Roger Ailes Sexually Harassed Me. I Thought I Was The First and Last
Shelley Ross writes exclusively on resisting Roger Ailes’s invitation to have a ‘sexual alliance,’ TV news’ epidemic of sexual harassment, and how to solve it.
I landed my first job in network television in the spring of 1981.
Johnny Carson had just taken The Tonight Show from 90 minutes to one hour and given the extra 30 minutes to the show that followed. The Tomorrow Show, as it was called, was renamed The Tomorrow Show Coast to Coast starring Tom Snyder—and it was a hot mess.
NBC executives had brought in a studio audience and turned a once-intimate talk show known for revealing interviews with the likes of John Lennon and Alfred Hitchcock into a variety show with brassy gossip queen Rona Barrett as the co-host in L.A.
Tom Snyder was miserable, Rona Barrett was worse and, as the story goes, the NBC suits sat around 30 Rock trying to think of the toughest person who could control their unruly anchors who they believed were acting like petulant children. It didn’t help that The Tomorrow Show’s executive producer was Snyder’s live-in girlfriend. She would be the first casualty.
“What about that S.O.B. who used to produce Mike Douglas?” one executive proposed. Everyone knew who it was, but no one could remember anything but his nickname: “The Nazi.” Eventually they tracked down Roger Ailes at his political consulting firm and hired him. I had recently moved to Los Angeles from Florida, where I’d worked for the National Enquirer and the Miami Herald among other papers, and breaking into television had been a struggle. After knocking on doors for six months, my first big break came in the form of an ABC one-hour special hosted by David Frost that was designed to be the “60 Minutes” of the entertainment business.
ABC gave it the enviable time slot as the lead in to the Academy Awards which, back then, guaranteed about 70 million viewers and I would be attached to the series if it was successful.
Then this happened on the day of air, March 30, 1981: John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan, the Academy Awards were postponed, all network news divisions went to live special events programming—except for ABC which aired our pilot against footage of James Brady lying on the sidewalk. It was a horrific night all around.
Needless to say, the David Frost special was not picked up. Then, destroying most job prospects, the Writers Guild went on strike over revenue streams from pay TV. The industry was going to shut down for months.
So I jumped at the opportunity to meet with Roger Ailes to discuss a New York-based job with The Tomorrow Show.
Relocating to New York was a decision that weighed heavily but I realized I had few options other than to sublet my life and ride out the strike with a secure job. At the end of our meeting, where he said he believed I had “flashes of brilliance,” Roger Ailes offered me a position as a segment producer and told me to contact the business affairs department at NBC.
I somehow persuaded entertainment lawyer Judith Dornstein to take a reduced fee to look over the contractual boilerplate NBC was offering $45,000-a-year segment producers. Later that night, I called Roger to officially accept the job and he invited me to lunch the next day.
Only this meeting would be different. I can’t remember the restaurant, but I can recall every bit of the conversation as if it was on videotape.
“When did you first discover you were sexy?” Roger began. My head suddenly dropped like a marionette and I could no longer make eye contact.
I could only manage to stare at my feet as I answered, “I am finding this conversation very embarrassing.”
I thought and hoped that would be it. He sent his signal. I sent mine back, I believed clear enough but allowing for no hurt feelings or bruised ego. Maybe he would try one more line—then, incident over. But that’s not what happened.
Roger was very persistent as he continued to explain how much he believed in loyalty and how much he believed the best expression of that loyalty comes in the form of a “sexual alliance.”
This was not a romantic or flirtatious conversation. “Predatory” is not quite accurate either. Roger expressed a true philosophical conviction that this would be mutually beneficial for us both, that he was looking for a partnership and it was somewhat special that he had chosen me. So perhaps “cultish” needs to be in the mix.
Whatever it was, I now suspect that this is the job I turned down a decade before Laurie Luhn came along. More on her in a minute.
Later that night after our lunch, as he suggested, I phoned Roger and tried to carefully negotiate my way around his proposition. “But I’d never date a boss, and besides, we hardly know each other. We don’t know if we’d even like each other outside of the work environment,” I said.
“Oh, if it’s time you need, just say so.”
“Come on, Roger, how would that work, you’d come into my office once a week, once a month and say ‘Are you ready yet?’”
He laughed at my scenario, then at some point suggested I hold off with business affairs.
This unnerved me greatly. Why couldn’t I deflect this? I took a Valium and crumpled under the covers. I had already laid the groundwork to sublet my L.A. apartment, arrange for someone to look after my car, and worst of all, I had announced to my friends and family I was moving to New York to work for The Tomorrow Show.
Well, maybe I wasn’t the gutsy, fearlessly independent or savvy girl I thought I was. I’d traveled around the world on assignments, been an editor at age 24 and a property owner by 25. Without any family financial support and, again, the industry strike, I felt truly vulnerable for the first time. Sometimes I think it’s the law of the jungle; we must emit a scent.
The next morning, I phoned Judith Dornstein to tell her not to bother having any further conversations with business affairs. She went directly to her boss, the senior partner in the firm who phoned me, outraged. He said he would fix it and everything that happened next happened without my instructions or authorization.
The senior partner was Henry Bushkin, who had been Johnny Carson’s lawyer for years. The clout he wielded at NBC was incalculable.
He phoned the NBC network lawyer, Mickey Rudin, who was better known as Frank Sinatra’s attorney. Rudin phoned Ed “The Hook” Hookstratten, who was Tom Snyder’s attorney. They all made a conference call to Roger Ailes, then back in his 30 Rock corner office.
Hookstratten began, “Roger, we’re calling because you have a little ‘boy-girl’ problem that’s come to our attention.” He proceeded to lay out the details. “Hey, I’m single,” Roger protested. I suspect the three attorneys then proceeded to explain why his marital status didn’t matter.
I don’t know what else was discussed, but after that conference call, Roger’s goal was now to convince me to take the job.
The next day I was flown first class to New York to speak with Roger again. It was intimidating for sure and I no longer wanted to move cross-country under these circumstances. I thought I would look him in the eye and at least say, “You don’t treat women in the workplace like this.”
When I arrived at his office I had to throw out the script I had rehearsed in my mind during the flight. Before me was a man, no longer larger-than-life, who was falling on his sword.
“Please forgive me, forgive me, this must be middle age craziness. I can’t believe what I did, how I spoke to you. Please come to work for me and you can be assured there’s one problem we’ll never have. You still are the best candidate for the job.”
We spoke at length and even though I knew he had three high-powered attorneys with a gun to his head, I believed he was genuinely sorry.
Three weeks after accepting the job at The Tomorrow Show, Roger and I traveled with Tom Snyder and an NBC crew to California State Medical facility at Vacaville where I had convinced Charles Manson to give his first ever televised interview. The interview would triple the average ratings of the show (6.9 vs. 22.2 million).
So back to Roger’s expression “sexual alliance.” I hope this is not the phrase that’s pulled into the headlines just because it sounds creepy enough to go viral. There’s a lot more to this story and a lot more to Roger Ailes—who cannot be painted with one simple brushstroke.
Sexual harassment in network (and cable) television has prevailed for decades. It has many faces, genders, and legions of enablers. No one has yet nailed the pervasiveness, the bigotry, the diminishing and oppression of over half the population in the workplace. No one has nailed the ideas lost, the creativity missing, the damage done.
As far as I know, the term “sexual harassment” was coined at Cornell University in 1975, as I was getting my start in journalism. At the National Enquirer in the late 1970s, I was more of a curiosity and mascot than an object of sexual harassment—a kid sister to a great bunch of British guys who were quick to offer “Fleet Street” advice: “If you want to get a story, don’t use the telephone. You've got to be a door knocker. When they open the door, put your foot next to the door jamb so they can’t close the door and you can keep pitching.”
But I also recall attending a Fourth of July picnic in 1977, wearing a summer dress with my hair and makeup done. Suddenly, I was picked up off the ground, whirled around and thrown into a muddy pond by a staff photographer.
I didn’t realize until years later that was a hostile act for which I had to go along to get along, show I was a good sport. I doubt if the photographer understood it was a hostile act either; we were friends.
Ten years after my fateful lunch with Roger, the vague concept of sexual harassment in the workplace finally vaulted into a national dialogue. In October 1991 Diane Sawyer and I watched a 35-year-old law professor, Anita Hill, testify live under oath before the Senate Judiciary hearing that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.
Hill immediately found herself under attack by an all-white male committee, one senator suggesting she had a psychiatric condition in which a woman fantasizes a powerful man is in love with her. Others battered her over her decision to work for him at a second job regardless of the harassment.
I understood the reason women work with their harassers. Why should we pass up career opportunities? At the time a few of us swapped stories around the office. We were angry at how Anita Hill was treated and I wound up producing for ABC News’ Primetime Live what became the network’s first series of stories about sexual harassment.
Ironically, Sam Donaldson was my anchor for three important stories. He acknowledged privately to me that he had spent his early years in the newsroom snapping women’s bra straps like an eighth grader.
A self-proclaimed reformed sexist, he now had his own adult daughter and a young wife working in news as we set out together to crisscross the country and tell the story of “Tailhook,” the annual Navy party where, in 1991, 26 women, including an Admiral’s aide, were egregiously harassed, sent down a gauntlet to be groped and assaulted by Navy and Marine Corps pilots.
The day after our in-depth story aired, President George H.W. Bush accepted the resignation of his secretary of the Navy.
Now we were on a mission. Our next story together tackled rape in the Navy and how typically women who reported sex assaults were “processed out,” sent back home to their families, while their perps stayed on, business as usual. Sam and I succeeded in raising awareness and getting the Navy to drop a questionnaire they had been giving women nick-named, “Were You Really Raped?”
After that, we told the story of two guys in the Marine Corps who were hazed after making the cut for the elite silent drill team. The way the team celebrated new members? They were stripped naked, hands and feet duct taped, and genitals painted with a military boot polish that contained toluene, a toxic chemical that burns the skin and is not water soluble.
They were then sent down a gauntlet where fellow team members wearing gas masks as they doused them with a human waste/dead mouse mixture that had been baking in the sun since their arrival for training five months earlier.
The hazing story was a tough sell at first to Rick Kaplan, then the executive producer of Primetime Live, who likened it to hazing in his college fraternity. Even Sam Donaldson, who had attended military school in his youth, spoke of the merits of hazing rituals and the bonding that occurs after.
I argued that just like women, men had the right to serve their country without unwanted touching of their genitals. My argument was helped as the entire event, their unforgettable screams, were captured on videotape. After that story aired, the Marine Corps instituted its first ever anti-hazing policy.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up against sexual harassment. There are career consequences for both women and men. Much of the time, harassment has too many faces to even recognize when it is happening. Whisper campaigns, false accusations, holding women executives to impossible standards not expected of men.
Fast forward to April 1993, when I was called into a veteran producer’s office where he, surrounded by his senior producers, presented me with a birthday cake with a penis on top.
I was just as embarrassed as one of the seniors present, Betsy West, who had suffered the same indignity 17 years earlier during her first job in radio. How did no one tell the boss this was a bad idea? Why has no one has told executive producers that young girls on staff don’t want a morning hug or an invitation to a rock concert with the boss.
Why didn’t anyone intervene when it was clear that David Letterman gave special favors to the many staffers he had sex with. And who else knew—or should have known the stories now coming out of Fox News?
My point: You can’t just have one villain, not even Roger Ailes. For 30 years I have witnessed a pervasive culture populated by more than a few morally repugnant executives and those who kept their jobs by not making waves around them.
Days after I was officially transferred to ABC’s entertainment division from news where I had served as executive producer of Primetime Live, I was just about sexually harassed out the door.
I had joined some colleagues for a drink nearby the Columbus Avenue offices, when a member of the Primetime team arrived and headed in my direction. As he got close, he gave me a big bear hug, his right hand lowering to grab and squeeze the right half of my buttocks.
“I can do this now that you’re no longer my boss,” he said. “No you can’t,” I said as I stepped back from his grip, revealing my 6-foot-4 tall husband, David, who had been seated behind me on a low ottoman. David now stood up in my defense and stepped in to the “greeting.”
Incredibly, this was just days after the front page arrest of Christian Slater for, as police described it, “basically grabbing a woman’s behind on the street.” Allegedly intoxicated, Slater was handcuffed and held on charges of third degree sexual abuse at the 19th Precinct in Manhattan. My Primetime harasser later wrote a note to my husband apologizing for his behavior.
Now I am not trying to serve as the morality police. I hate that we can no longer feel safe complimenting each other, but that’s a small price to pay.
Plenty of people do meet and fall in love in the workplace. Some get married, others awkwardly move on. It becomes different when the romance involves the boss—like Disney’s Bob Iger, ABC News’ David Westin, and CBS’ Les Moonves who all married their subordinates, as did Roger Ailes.
Fifteen years after working together, Roger, the very successful head of Fox News, and I, then executive producer of Good Morning America, were seated along with other media captains at a table for lunch with first lady Laura Bush.
We had both come a long way. For the next years, Roger and I continued occasional lunches on our own, talking about politics and our lives. He spoke a lot about his young son Zach and wondered if he should step back from Fox to capture the few years they had together before college. “He doesn’t need Mr. Mom,” I offered.
Meanwhile Roger cheered each of my promotions, then consoled me when I was pushed out of my executive suite at ABC News after 17 great years.
During the summer of 2012, Roger phoned me to say he was recommending me for a big job—to run CNN. (The job went to Jeff Zucker who then quickly took over the job of the man who hired him.) That same year, when Roger learned I was battling cancer, he sent me a giant basket from Rao’s containing six pastas and six different sauces.
He enclosed a personal note to my husband that if he (Roger) could figure out how to cook the contents of the package, so could David. We had not worked together in 31 years. It is difficult to reconcile the two Rogers.
You only have to look at most of the women on air at Fox to believe they are, at least, partners in their own objectification. Although Roger was forced to resign in the wake of an internal investigation of harassment, he has denied any misconduct or wrongdoing.
Women continue to step forward, some using their real names like Laurie Luhn the former Fox News booker and event planner who ultimately left the company with a reported $3.15 million in corporate hush money.
She says that for 20 years, she serviced Roger sexually and arranged closed-door meetings between Roger and young female staffers in return for career advancement and a generous salary. While Roger walked away with a reported $40+ million severance, she says she wound up in a mental hospital after trying to commit suicide.
I’m not trying to pile on, nor do I know what really happened to anyone but me. I don’t really want to hear details or denials anymore. After watching, dodging, and experiencing sexual harassment for 30 years, I just want it to end. Corporate sexual harassment videos and seminars haven’t made a dent.
So what is the answer?
My big idea is to have something in every workplace akin to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions after the official end of apartheid in 1994.
Back then, in the immediate aftermath of apartheid, those who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements and even speak publicly about their experiences. Their perpetrators were also invited to give testimony and given a chance to request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.
Many believe these hearings served as a critical step in the delicate transition to a free South Africa.
I am not, of course, suggesting that workplace sexual harassment is the equivalent, morally or otherwise, of the violence, death, imprisonment, torture, and other abuses perpetrated by the white regime on black South Africans.
But surely the brilliant mechanism established by Nelson Mandela to achieve a semblance of justice and forgiveness in his newly reborn country could have a wider application.
This bold way forward is, admittedly, an ambitious template to fulfill a similar promise in the American workplace. But it’s clear that executives have failed to police their own staffs, as have human resources departments.
We know they work to keep the company out of trouble by offering settlements and having victims sign non-disclosure contracts, while in too many cases the perpetrators and enablers are never asked to acknowledge misbehavior.
Fox News should take the lead in a kind of sexual harassment Truth and Reconciliation project. I’ll help organize it.
It would be offered as the one chance in a lifetime to let all victims at Fox News tell their stories, either in writing or on tape, without coming under attack. At the same time, it would give perpetrators and enablers an opportunity to confess and seek forgiveness without retribution.
Sexual harassment is a national disgrace. You don’t have to be held by the temples to be demeaned and displaced. Only a project like this could teach what sexual harassment really looks like, really feels like, and give the perpetrators and enablers an opportunity to get an education and fresh start at once.