What Roger Ailes’s Case Says About the Sexism Epidemic in TV News
“It was my 25th birthday, and I was one of the few women in the ABC Radio newsroom,” recalls Betsy West, a news writer at the time. “Suddenly everybody started singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and I thought, ‘Oh that’s so fantastic, they remembered my birthday!’ And then I saw they wheeled in a cake—and the cake was in the shape of a male organ. They thought it would be cute to go to the erotic bakery to get me my birthday cake.
“It was just so embarrassing. Just so horrible. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like it was my fault.”
This was 1976, years before prohibitions against sexual harassment and hostile work environments were widely codified into law, federal agencies, and corporate HR policies.
Yet the revelations surrounding Roger Ailes—resulting in the Fox News founder’s shocking forced resignation—make it depressingly clear that the Age of Enlightenment is still a long way off.
The allegations exposed by fired Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson’s sensational July 6 lawsuit against the network’s ex-chairman were only the beginning as multiple women have come forward in the past three weeks to tell their own stories of harassment and abuse.
The unsavory disclosures culminated Friday in New York magazine’s chilling account of the married Ailes’s twisted, decades-long Faustian bargain with a former Fox News booker and event planner named Laurie Luhn, who claimed she sexually serviced the big boss—and provided him with younger, fresher female fodder as she grew older—in return for cash and career advancement until Ailes sent her packing with $3.15 million in corporate hush money.
“I’m not surprised by anything anymore,” says a female on-air personality who’s toiled in television news for the past three decades, and has frequently observed the power/sex dynamic between male authority figures and ambitious young women.
In one case more than 20 years ago, she recalls, a prominent network executive producer would arrange “booty calls” with one of her friends—having her picked up in a Town Car and delivered for a quickie, and then, dispensing with post-coital niceties, promptly driven home.
“If you’re a woman, there’s this idea of going along if you want the job, and if you don’t go along, you’re not going to get the job,” says the anchor, who asked not to be identified. “They’re told, ‘If you want to be on this or that show, here’s what you need to do.’…This business is full of a lot of really icky people, and Roger had more power than most. He had unbridled power.”
Such behavior may have retreated behind closed doors—no more penis cakes in the newsroom—but it has apparently persisted well into the 21st century, not only at Fox News but across an industry that continues to be dominated by men on top.
At a moment when one of the major political parties has just nominated a woman to be president of the United States—and women are running S&P 500 companies like General Motors, Xerox, Occidental Petroleum, PepsiCo, and General Dynamics (with Sheryl Sandberg the No. 2 executive of the planet’s sixth largest company, Facebook)—the television news business is a sociocultural anachronism.
With the exception of NBC News president Deborah Turness (whose authority was abruptly curtailed after less than two years, during the Brian Williams scandal, when former NBC News chief Andy Lack returned in April 2015 to take charge), no woman has ever led an American broadcast or cable news division.
“When women are in positions of authority, that makes a huge difference,” says West, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism after three decades in broadcast news, “but if you look at the statistics, about 70 percent of the news directors are men at the local-station level. And in network, there just aren’t that many uber-bosses who are women…Ultimately what will change this whole picture is when women are really represented at all levels.”
It’s revealing that of the possible Ailes successors mentioned in recently published speculation, not one has been a woman—even though Rupert Murdoch (who owes the 76-year-old Ailes big time for creating a rich profit center for Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox) and Rupert’s sons Lachlan and James (who by most accounts leveraged Carlson’s lawsuit into Ailes’s swift departure) could reap significant PR rewards, and possibly help fix a festering problem, by appointing a woman to run the place.
“Tone comes from the leader. Employees model what they see,” says former senior NBC News executive Alexandra Wallace, who was Turness’s No. 2 before leaving the network news division after Lack took the reins. These days she’s doing freelance projects for Google. “I truly believe things will change with the generational shift in our business.”
Wallace, who is 50, points out that “news is hardly alone in under-representation of women at the top,” and that even though there are formidable female CEOs of S&P 500 companies, “22 out of 500 is tragically low.”
As for running Fox News, “I would love to be considered for the job,” Wallace says.
West, for her part, went on to become a senior producer of Nightline at ABC News and from 1998 to 2005, along with Marcy McGinnis, a senior vice president and top deputy to CBS News President Andrew Heyward, overseeing 60 Minutes and 48 Hours, among other signature programs.
“Oh, the stories I could tell you from when I was in 20s and 30s would freak you out,” says McGinnis, who supervised the news-gathering operations and programming after a series of management jobs at CBS. “But I don’t know if it was like an episode of Mad Men at places like ABC, NBC, and CBS,” McGinnis says. “At Fox, it was a little bit more Mad Men.”
In 1996, as Fox News was getting off the ground, McGinnis recalls, Roger Ailes tried to recruit her. Their meeting was professional and flattering, but she turned Ailes down. “I couldn’t work at a place like that.”
As she rose through the ranks at CBS and took on more authority, McGinnis says she occasionally received complaints from women in the newsroom about the unwelcome come-ons of their male colleagues.
“I wouldn’t put up with that, and I would bring the guys into my office and say, ‘OK, here’s the deal. Either cut this out or there are going to be consequences,’” McGinnis recalls. “The younger women would come to me and complain, and the guy would say, ‘She should have a sense of humor. I was just being funny.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, let’s call your wife. Let’s see if she thinks it’s funny, and if she does, then I’ll back off.’”
None of the men took McGinnis up on her offer.
On the flip side, however, McGinnis says many women are still reluctant to register complaints, especially about a boss, lest they be stigmatized as troublemakers and harm their careers.
“The fear is that they get a reputation of ‘Watch out! She’s going to sue!’’’ McGinnis says. “So it’s ‘Let’s not tell anybody, because if I do, then I’ll be doubly victimized and I’ll become like a pariah. Nobody wants to hire me and I’m only 30 years old.’”
Both McGinnis and West note that then-CBS News President Andrew Heyward installed not only them but a number of other women in executive positions of authority.
“When I arrived at CBS as a segment producer in 1981,” Heyward recalls, “there was still a macho culture that came out of World War II and Vietnam that permeated the newsroom…I was shocked at the overt sexism and homophobia in the office from the reporters and the crews. It was totally a heterosexual man’s world.”
Heyward recalls that the women who thrived in that forbidding environment years ago were compelled to adopt various coping mechanisms that were manifested in different personas—which ranged from soft-spoken “nice girl” to foul-mouthed “one of the boys.”
“I remember there were two women producers who shared an office,” Heyward recalls, “and on their bulletin board, they’d put up a squirt gun shaped like a penis and over that, they posted a headline from the New York Post about a coming snow storm: ’12 INCHES ON THE WAY.’ One of the male producers came to me and said, ‘If I’d done something like that, I’d be fired.’”
Heyward, however, says the history of television news is hardly unique in this regard. “Like a lot of fields—Wall Street, the legal profession—the men were in charge for a really long time. This happens to be the TV news business, which is very heavily written about. You’re not writing about the accounting business, but I guarantee you, there are also pigs at the major accounting firms.”
While television’s workplace culture has gradually changed, Heyward argues, “Roger Ailes was a throwback to a different time.”
Betsy West, however, says, “Certainly he isn’t alone. There has been a slow evolution in the TV news business for people to recognize out-and-out harassment. General locker-room behavior that used to be the norm isn’t acceptable anymore. And Ailes’s swift departure from Fox is a sea change and potentially a turning point in how these cases are handled.”