Rudi Bakhtiar was a rising star at CNN in the spring of 2004, when a barrel-chested, overweight, balding man lumbered over to her amid the black-tie crush of the White House Correspondents Dinner at the Washington Hilton.
“He came up to me and said ‘You! You are amazing! If you ever want a job, come to me,’” Bakhtiar told The Daily Beast.
Bakhtiar, who was anchoring her own show at the time on CNN Headline News, recalled that she actually didn’t know who her admirer was—that is, until Philippe Reines, a top adviser to then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, clued her in: “That’s Roger Ailes. At least, if CNN kicks you out, you know where to go.”
Nearly two decades later, Bakhtiar is among a group of accomplished women who worked under Ailes at the Fox News Channel—in her case, only briefly—and received six-figure and seven-figure financial settlements tied to non-disclosure agreements, only to see their television careers implode after they complained that they’d been sexually harassed, or worse, by predatory men in positions of power at the right-leaning cable outlet.
Like former Fox News personality Juliet Huddy (who threatened to sue the network over sexual harassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly and then-Fox News Co-President Jack Abernethy), and liberal opinion contributors Julie Roginsky (who sued Fox News over Ailes’s alleged demands for sex in exchange for a spot on The Five) and Tamara Holder (who complained that she was sexually assaulted at work by a Fox News Latino executive), Bakhtiar has been unable to secure an on-camera TV job since being forced out of Fox News.
“It was a life-altering injustice,” Bakhtiar said about the circumstances that led to Ailes and his then-deputy, Bill Shine, firing her—with news chief John Moody later publicly demeaning her journalism chops—after she reported to Fox News’ HR department that incoming Washington Bureau Chief Brian Wilson had asked her for sex, and then retaliated when she didn’t comply. (Wilson has repeatedly denied Bakhtiar’s account of an “off-campus” meeting at Washington’s George Hotel, which was dramatized in the movie Bombshell.) “It broke me. It really broke me,” Bakhtiar added.
Tamara Holder, who reportedly received a more-than-$2.5-million settlement in early 2017 over her allegation that Fox News Latino Vice President Francisco Cortes had exposed himself and tried to force her to perform oral sex, returned to her hometown of Chicago and revived her career as an attorney when TV jobs were not forthcoming. (Cortes, who denied that he had sexually assaulted Holder, was fired as a result of her complaint.)
“To me it feels unfair,” Holder said about the experiences of the women who, like her, were once highly paid on-camera personalities but who now, apparently, are considered unhireable.
“I can’t speak for anyone but I’m willing to bet that none of us wanted to be kicked out by Fox, and none of us believed we would be shunned by other networks. But we were,” Holder tweeted this week as various news outlets, including The Daily Beast, reported that three months after Shepard Smith quit Fox News amid on-air skirmishes with his fellow anchors, both CNN and MSNBC are vying for his services when his six-month non-compete clause expires.
“So we had to pave new ways, which we have done with our heads held high… but still… we lost our TV jobs.”
Holder added: “Shep will most certainly get hired by another network—he’s an incredible journalist—after just 6 months away. Meanwhile, every single one of the women who left Fox because she stood up for herself is WITHOUT another job in TV.”
Ailes adversary Gretchen Carlson, who recently inked a deal with Blumhouse Television for an interview series—and, in partnership with Roginsky, is mounting a public campaign to invalidate employment non-disclosure agreements—is a notable exception. Megyn Kelly, whose testimony in Fox News’ independent investigation of Ailes, in response to Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit, played a critical role in his professional death, also found rewarding employment at NBC News before being forced out.
Huddy told The Daily Beast: “Initially, when I left Fox [in September 2016, after two decades at various Fox-owned television outlets] and all this news came out, I thought it would just take a little time to get a new TV job.”
For the past year—after months of unemployment—Huddy has been co-hosting an afternoon radio show on New York’s 770 WABC.
“I thought that collectively the women named in all these newspaper articles just needed to let the dust settle, because our faces were being blasted out to the world in connection with a salacious scandal,” she said. “So I understood that there needed to be a cooling-off period—maybe a few months.
“But when months turned into years, and neither I nor my former colleagues who left under similar circumstances were being hired in television—not for lack of wanting or trying—then it became painfully clear to me that the dust-settling theory was really off the mark,” Huddy added.
“Why haven’t I been hired? Did my talent leave when I left Fox? It didn’t make any sense to me for a long time. Basically, I have come to believe that the reason we’re not being hired… is the fact that despite being the ones who got screwed, we’re radioactive.”
Roginsky, a Democratic political consultant who was hired at Fox News by Ailes, agreed. “People don’t want quote-unquote troublemakers in their midst,” she told The Daily Beast. “Why invite in somebody who has a record of speaking up when they see workplace toxicity?
“That’s a terrible message to send to women,” Roginsky continued. “I cannot tell you the number of women at Fox who have told me that the reason they have not spoken up is because they saw what happened professionally to those who did—not just that they were not employed by Fox anymore but they were not able to be employed by any other network.”
Meanwhile, Roginsky pointed out, television agents are understandably reluctant to represent women who have filed lawsuits or otherwise complained because that might risk spooking network executives, damaging the prospects of other clients and decreasing their revenue from commissions.
“And more troublingly, as we know,” Roginsky continued, “the Fox News PR machine has a very good habit of leaking negative information about talent that they’re not happy with anymore… The perception was that they obviously have done something wrong, and the leaks to the press [were] that their ratings were low, that they weren’t hacking it, that they were lazy, they were alcoholics, they were drug addicts—all that stuff. That’s problematic too.”
Asked for comment, Fox News—which arguably has engaged less frequently in such tactics, famously catalogued by the late New York Times media columnist David Carr, since Ailes’s departure—offered no response.
Roginsky added: “A third very toxic issue is that all the women who filed a complaint that you don’t know about—because they had arbitration clauses—one day they were just gone, and people thought they were gone because their contracts expired. If you’re not working, it’s much, much, much harder for you to land at a different network.”
The end of Rudi Bakhtiar’s once-promising TV career was similarly unheralded; it wasn’t until July 2016, after the Ailes explosion, that the New York Times and New York magazine revealed the tawdry circumstances of her professional demise, and Bakhtiar risked financial ruin by violating her non-disclosure agreement. Fox News has yet to risk the negative publicity that would undoubtedly attend a lawsuit against her.
A year after Roger Ailes praised Bakhtiar at the White House Correspondents Dinner, CNN’s then-president, Jonathan Klein, eventually did let her go in 2005—because, she recalled, her bosses claimed she’d taken too much time off to care for her dying father. She ultimately found herself on a job interview in Ailes’ midtown Manhattan office.
The Fox News Chairman instructed the 5-foot-tall Bakhtiar to stand up so he could appraise her physique. “‘Really? Are you kidding, Roger? You really wanna see these little legs? Come on!’” Bakhtiar recalled teasing Ailes. “Is this what you do to women, Roger?’ He made remarks but he never touched me. I don’t think I was his type.”
Bakhtiar believed she knew how to handle Ailes because he reminded her of her own larger-than-life, politically incorrect father—an Iranian-born business executive, a summa cum laude math whiz with a master’s degree from UCLA, who shamelessly flirted with women, deploying an alpha-male swagger.
The Farsi-fluent Bakhtiar, who was born in Fresno, California, but grew up partly in Iran, initially received a six-month contributor’s deal from Fox News and in due course—after exclusive reporting from Tehran on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s newsmaking meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—was rewarded with a lucrative three-year contract, with the promise of a high-profile gig in the Fox News Washington bureau.
Then came her ill-fated encounter with Brian Wilson.
“I got a job offer right after that from Miami,” said Bakhtiar, who has spent the past several years working off-camera for Reuters and Voice of America, reporting from Iraq and Syria, and these days hosts a Farsi-language radio show in Los Angeles, where she’s living with, and caring for, her 72-year-old mother who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “It was a good offer. But the actual event was so tragic to me that I just chose not to go back on television.”
Bakhtiar went on: “It just seems unfair that we are victims and it’s like a scarlet letter.”