If you work at Fox News, you enabled Roger Ailes

Fox Real Time logo on Fox News Channel''

Fox Real Time logo on Fox News Channel” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For 20 years, Roger Ailes ruled over Fox News like a personal fiefdom. He was in control and everyone knew it. If you did not do as he wanted, you would soon find that you were no longer needed. Even if you were successful, he would get rid of you. Despite removing females hosts from successful shows, Ailes was never questioned by Rupert Murdoch about his behaviour. Despite complaints and lawsuits against him, the Fox News Human Resources managers never confronted him to stop his behaviour. Despite the stories[1], no one blew the whistle on Roger Ailes. Why?

We have HR policies but the powerful don’t follow them.

The company claims that it “observ[es] the rules of civility and mutual respect.”[2] Yet, we know that the many lawsuits, complaints, and stories show that this claim was a lie.[3] It was a pious fraud. As Roger Ailes strode the halls, he created a culture of fear, sexual harassment[4], and employee silence.[5] He benefitted from that culture and he encouraged it by those he promoted and those he demoted. So, how did it occur?

Sex sells. Stop being a prude. Grow up!

Let’s consider the obvious rationalisation. As Roger Ailes is quoted as saying, “television is a visual medium; comments about appearance are common because people watch television, they do not merely listen to it.”[6] On the surface, this makes sense in a sexist way. Sex sells. Women dressed in form fitting, revealing, and sexually appealing ways will attract viewers of a certain age and type. These viewers, in turn, will attract advertisers who wish to profit from them. In such an atmosphere, it is understandable that women will be marketed as a sexual commodity. One would suggest that Ailes defence is that he is simply stating the obvious. Yet, even as that it explains one problem; why the women treated as sexual objects and commodities, it raises the deeper more troubling question: Why was sexual harassment tolerated off the air?

If we sell women as sexual objects on air, we expect them to behave that way off the air.

Here we start to see that the sexual commodity defence, as suggested by Ailes, points to the deeper cultural problem within Fox News. If women on air, the on air talent, are sexual commodities, packaged, directed, and produced by Ailes, why not off air as well? It would be almost hypocritical, if we follow Ailes’s logic, to package and promote the women as sexual commodities, and then behave as if they are not sexual commodities when they are off the air. Moreover, he appeared to expect the women to follow his orders just as the men slavishly, like obedient puppy dogs cowed by a vicious owner, followed his.[7] The strong tell the weak what to do. The weak are expected to obey or leave. Only between equals is there justice and Fox News under Ailes did not work on that principle.

If the system lets me succeed, why should I rock the boat?

In their own way, the Fox News women accepted and participated in this culture. They accepted that they had to strip to their underwear as a group during the bi-annual “trunk shows”. If anything tells you that they are commodities it is that humiliating ritual. Men did not have to suffer the same indignity. Were men dressed to accentuate their physical attributes? Were any told to wear tight fitting trousers? No. We have no evidence that the men were subjected to such humiliation? Instead, the ritual reminds the Fox News women of their status. They are a commodity. They will have to compete for the best dresses. Moreover, a number of women, the on-air talent, supported Ailes publicly. They defended him against Gretchen Carlson’s comments until it emerged she had recording to prove her claims. In that light, we see women who either accepted what Ailes had done or were too frightened to disagree.

Why file a complaint if no one is listening?

The women also accepted this culture in the sense that complaints never reached any of the Murdochs. The Murdochs insisted they were unaware of Ailes behaviour until Gretchen Carlson complained to James Murdoch. The paucity of formal complaints despite the plethora of sexual harassment stories raises the question about employee voice. Was there was an institutional silence in which employees did not pass such bad news upwards? Were the junior employees habituated to remain silent? Such a silence would be created by the fear that Ailes and his loyal followers fostered. Those who supported him and did his bidding, either male or female, were rewarded. Those who did not follow him or provide him what he wanted were punished.[8]

I want to keep my job, so I will attack anyone who attacks Roger Ailes

On the surface, the employee silence makes sense. The Fox News staff want to keep their jobs. They will not speak up. Even though they are journalists and investigative journalists, they know that they cannot ask questions. They know the consequences. They will know the stories[9]. They will repeat the stories. In time, the stories become the culture.[10] The culture soon shapes behaviour. When complaints are made, the employee knows that they may only displace the harassment, they will not end it or change the culture. In that culture, the HR no longer stops harassment so much as manages it. Perhaps this is the most chilling part of the Ailes story, how HR never challenged or changed the culture.[11] Even when he is gone and Rupert Murdoch making the necessary soothing noises about “not knowing about it” and his sons making the reassurances that “we continue our commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect. We take seriously our responsibility to uphold these traditional, long-standing values of our company.”[12]

Organisational silence leads to a muted moral conscience

What enabled Roger Ailes was that Fox New encouraged an organisational silence within which employees developed a muted moral conscience. The muted moral conscience develops when a corporate culture encourages or requires moral blindness, moral silence, and moral deafness.[13]

Morally mute means you do not speak up.

An employee is morally mute when they:

“do not recognizably communicate their moral concerns in settings where such communicating would be fitting”.

We can see this when the complaints were not addressed. When HR refused to confront Ailes over the claims. When the senior managers refused to confront Ailes’ behaviour or the behaviour of other senior managers. The senior managers and the junior employees ignored the abuse of power, the daily sexist behaviour, and the humiliating rituals and they remained mute.

Morally deaf means you ignore the problem as long as he makes you money.

An employee is morally deaf when they:

“Do not hear and do not respond to moral issues that have been raised by others”.

We can see this in the way the company has responded to the claims.[14] They issued a barrage of denials and various Fox News affiliated commentators publicly attacked the claims and the complainants. Now that 21st Century Fox settled the $20 Million lawsuit and Ailes resigned, what does it say about these claims? We have to consider that the comments organized to enforce the culture and discourage others from speaking up or out?[15] Even after it emerged that Carlson had recorded Ailes’s statements, Ailes continued to have his defenders?[16]

Morally blind means you look the other way or attack those who complain.

Even though most sexual harassment is done privately or with few people to witness it, the overall sexist culture is on display. The women and the senior managers and top executives were blind to it. Rupert Murdoch in particular should be singled out for his moral blindness. He seems congenitally unaware of any wrongdoing within his companies.[17] An employee is morally blind when they:

“when they fail to see or recognize moral concerns and expectations that bear upon their activities and involvements.”

When we consider the other complaints about sexual harassment that were made and the pattern over 20 years, we have to consider that Fox News employees, in particular Rupert Murdoch and his sons were morally blind. They waited until Gretchen Carlson came with an irrefutable claim before they acted. They did not exercise a moral conscience; they simply did what was needed to protect their business interests.

Is your company a Fox News?

Even though the post focuses on Fox News; it could be any company.

  • Does your company foster a moral conscience?
  • Do your employees have the ability to speak up to voice their concerns?
  • Are all of your employees treated equally or do senior managers get special treatment?
  • If your Chief Executive was the problem could your HR department confront him?


[1] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/07/six-more-women-allege-ailes-sexual-harassment.html

[2] http://nation.foxnews.com/our-purpose

[3] http://documents.gawker.com/here-is-gretchen-carlson-s-sexual-harassment-complaint-1783200300

[4] Roger Ailes at all times in all fora has denied all charges and claims related to the stories about sexual harassment at Fox News and beyond. He has denied all charges and all claims despite Fox News settling nearly $25 million dollars of sexual harassment lawsuits that involve him.

[5] http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/08/exclusive-inside-the-fox-news-bunker-roger-ailes

[6] http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a48768/andrea-tantaros-roger-ailes-fox-news/ The statement is taken from his court filing in response to a sexual harassment lawsuit.

[7] “Well, Steve Doocy, as David pointed out, was her co-host for many years and he still is the co-host of the “Fox & Friends” morning show. It’s important to note that Steve Doocy is one of the ultimate Roger Ailes loyalists. As I’ve reported multiple times, Steve Doocy will take direct dictation from Roger Ailes and repeat talking points on the air to inject his political point of view into the program. So by bringing Doocy in this, really, Gretchen Carlson is showing how Roger Ailes created a culture, both a political culture, but also a culture towards women that people who were — men who were promoted to very high level of the network sort of understood that this culture was acceptable and took part in it.” https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2016-08-08/the-lawsuit-against-former-fox-news-chairman-roger-ailes-sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace

[8] http://www.vox.com/2016/8/15/12416662/roger-ailes-fox-sexual-harassment-women-list

[9] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3681149/Fox-News-sex-discrimination-bombshell-make-artists-Megyn-Kelly-Gretchen-Carlson-claim-called-b-s-forced-watch-graphic-sex-videos-fired-complained.html The complaints went to the EEOC which is the US Federal Government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although the complaints were not upheld by the EEOC, that did not mean that the complaints were unfounded. It means that the EEOC did not find enough evidence to trigger a federal investigation.  One has to ask why the senior managers were unaware of a Federal complaint about sexual harassment within the workplace.

[10] This paraphrases Clifford Geertz’s famous definition: “”stories we tell ourselves about ourselves”.” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/clifford-geertz-422716.html

[11] According to New York’s Gabriel Sherman, Kelly had gone to former Fox News P.R. executive Brian Lewis four years ago, in 2012, concerned about allegations that would later end up in Sherman’s 2014 biography of Ailes. (According to a Sherman source, Lewis’s attempts to intervene with Ailes were rebuffed.) http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/09/megyn-kelly-fox-news-roger-ailes

[12] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/07/21/roger-ailes-resigns-as-fox-news-chairman-rupert-murdoch-assumes-acting-role.html

[13] Brother Secret, Sister Silence: Sibling Conspiracies against Managerial Integrity

William De Maria Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 65, No. 3 (May, 2006), pp. 219-234

[14] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/06/could-fox-news-chairman-roger-ailes-become-the-next-bill-cosby.html

[15] http://www.thewrap.com/fox-news-boss-roger-ailes-vs-gretchen-carlson-supporters-on-each-side-of-the-sexual-harassment-lawsuit-updating-photos/5/ For example, Greta Van Susteren publicly supported Ailes but then left soon after he did. http://www.politico.com/media/story/2016/09/greta-van-susteren-abruptly-leaves-fox-news-004744 The other women will have to explain to their own conscience why they defend Ailes and whether their views will have changed as Carlson had taped Ailes’s behaviour.

[16] http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/gretchen-carlson-roger-ailes-fox-news-1201851105/

[17] http://leveson.sayit.mysociety.org/hearing-26-april-2012/mr-keith-murdoch#s68582

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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