Despite Fox News’ claims to have repaired the company’s toxic workplace culture since the firing of founder and chairman Roger Ailes in July 2016, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has effectively admitted to ongoing misconduct that includes sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation against victimized employees, and has agreed to pay a million-dollar fine for what New York City’s Commission on Human Rights called “a pattern of violating of the NYC Human Rights Law.”
The settlement agreement, reached last week with the human rights commission, contains the largest-ever financial penalty assessed in the agency’s six-decade history, and also requires Fox News to remove mandatory confidential arbitration clauses from the contracts of on-air talent along with other employees and contributors for a period of four years when they file legal claims under the city’s human-rights law outside of the company’s internal process.
It “also demands immediate changes to policies surrounding reporting sexual harassment, retaliation, training, and compliance with the NYC Human Rights Law,” according to a statement from the commission, which added: “The Commission will monitor the network on a quarterly basis for a period of 2 years to ensure compliance.”
Among the policy changes required by the Commission, the network has agreed to provide all employees with a clear definition of “retaliation” and training for bystanders to intervene in incidents and to properly report any witnessed misconduct.
Labor lawyer Nancy Erika Smith, who represented former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson in the sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit that cost Ailes his job (and won Carlson a $20 million settlement from Fox News’ parent company 21st Century Fox), called the right-leaning cable channel’s settlement agreement, especially its admission of guilt, “monumental.”
Until now, “I’m not aware of any government agency requiring an employer to stop silencing victims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and that’s what NDAs and arbitration do—they silence victims,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “So bravo! Finally! The government is seeing that silencing victims protects harassers.”
Smith, who expressed disappointment that the anti-mandatory arbitration provision lasts only for four years and not permanently, said Fox News’ settlement agreement belies the claim of Ailes protege Suzanne Scott, since May 2018 the chief executive of Fox News Media, that—as Scott told The Los Angeles Times in April 2019—she was working hard to change the corporate culture that treated secret 7-figure and 8-figure payouts to the harassment victims of not only Ailes but also of fired star anchor Bill O’Reilly as the cost of doing business.
“I felt devastated for the women who work here,” Scott told the Los Angeles Times. “I wanted to do everything I could to heal this place.”
“Suzanne Scott has always been instrumental since the beginning of Fox News in a culture founded on misogyny and enabling harassment, discrimination, and retaliation,” Smith said. “So anybody who thought she changed it in any way is extremely naive or uninformed.”
Noting that the claims considered by the commission predated Scott’s promotion to CEO after her decades as a Fox News executive, a different Fox executive fired back, “These are legacy matters and our cooperation and resolution reflects Suzanne’s commitment to a culture of compliance.”
Concerning the settlement agreement, a Fox News spokesperson emailed The Daily Beast: “We are pleased to reach an amicable resolution of this legacy matter. FOX News Media has already been in full compliance across the board, but cooperated with the New York City Commission on Human Rights to continue enacting extensive preventive measures against all forms of discrimination and harassment.”
The Commission said Fox News’ million-dollar civil penalty was based on the maximum fine of $250,000 for each of four violations cited in the settlement agreement—“a figure reserved for willful and wanton violations of the law.” The statement added, “The Commission ascertained that a pattern and practice of violations took place at Fox.”
The Commission said it began its investigation of Fox News in July 2016 amid the bombshell news accounts of Ailes’ workplace sexual misconduct with female employees in the aftermath of Carlson’s lawsuit. Ailes, who left the network with a $40-million severance package and briefly advised the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, died less than a year later, at age 77, in May 2017. The Commission ultimately filed its formal complaint against Fox in December 2018.
“FOX News Media has worked tirelessly to completely change the company culture over the last five years. Under the leadership of CEO Suzanne Scott, the network has implemented annual, mandatory in-person harassment prevention training, created an entirely new reporting structure, more than tripled the size of our HR footprint, started quarterly company meetings and mentoring events, as well as implemented a zero-tolerance policy regarding workplace misconduct for which we engage outside independent firms to handle investigations,” the network added in a statement. “No other company has implemented such a comprehensive and continuous overhaul, which, notably, earned FOX News Media recognition as a 'Great Place to Work' for the first time in its existence, a testament to the many cultural changes that Ms. Scott has instituted during her tenure as CEO.”