Why Roger Ailes ouster may mark 'seismic shift' on sexual harassment

The swift downfall of one of the most powerful men in media, experts say, shows how times have changed from the days when women were 'publicly trashed' for speaking out about workplace harassment.

Fred Prouser/Reuters/File
Roger Ailes, former chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Television Stations, answers questions during a panel discussion at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Pasadena, Calif., in 2006. Ailes resigned Thursday after former host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment. After an investigation was launched, multiple other women came forward, including the network's top star Megyn Kelly.

The swift and ignominious downfall of Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, one of the most powerful news executives of his or any era, has left many within the wider world of media stunned.

And for those who have long battled the problems of sexual harassment within the upper echelons of corporate power, the resignation of Mr. Ailes represents a “seismic shift” in the media world and a blow to an old-boys network of privilege still alive and well within Manhattan’s power centers – a persistent casual pressure on female subordinates to begin surreptitious sexual relationships, many experts say.   

Two weeks ago, Gretchen Carlson, the former cohost of the network’s morning show, “Fox & Friends,” accused the 76-year-old news titan of unwanted advances in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in New Jersey Superior Court. “I just wanted to stand up for myself, first and foremost,” the former Miss America said. “And I wanted to stand up for other women who maybe faced similar circumstances.” Ailes denied the charges.

Her accusations prompted an internal investigation by 21st Century Fox, part of the global media empire of Rupert Murdoch and the parent company of Fox News, the cable network Ailes made into a ratings and revenue juggernaut in his 20 years at the network’s helm.

The investigation, conducted by a Manhattan law firm, brought other accusations to light, including from top star Megyn Kelly, who reportedly told investigators that she also had received “repeated, unwanted advances” from the Fox News CEO.

“As much as we can commend the Murdochs for dealing with this situation quickly once it came to public light, we have to ask – how come this was not dealt with long ago, since Ailes's behavior was an open secret at Fox News?” says Andrew Faas, an expert on sexual harassment in the workplace and the author of "The Bully's Trap: Bullying in the Workplace," via email.

“I hope Fox goes on to shift culturally, in addition to getting rid of Ailes,” Mr. Faas continues. “Ultimately, though, this really has to serve as an example to other high-level employers who think they can harass with impunity.”

Since Ms. Carlson’s lawsuit, a number of Fox broadcasters have expressed firm support for their boss. Veteran Fox news host Greta Van Susteren said her former colleague’s lawsuit was the action of a “disgruntled employee,” and Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Hannity and a number of other Fox News personalities expressed solidarity with Ailes, dismissing Carlson’s claims.

The Murdoch family, including Mr. Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James, took the accusations seriously and have been working to shape their company’s corporate culture in line with modern standards for office conduct, The New York Times reported.

And many women and workplace ethicists on Thursday called the downfall of one of the most powerful men in media and politics a sign of changing times.

“Unlike the public trashing that other women have gotten when accusing powerful men in the past—think Anita Hill, called “nutty” and “slutty” in 1991 or the long line of Bill Cosby accusers who, until very recently, were dismissed as gold diggers—Carlson’s claims that Ailes ogled her and forced her out when she rebuffed him were taken seriously, listened to, and investigated,” wrote business consultant and writer Pamela Kruger in Fortune.

“It’s a stunningly fast fall—and one that suggests there may be some kind of sea change in how women who allege sexual harassment by powerful men are treated,” Ms. Kruger continued.

The sexual harassment accusations were not mentioned on Thursday as both the Murdochs and Ailes announced that the longtime Fox News chief would be stepping down.

“Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years,” the elder Murdoch said in a statement. “Fox News has given voice to those who were ignored by the traditional networks and has been one of the great commercial success stories of modern media.”

Indeed, Ailes built from the ground up a news network that media experts say transformed the broadcast news industry, creating a channel that catered to conservative viewers and focused on talk shows with aggressive opinions, making stars of hosts such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Neil Cavuto.

Led by Ailes, Fox News has dominated the ratings for much of its 20 years on air. Its 2015 profits, a reported $1.5 billion, easily out-earned its rivals CNN and MSNBC, which earned $381 million and $227 million respectively, according to the Pew Research Center.

Ailes will remain a consultant to the network and receive a $40 million severance, according to reports.

Many Fox broadcasters expressed shock and dismay on Thursday, and Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” described a newsroom in tears at Ailes's announced departure.   

Conspicuously, Ms. Kelly remained silent.

According to unnamed sources cited by New York Magazine and The New York Times, Kelly told internal investigators that Ailes had propositioned her years ago when she was a young correspondent at the network. And her cooperation with the internal investigation, conducted by the law firm Paul Weis, allowed other women to step forward.

They described a newsroom in which comments about their sex life and appearance were frequent, the reports said. More than 20 women contacted the law firm representing Carlson, each alleging harassment by Ailes, who has rejected the claims.

“We hope that all businesses now understand that women will no longer tolerate sexual harassment, and reputable companies will no longer shield those who abuse women,” said Nancy Erika Smith, a lawyer for the former Fox News host, in a statement.

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