News paid $15 million to former host who filed pay disparity claim

Melissa Francis alleged her male colleagues made far more than women. She won an unusually large settlement, according to documents viewed by The Post.

Melissa Francis at Fox studios in New York in 2015. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
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Fox News agreed to a roughly $15 million settlement with a female former host who complained about gender-based pay disparities at the cable news network, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

Although the kind of sum won by Melissa Francis, an on-air personality for several shows on Fox News and Fox Business Network from 2012 to 2020, is unusual in television news, it underscores perennial concerns that women do not prosper as well as men in this industry — an issue Francis says she personally attempted to investigate by researching what her peers earned at Fox.

Francis and her attorney declined to comment on the settlement, which has not been previously reported. Francis separately filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Labor claiming that Fox retaliated against her after she pointed out pay disparities at the network. Her attorney, Kevin Mintzer, said she filed the pending complaint with the state “not for herself but for the women of the company who remain behind.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Fox News said: “We parted ways with Melissa Francis over a year and a half ago and her allegations were entirely without merit. We have also fully cooperated with the New York State Department of Labor’s investigation and look forward to the completion of this matter.”

The amount paid to Francis is on a scale with the blockbuster settlements the network offered a number of female employees who leveled claims of sexual misconduct and harassment against Roger Ailes, the co-founder of Fox News, and former prime-time star Bill O’Reilly. Mintzer said that despite Fox News’s pledges of improving its climate since those allegations were settled, “what happened to Melissa shows that sexism and retaliation remain standard practice at the company.”

The Fox spokesperson replied that the company has dramatically transformed its culture, its lineup of programming and its executive ranks in recent years, adding: “Fox News has always been committed to the equitable treatment of all employees which we have demonstrated consistently over our 26-year history, and we are extremely proud of our business.”

One lawyer unconnected to the case who has helped women receive settlements from other networks said the size of Francis’s award suggests that Fox realized it would have a weak position defending itself in court against a lawsuit. “For a settlement this large, there would probably need to be pretty convincing evidence of an obvious and gross disparity in pay,” said Ari Wilkenfeld, a partner at the Atkinson Law Group in Bethesda, Md.

Francis, 49, a former child actress and Harvard University graduate who had covered financial news for CNBC, was first hired by Fox in 2012 as an anchor for Fox Business. After making numerous appearances on Fox News, she was promoted in November 2017 by the flagship channel as a permanent co-host for its midday ensemble show “Outnumbered,” where she and anchor Harris Faulkner were joined by a rotating panel of two other women and a sole male panelist, labeled the “One Lucky Guy.” Francis, meanwhile, continued co-hosting Fox Business’s “After the Bell” show and made frequent guest appearances on Tucker Carlson’s highly rated prime-time opinion show on Fox News.

But on Oct. 7, 2020, she abruptly stopped appearing on either network.

In an interview, Francis described the events that she says led up to her being moved off the air.

After Fox offered Francis her promotion in 2017, she said she was granted a negligible increase in compensation. She believed her salary, which was below $1 million, was far less than what her peers were making. But she agreed to wait for the next contract negotiation in 2019. In the meantime, she asked former colleagues and agents what other people were making at Fox News.

The spreadsheet she created with the data she found adjusted for certain variables, she said, including whether someone worked as a solo anchor, which is typically paid more, or as part of an ensemble. She also considered a host’s typical airtime — prime-time opinion show hosts are generally paid more than daytime anchors — and adjusted for experience and ratings. But the trends remained constant, she said: Men were paid many times more than their female counterparts.

On Nov. 11, 2019, Francis had a call with Dianne Brandi, a former executive vice president for legal and business affairs for Fox News who continues to represent Fox in some contract negotiations. When Brandi told her that her new contract would not include an increase in compensation, Francis said she responded by telling Brandi about her research and the “pretty staggering gender pay gap” she had found, mentioning her calculations regarding the salaries of specific daytime Fox hosts.

Francis said Brandi urged her to try a different tack in negotiating her salary and retorted: “That’s how the world works. Women make less. It’s just a fact.” At the time, Fox had recently appointed several women to senior executive positions, including Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott. (Another, executive vice president and general counsel Lily Fu Claffee, left the company in April of last year, shortly after authorizing the settlement Francis would eventually receive.)

Speaking on behalf of Brandi, a spokesperson for Fox News said: “Melissa Francis’s version of that conversation is untrue and patently absurd.”

“It is illogical that anyone with Dianne Brandi’s level of experience in negotiating talent contracts for a living would make such a ludicrous statement,” the spokesperson added.

In her interview with The Post, Francis said she loved working at Fox, even though she and her family took a lot of blowback over the network’s conservative and frequently controversial positions.

Fox, she added, gave her more freedom than other media organizations where she had worked.

Francis said a Fox executive for human resources later was similarly unresponsive to her salary concerns. In January 2020, Francis’s lawyer sought the disclosure of the salaries of other Fox News personalities. Fox denied the request. She entered into arbitration with the company in August of that year. On Oct. 7, the date the arbitrator had set as a deadline for Fox News to hand over salary information, Francis was at her home studio preparing for her 4 p.m. episode of “After the Bell.” At 3:45 p.m., she said, she saw a message flash on the teleprompter: “You’ve been canceled.”

She did not appear on the air again.

Francis officially resigned from Fox News on Feb. 2, 2021, and later lodged a complaint with the New York State Department of Labor, alleging that she was retaliated against for pointing out a pay disparity at her network.

The department declined to comment, saying it “does not comment on open and ongoing investigations.”

Mintzer, Francis’s attorney, said that “we look forward to receiving the findings of their investigation.”