On Sunday, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota said that Roger Ailes sexually harassed her. Coming on the heels of Bill O’Reilly’s exodus from Fox News, this was the latest in a long string of allegations about powerful men at the highly rated cable network. More and more, it is becoming clear to everyone that the outlet had a pretty pervasive culture problem. And I am reminded of something that I haven’t written or spoken about publicly for almost seven years.
No, I wasn’t sexually harassed by Roger Ailes, nor was I even ever an employee. Although my story can in no way be compared to the sexual harassment that others have allegedly endured, my experience may help illuminate a corporate culture that was highly competitive, humiliating, and unforgiving.
In September 2010, I was approached by a Fox News public relations employee who pitched me on the idea of writing a column praising the news outlet for refusing to broadcast the burning of a Koran by pastor Terry Jones—and to criticize other outlets for not taking this same prudent stance.
In the intervening time between receiving the pitch and hitting “publish” on my column, CNN followed suit. Not seeing the Fox PR department as my assignment editor—but still seeing the idea they pitched me as legitimate—I took it upon myself to write a piece that praised both outlets for doing the right thing. In a column titled “Fox News, CNN Made Right Decision on Koran Coverage” at the now-defunct AOL’s Politics Daily, I wrote that “Fox News deserves kudos for its leadership and journalistic judgment, and CNN also deserves praise for ultimately coming down on the right side of this decision.”
Instead of my Fox PR contact being pleased—or even appeased—she became irate. “Why is CNN being praised in the headline with FOX?” she emailed. “Are you kidding? The point is that they are COWARDS and were wishywashy (sic) the whole time and couldn’t make a clear stance. Where is that in your piece? Yet, you are giving them praise in the headline and suggesting they made the SAME CALL AS FOX?”
There was more, including a unilateral “NOT FOR PUBLICATION” demand that I never consented to. (Yes, the caps are all hers—and yes, I did read that as her yelling at me.)
It never occurred to me that Fox wouldn’t be satiated with a pat on the back; I later found out that the primary goal was for me to attack CNN. (Disclosure: As of 2016, I have served as a contributor at CNN; I have never shared this story with them.)
My response was ill-advised and not terribly diplomatic: “If you’re looking for someone who will just post tour (sic) talking points,” I wrote, “I’m not your guy. Happy to be pitched ideas, but ultimately, I have to blog things the way I see them.”
She wanted me to call her, and I should have. Instead, I fired off that email. But it never occurred to me that the relationships I had accrued with Fox News “on-air” talent—as well as producers (on at least one occasion, bailing them out at the last minute when another guest didn’t show)—would be superseded by a tiff with the public relations department. Heck, in hindsight, the hosts and producers were probably more terrified of Ailes’s PR machine than I was.
The interesting thing about being blacklisted is that, apparently, they don’t tell the producers. Bookers would still contact me and invite me on a show, but within a few hours, they would cancel. (Everyone who does TV knows that sometimes you get bumped. This happens to everybody. But this happened at least a dozen consecutive times before they stopped calling altogether.)
Here’s the thing. It didn’t kill my career. Roger Ailes never met me, much less hit on me. My life has turned out amazingly well—better than had I been on the conservative Fox News track. This was a sort of blessing in disguise.
But seven years ago, this felt like a very big deal. If you are a young(ish) conservative-leaning writer who aspires to bigger and better things, being shut out of Fox News is what you might call a career-limiting obstacle.
And think about the lesson that I was being taught. An example was being made of me (and I have no doubt that this exact story applies to numerous others), and the example was that you could either play ball with Fox News—or you could suffer the consequences.
The good news is that bans are rarely permanent, and I was eventually able to be rehabilitated, a bit—but mainly after hosts I had solid relationships with at other outlets moved to the network and brought me on their shows.
I want to be clear, there are a lot of terrific people at Fox News. It seems like they are doing everything right now to rid themselves of what was clearly a toxic corporate culture and to replace bad actors. My hope is that they get their house in order.
But my point is that sexual harassment allegations are only one part of a toxic culture that Ailes cultivated. It was a culture of intimidation, which helps explain why nobody wanted to come forward until Gretchen Carlson—by then, gone from the network—came forward.
It was a culture that said Fox owned you. It was a culture that wasn’t happy just promoting itself—it had to vanquish its enemies. It was much more akin to the zero-sum game that is played in campaign politics than the media business.
Ailes, perhaps having picked something up from Richard Nixon, created an environment that wasn’t content merely with winning. They also had to vanquish the competition. But to paraphrase what Nixon said in his farewell address to the staff, “and then, you destroy yourself.”
And that, he did.