The Stench of Roger Ailes Still Clings to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott
The top Fox News boss has yet to face accountability for her role in enforcing Ailes’ legacy of paranoia and sexism, current and former staffers say.
She started out as a lowly assistant to Chet Collier, Roger Ailes’ best friend and second-in-command. Longtime Fox News staffers recall that she sat between Collier’s and Ailes’ private offices in the executive suite on the second floor of News Corp’s Manhattan headquarters, frequently fielding Ailes’ incoming phone calls.
A quarter-century later, however, Scott and her defenders are keen to argue that she was never a member of the inner circle. Scott herself has denied complicity in, much less knowledge of, the sexual misconduct of the late Fox News founder, never mind the other Fox News executives and personalities cited in a dozen lawsuits that the publicly traded company has paid more than $100 million to settle with victims and shareholders.
In recent days, however, more than a dozen women—both current and former Fox News staffers, working on-camera and behind the scenes—told The Daily Beast that Scott has yet to be held accountable for her role over the years as a longtime Ailes lieutenant in allegedly facilitating a corporate culture of sexual misconduct, objectification of women, and surveillance.
But unlike the pugnacious Ailes—whose larger-than-life, cartoon-villain persona has so far inspired multiple books and a documentary, a Showtime dramatic series, and a feature film—Scott barely has a public profile. Although she has been cited by name or as a defendant in multiple lawsuits from former Fox News women, Scott has been surprisingly successful at avoiding the spotlight.
She carefully controls her encounters with non-Fox News journalists—she declined to speak to The Daily Beast for this story—despite her leadership of perhaps the most scrutinized media organization on the planet as a female trailblazer in what remains a male-dominated industry. Understandably, there is relentless public interest in her performance. Yet her engagement with the press has largely been confined to trade publications and media power lists.
An April 2019 Los Angeles Times story credulously credited Scott for being “an agent of change for the company’s workplace culture” and “eradicat[ing] the memory of Ailes by overseeing a massive renovation of the entire second floor where his corporate lair was located.”
The timing of Scott’s interview was notable. In late December 2018—three months before the Times story was published, and seven months into her reign as CEO—the New York City Commission on Human Rights had already launched a wide-ranging investigation of potential abuses in Fox News’ workplace culture. The commission is charged with enforcing city codes and prosecuting violations. A commission spokesperson, confirming the probe to The Daily Beast on Monday evening, said the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations.
“I have never had any issues with any sort of harassment myself… I felt devastated for the women who work here. I wanted to do everything I could to heal this place,” Scott told the Los Angeles Times. “I had no clue on what was going on in Roger Ailes’ office.”
His victims tell a different story, however. “I can’t say that she was aware of all that Roger did, because so much of his bad behavior was behind closed doors,” said one of Ailes’ sexual-harassment victims, a longtime on-air personality who asked not to be further identified. “But she was certainly aware of some of what Roger did, and she was complicit in and enabling of that behavior.”
“It’s a total sham she’s there on behalf of women,” said a second former Fox News anchor. “If she had turned things around there, you wouldn’t have new sexual-harassment cases and probably more we don’t even know about because of arbitration clauses”—a common feature in Fox News contracts requiring employees to settle workplace complaints in secret arbitration proceedings rather than publicly filed lawsuits.
“Scott was definitely part of the Ailes club,” said this former anchor. That perception is widely shared by Fox News veterans who asked not to be named in this story because of strict non-disclosure agreements that prohibit them from speaking about their years at the cable channel. “I never saw her stray from how he did business. She carried out all of his directives of retaliation.”
Scott has been in the top job only since May 2018. In just the past year, however, Fox News Media has been the target of at least three sexual-harassment, misconduct, and retaliation lawsuits. In some cases under Scott’s leadership, the women who complained—such as Fox Nation contributor Britt McHenry—have been sidelined and kept off-camera while their alleged harassers (in McHenry’s case, her former Fox Nation co-host Tyrus) continue to thrive on the air.
In an email to The Daily Beast, a Fox News spokesperson defended Scott’s record and claimed she has repaired the toxic Ailes-era workplace culture: “As a result of Suzanne Scott’s extraordinary leadership, the Fox News Media business is stronger than ever, delivering record ratings, revenue and growth at a time when many of our colleagues in cable have experienced declines. Furthermore, her commitment to transforming the company culture has ushered in an inclusive, open and transparent workplace, fostering unprecedented collaboration and innovation. Any other CEO with the track record of Ms. Scott would be celebrated as her accomplishments are unrivaled in the industry.”
Prominent labor lawyer Nancy Erika Smith, who has sued the right-leaning cable channel on behalf of several clients including Gretchen Carlson and Diana Falzone, a co-author of this story, acidly dismissed those claims. “One need only watch Fox News,” Smith said, “to know that it’s still a culture full of misogyny, sexism, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia—just like it was when Roger Ailes was there.”
Beyond trying to distance herself and Fox News from an ugly legacy, Scott is facing other challenges in the aftermath of a presidential election that saw a once-marginal television player, Newsmax, actually beat Fox News’ 7 p.m. Nielsen numbers one night this month in the advertising-friendly 25-54 age demographic.
This past Wednesday, CNN claimed victory in breaking Fox’s 75-quarter, 19-year-long “total day” winning streak in the coveted demo as the top cable news network in the fourth quarter of 2020 so far. While Fox News disputes CNN’s press release, that’s a decidedly unwelcome development, even though Fox remains No. 1 for the full year and, with an estimated $1.4 billion in 2020 ad revenue alone, the enormously profitable cash cow of parent company Fox Corp., Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch’s media empire.
“The big story,” Newsmax majority owner Christopher Ruddy claimed, “is why we will overtake Fox News quicker than anyone imagined.” That seems implausible, given that his channel’s gains have depended on a transitory advantage: Newsmax’s promotion of bogus conspiracy theories concerning Donald Trump’s loss to President-elect Joe Biden. Newsmax, however, is giving serious heartburn to the Fox Business Network, which is also part of Suzanne Scott’s executive responsibility.
Scott’s ascent up the corporate ziggurat has seemingly been uninterrupted by the usual obstacles. A decade after she arrived at Fox, she was high up in the chain of command as the right hand to Executive Vice President Bill Shine, Ailes’ top deputy, who oversaw the channel’s profitable opinion programming that included Fox & Friends and prime-time stars Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Shine’s close friend.
“It was unsettling to many of the vice presidents and other Fox management that witnessed Suzanne’s raw exercise of power,” said former Fox News staffer Laurie Luhn, one of Ailes’ alleged sexual misconduct victims who was a colleague of Scott’s more than a decade ago. “She handled everything. She knew everybody’s salary, when you were going to get a raise. She did whatever Roger said, like a good soldier… You didn’t get power unless Roger gave you power.”
Yet Scott apparently is eager to airbrush Ailes not only from Fox News’ past but also from her own personal history. During an admiring June 2020 interview with Adweek, Scott cited Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, the late Chet Collier, and even her late mother as career-shaping mentors, but she failed even to acknowledge Ailes, with whom she had spent countless hours.
A former Fox News executive told The Daily Beast: “She and Bill were there every day at the top of Roger’s administration.” This person said Ailes generally held a 9 a.m. meeting with executives and top producers “and then Bill and Suzanne would follow Roger down the hall for another, much smaller meeting.”
In one such meeting in Ailes’ office in February 2013, Scott sat silently as Ailes angrily heaped profanity and abuse on then-Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson, according to a Fox News staffer in whom Carlson confided minutes afterward.
“Roger was berating her, called her the C-word and said he couldn’t believe her husband could sleep with her because she thought she was perfect, and Suzanne Scott didn’t do a freaking thing. She sat there like a statue,” said the fellow Fox News employee. “Gretchen confided in me that she could not believe another woman would not stop him from talking to her like that. Suzanne never checked to see if Gretchen was OK.”
Scott apparently thought the meeting went well, according to the witness.
Citing the NDA she signed as part of the $20 million settlement of her July 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit that prompted Ailes’ exit in disgrace, Carlson said she can’t comment. A Fox News spokesperson said Scott has no recollection of the incident.
“That’s a lie that she didn’t know about Ailes and it’s a lie that she made changes there,” said a longtime Fox News anchor. “She knows she can give these quotes and they won’t be challenged because all of the women who were at Fox were silenced with NDAs.”
An exception is Laurie Luhn, Fox News’ former director of guest booking—a plum job Ailes gave her, she said, after years of sexually and psychologically abusing her. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Luhn described how Scott, in 2007, had allegedly acted as a “minder” on Ailes’ behalf, taking her to lunch to advise her whom not to trust and extract details about her life, allegedly to be reported back to Ailes, and ultimately checking her into New York’s Warwick Hotel for six weeks, under virtual house arrest, after Luhn suffered a mental breakdown.
Scott has repeatedly denied involvement in these matters.
“That’s amazing to me,” Luhn said about Scott’s denial, which contradicts Luhn’s account of being dropped off at the Warwick, along with her luggage, by Scott and a Fox News security employee in a company sedan. “She checked me in with her credit card, and for the six weeks they had me locked up practically at the Warwick Hotel, I had to answer to the name ‘Suzanne Scott’ and even when they brought room service, they’d say ‘Miss Scott.’ Seriously.”
Luhn, who acknowledged not having any credit card receipts to corroborate her account, said she had initially checked into the Doubletree Times Square, where, in her disturbed and fearful state, she felt she was being stalked. She said she phoned Ailes, who told her that he would send someone, followed up by a phone call from Scott, who showed up with car and driver.
According to Luhn, who lived in Washington, D.C., she had been summoned to Manhattan by Shine after Fox News executives heard a rumor—apparently erroneous—that The Wall Street Journal was working on a story unmasking her abusive relationship with Ailes. She said she was quickly removed as guest booking director and given a less prestigious job away from the news division, running special events. She said Ailes had spun disturbing conspiracy theories which she believed at the time, such as telling her that George Soros and Hillary Clinton had targeted her for assassination.
“I really did have a target on my back because of Roger, because of these rumors,” Luhn said.
But Scott might have been in a position to empathize with Luhn. Her claim to the Los Angeles Times that she personally never experienced sexual harassment is contradicted by a knowledgeable source who recalled that in the mid-1990s Scott had indeed been the target of workplace misconduct. Then known by her maiden name Suzanne Gunderson, she had been Chet Collier’s secretary at Ailes’ fledgling America’s Talking network (the precursor to MSNBC) and subsequently worked for Collier and Ailes at CNBC.
She briefly stayed on there after Ailes and the late Collier were purged by Ailes antagonist Robert Wright, the NBC chairman, and complained of being sexually harassed by the new CNBC chief, Bill Bolster, the source said. (Bolster, who died last year, was a famously boorish and bullying executive, even by television industry standards.)
The source said that after Scott rejoined Collier as his executive assistant for the launch of Fox News in 1996, Ailes had even encouraged her to sue CNBC; a Fox News spokesperson offered no comment.
Ailes, who was fond of awarding unflattering monikers—“The Dentist” for former CNN anchor Aaron Brown and “Puerto Rican whore” for former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle—also had a nickname for Scott: “Lady Macbeth.”
While Scott’s talents as a corporate politician are considerable (she outlasted such formidable Fox News executives as John Moody, Brian Lewis, Michael Clemente, Bill Shine, and Jay Wallace, a former co-equal of Scott’s who as president of Fox News now reports to her), Ailes’ nickname mocked her alleged ability to manipulate Shine into doing things he might otherwise resist.
Shine, who after Ailes’ abrupt firing was briefly co-president of Fox News and then the Trump White House communications director for eight months, didn’t respond to several emails seeking comment.
According to a knowledgeable Fox News insider, Scott was allegedly deft at feeding Ailes’ notorious paranoia when it suited her. In one instance, said this source, Scott told Ailes that she had spotted then-Fox News anchor Alisyn Camerota, who now hosts CNN’s morning show New Day, schmoozing with a CNN executive—and that afterward Ailes went cold on Camerota’s prospects as a rising star at Fox.
“Alisyn had an independent streak and that did not sit well with Roger. He also thought she was a ‘liberal,’” said the insider. “Suzanne knew Roger’s feelings about Alisyn and fed the flames whenever she could.”
Reached for comment, Camerota—a 16-year Fox News veteran who left for CNN in 2014—told The Daily Beast she was unaware of Scott’s alleged attempts to undermine her with Ailes.
“As far as I knew, to my face, Suzanne was nothing but supportive of my career,” Camerota said. “Roger never soured on me. He repeatedly tried to convince me to stay and promised me a prime slot, if only I would say what he demanded, meaning parroting right-wing, fact-free talking points.”
With Bill Shine and Suzanne Scott at his side, Ailes presided over a so-called “culture of fear” that extended to aggressive surveillance of employees’ emails and cell-phone text messages, seven Fox News veterans told The Daily Beast.
In one instance, a former Fox News anchor said she was summoned by Shine, who advised her against attending any hypothetical social gatherings at which CNN employees were likely to be present. The woman, shocked, immediately suspected that management had hacked into her company-issued cellphone, on which she had been texting arrangements for just such a gathering. She quickly canceled plans to attend.
“I remember asking IT how much was being monitored as I was often top-lining flirty stuff to someone I was dating,” said one Fox News veteran. “One of the IT guys said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s not what they’re looking for.’ They were looking for leaks or side-hustle business deals apparently…I remember a few people who got nailed for trying to sell Fox swag or video on the side and they would be pulled into a meeting and their entire personal email or text chains would be printed out and presented to them as evidence.”
A well-placed source said then-general counsel Dianne Brandi played a role in the surveillance operation. The former Fox executive’s participation in millions of dollars of questionable corporate payouts to silence sexual misconduct accusers reportedly brought her to the attention of federal investigators in the Southern District of New York. That investigation ended after Ailes’ death without indictments, and Scott has retained Brandi’s consulting services to negotiate talent contracts.
Asked if surveillance of employees’ private communications has continued, a Fox News spokesperson said that whatever may have occurred under Ailes, Dianne Brandi was not involved, and the spokesperson vehemently denied that any such activity is occurring under Scott.
Aside from separating Fox News from the sins of the past, Scott has a challenging and complex job description. Lachlan Murdoch named her to the position in May 2018 after two years of post-Ailes C-suite reshuffling—in part, say Fox News insiders, because of the favorable optics of putting a woman in charge. A Fox News spokesperson called that characterization of Scott’s promotion “grossly sexist.”
In October 2018, Variety’s “New Power of New York” list ranked Scott No. 11, and Murdoch contributed a tribute calling her “a key driver” of Fox News’ success due to her “vision and innovation.” Asked for the younger Murdoch’s current assessment of Scott, his PR team didn’t offer a comment.
On paper, Scott not only oversees the care and feeding of occasionally difficult on-air egos—she just re-upped Laura Ingraham to a multiyear contract—but also presides over Fox Business Network, the Fox Nation subscription streaming service, Fox News Digital, and Fox News Audio, while launching Fox News International (streaming Fox News and Fox Business video to subscribers in 30 countries), Fox News Books (in cooperation with the Murdochs’ HarperCollins publishers) and Fox Weather.
Talent representatives who deal regularly with Scott, meanwhile, praised her responsiveness, accessibility, and straightforward approach.
“She has always had an open door and while she doesn’t necessarily agree with me on everything, sometimes she does, and she never fails to hear me out,” said prominent Washington attorney and talent representative Robert Barnett, whose clients have included around 50 Fox News personalities. “Suzanne is smart and she knows her networks and her people and she knows the business in general. She’s got a very good sense of humor, and often when we do business we talk about a lot of other things like family and culture and movies. She’s a delightful, well-rounded person.”
In May 2018, when the younger Murdoch named her as Shine’s successor, “she came into the position under difficult circumstances,” Barnett said, citing Scott’s need to rebuild the programming schedule, especially in primetime, after the departures of franchise players such as Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Greta Van Susteren—for whom Scott had toiled as an associate producer 20 years ago. (Van Susteren declined to comment.)
“And she did a lot to change the culture,” Barnett insisted, noting that Scott promoted women to leadership positions behind the camera, such as naming her pal Lauren Petterson as president of Fox Business and Meade Cooper as executive vice president of primetime, while also giving The Five co-host Dana Perino, one of Barnett’s clients, her own show at 2 p.m.
The View co-host Meghan McCain, who was an on-air personality at Fox News from 2014 to 2018, told The Daily Beast: “When I first got to Fox, I was insecure about the fact that I’m not a stick, I’m not skinny at all, I’m a size 12,” McCain told The Daily Beast. “A lot of women on TV diet and lose weight, and I remember asking Suzanne, should I lose weight to be here? And she said, ‘We hired you for you, and we like originals here at Fox. And nobody should ever change a body to work here.’
“That was the first time a boss had ever said that to me and the best thing a boss ever said to me. I will never forget that,” McCain said.
McCain, the daughter of a powerful U.S. senator, was apparently spared the cold and judgmental critiques with which Scott regularly assessed female on-air talent.
“Her entire job was to reflect the vision of hotness Roger wanted,” said a former on-air personality. “If a skirt was too long, she would call and say to shorten it. If a hairstyle was wrong because Roger didn’t think it was hot, she would say change it. She enforced Roger’s and her vision of hotness. To say she is a female empowerment agent is a joke. Her job was to sexualize women and make them objects for viewers.”
Scott has denied that this was ever part of her job. Yet a second Fox News woman told The Daily Beast: “Suzanne was the one who would criticize what female talent wore and their appearance, and bad-mouthed female talent who chose to leave.”
In one instance, Scott ordered a stylist into the studio, mid-show, to demand that she remove her stockings, this person said. The stylist “walked up and felt my legs and asked why I had them on and to take them off… They were tan-colored hose. Rubbed my legs! In front of everyone. All the crew guys—during a commercial break. Really crazy. Awful.”
A third on-air woman told The Daily Beast: “She would tell us we didn’t look right. When I first started she said, ‘You’re not blond enough. When we signed you, you were very blond.’ She gave me the name of her colorist and told me to get my hair done. I wasn’t allowed to be on camera that night.”
This person added: “Every meeting I had with Bill Shine, Suzanne would be there… It was like if you went to a gynecologist’s office and someone else had to be in the room to avoid any problems…I wanted to win her over. I sensed she felt, ‘I have seen you a hundred times. You’re a dime a dozen.’ You wouldn’t win her over because she wasn’t friendly. She wasn’t going to be a friend. She wasn’t a pal.”
Another former Fox News anchor said Scott deflected whenever she complained about Ailes—who died of a subdural hematoma in May 2017, less than a year after his two-decade reign ended with Gretchen Carlson’s shocking lawsuit. In this person’s case, Ailes’ harassment was verbal, not physical, she said.
Once, when she wore a form-fitting dress with a zipper up the front, Ailes quipped: “I see that zipper on your dress and it’s giving me a lot of ideas.” Another time, Ailes—a man older than her father—told her: “I know you’re a dirty girl, right?” During a meeting in his office in 2016, Ailes declared, “I’m looking at your lips. They’re so kissable. I want to kiss those lips.”
“I don’t think I can do an adequate job of explaining how traumatic it is when the person who is responsible for determining your salary, your career prospects, your station at a company and in an industry—that person is harassing you and in charge of making all those decisions,” the former Fox News anchor said. “You really just feel like you’re at that person’s mercy. I just can’t tell you how much that messes with your head.”
Yet, she added, when she alerted Scott to Ailes’ creepy behavior, the reception was hardly sympathetic: “I can recall going to her office [and saying] I’m good at what I do and that’s just inappropriate and discriminatory, and I was being held back professionally, and she shot me a glance that said, ‘This is not something we are going to discuss, and not something you should bring up.’
“It was always made very clear...that she didn’t want to hear anything about it. She would quickly move on and say, ‘Well, anyway…’ Not once did Suzanne express concern or empathy. It was clear that Roger’s harassment was my problem and my problem alone.”
—Diana Falzone was an on-camera and digital reporter for FoxNews.com from 2012 to 2018. In May 2017, she filed a gender discrimination and disability lawsuit against the network and settled, and left the company in March 2018.