Allegations Reveal How Roger Ailes Ran Fox News By Projecting Power

Sep 2, 2016
Originally published on September 2, 2016 4:40 pm
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Now a look at what drove former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. After a former anchor filed a lawsuit against him this summer, other revelations came fast - accusations of sexual harassment, women paid to walk away and critics intimidated. Finally, Ailes was forced out in July. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: For years, Fox News has had towering posters at its headquarters bearing a slogan that's also a common refrain on the air.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: You're watching the most powerful name in news, Fox News.

FOLKENFLIK: I promise you've never heard The Washington Post or ABC News describe itself that way. Many people talk a lot about Fox's conservative ideology, and many think that the harassment scandal is all about sex. But to understand how the place operated under Ailes, you cannot overlook the projection of power.

GABRIEL SHERMAN: He saw himself as literally saving the country, that he was the only force standing up to the liberals and President Obama.

FOLKENFLIK: This is Ailes' biographer, Gabriel Sherman.

SHERMAN: And this is the way he spoke about himself. And so when you talk about that, you see your news network as the tool or the mechanism to exert that power.

FOLKENFLIK: Power works in many ways. Take how women are presented on Fox.

JANE HALL: On Fox, I felt, when I looked at it, I was uncomfortable at the way that I saw a number of these women dressed.

FOLKENFLIK: Jane Hall was a media critic and commentator on Fox News for a decade.

HALL: They were professional women, but they were dressed in clothing that really sexualized them.

FOLKENFLIK: In lawsuits filed against Ailes, the Fox News hosts Gretchen Carlson and Andrea Tantaros said Ailes would ask them to twirl around, to dress suggestively, essentially to perform for him. Fox News' female bookers, producers and on-air personalities have told NPR that many women were urged to select their outfits from those provided by Fox - always short dresses or skirts, never pants, necklines that plunge, hair extensions and false eyelashes. Television is a visual medium that prizes looks. Jane Hall says this is different. She has studied depictions of women in media.

HALL: I know that if you have a fully clothed man and a woman less clothed, that's a power situation, and you're communicating that the man has the power, the man has the authority.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox introduced glass top tables for its female hosts and a specialized leg cam - a camera that lingered on the physique of certain women there.

HALL: I didn't know at the time I was there that there was such a thing as a camera that focused on women's legs, so that's really reprehensible.

FOLKENFLIK: Some women at Fox were expected to identify attractive younger colleagues to be introduced to Ailes. This should not have come as a surprise. In his 2014 book, Gabriel Sherman reported two previous instances of sexual harassment by Roger Ailes. One occurred 35 years ago. Shelley Ross was invited to lunch by Ailes to talk about working for a late-night program on NBC.

SHELLEY ROSS: It was a very big deal.

FOLKENFLIK: The offer, Ross says, was contingent on something that stopped her cold - the demand she enter into what Ailes called a sexual alliance.

ROSS: He clearly was looking for something, some work relationship that was meaningful to him.

FOLKENFLIK: Ross refused, but ultimately took the job after Ailes apologized profusely. Ross later became a senior news executive at ABC and CBS. She says Fox News should give a full, public account of what happened. This summer, two dozen women have talked to a law firm investigating sexual harassment claims against Ailes at Fox. Former Fox News booker Laurie Luhn alleges that Ailes filmed a private sexual dance she performed at his request. She says Ailes let her know he'd keep the recording to ensure her loyalty. In 2011, Fox paid Luhn more than $3 million after she alleged years of sexual extortion. Again, Shelley Ross.

ROSS: For every person like Roger Ailes, there are enablers around him.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox staffers sifted through employees' phone records, text and emails on company equipment to see what was being said about Ailes and to whom. Several Fox News staffers told me they feared their phones were being tapped, too. Ailes had cameras installed to monitor news rooms and corridors, and he set up a war room to discredit Gabriel Sherman, too.

SHERMAN: He had reason to be paranoid. We now know that he was a man who was bent on keeping his history of sexual harassment secret from the world.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox News' top lawyer, Dianne Brandi, is denying the latest allegation that she had a private investigator acquire the phone records for a reporter for a liberal press watchdog called Media Matters. That, too, would have legal implications. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.