Fox News' Roger Ailes Faces Uncertain Future Amid Sexual Harassment Suit | KUOW News and Information

Fox News' Roger Ailes Faces Uncertain Future Amid Sexual Harassment Suit

Jul 11, 2016
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The sexual harassment allegations by a former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson against the chairman of Fox News Roger Ailes are playing out in front of three very different audiences. The actual courts, the court of public opinion and the three Murdoch men who directly control the channel's parent company, 21st Century Fox. NPR's David Folkenflik reports Ailes position appears unexpectedly precarious because of the way the Murdoch's are handling the allegations.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: A lawsuit once threatened to bring the career of Fox News host Bill O'Reilly to a shuddering halt.

JOE MUTO: I came into work one day, and everyone was reading the Smoking Gun website because it had this very, I would say, salacious and detailed lawsuit.

FOLKENFLIK: That's former Fox News producer Joe Muto. He was new on the job. His colleagues were poring through the alleged transcripts of O'Reilly repeatedly coming on to a female colleague, suggesting explicit sexual acts, talking about her job prospects and bragging about his other conquests.

MUTO: It was stunning, even as low-level as I was at the time. You know, this guy was the big man on campus, you know, the star quarterback of Fox News.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox got wind of her case ahead of time and stole a step on the producer suing her first for extortion. Muto says, internally, Fox journalists wondered if the lawsuit would bring the host down. It didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR")

BILL O'REILLY: Hi. I'm Bill O'Reilly. Thanks for watching us tonight. Before we get to the talking points memo, I have something very important to tell you.

FOLKENFLIK: This is O'Reilly on his show in October 2004. The case had been quickly settled out of court.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR")

O'REILLY: All litigation has ceased in that case that has made me the object of media scorn from coast to coast. Today, lawyers issued a statement saying there was no wrongdoing in the case whatsoever by anyone. Obviously, the words no wrongdoing are the key.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox made a reported payment in the high seven figures to settle the case. And both sides agreed to drop their charges without admission of wrongdoing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR")

O'REILLY: This brutal ordeal is now officially over, and I will never speak of it again.

FOLKENFLIK: While outside, lawyers were brought in to defend O'Reilly, they did not investigate the lurid claims against him. Similarly, the Murdoch's brought in outside lawyers to defend The New York Post and its then editor-in-chief Col Allan after a sex and racial discrimination suit. Those lawyers did not conduct an investigation either, and that represents a key difference. According to two former Murdoch executives, 21st Century Fox is hiring an outside law firm to conduct an investigation of the accusations against Fox News chairman Roger Ailes by former host Gretchen Carlson.

Her initial complaints, according to her suit, focused on the pervasive sexism she found on the set of the morning show "Fox & Friends," particularly from co-host Steve Doocy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX & FRIENDS")

STEVE DOOCY: In the next two minutes, will Laura Ingraham be able to change outfits because she cut - has come to the studio dressed identically to...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Gretchen.

DOOCY: Gretchen...

GRETCHEN CARLSON: Well, I...

DOOCY: What were you thinking?

FOLKENFLIK: Carlson says Doocy routinely demeaned and marginalized her and that she complained for years. Carlson alleges Ailes initially told her to get along. Over the years, Carlson says Ailes demoted her and then, after making sexual advances that she rejected, dropped her altogether last month.

Ailes has denied those charges, saying he based his decisions on ratings. The company's controlling owner, Rupert Murdoch, has a strong loyalty to Ailes built on decades of shared politics and profits. But Murdoch's sons Laughlin and James Murdoch are now helping to run the company. They resent the contempt Ailes showed toward them earlier in their careers, and they wish for a Fox News that is less pugnacious and less overtly conservative.

The findings of the external investigation into Carlson's allegations could exonerate Ailes or could prove explosive, giving the Murdoch's sons the leverage they need to ease him out. Again, Joe Muto.

MUTO: I personally can't imagine a Fox News without Roger Ailes. He has built that place. I mean, I would compare him to like Steve Jobs.

FOLKENFLIK: And that's from a guy Fox fired for blogging anonymously about the channel. Ailes is 76, and the question of his departure has been hanging over the channel for years. He doesn't want to leave this way under the taint of scandal. It may not be his call. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.