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Fox News' culture of sexism

January 16, 2014, at 2:24 AM
According to a new book, Fox News is something of a sexist carnival, with the tone set by Roger Ailes himself. 

According to a new book, Fox News is something of a sexist carnival, with the tone set by Roger Ailes himself.  Photo: (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Broadcast news is a tough business for sensitive people. And for a long time, it was especially hostile to women. Just read Barbara Walters' memoir if you don't believe me.

Sexism still exists (see criticism of Katie Couric's ascension to the anchor chair at CBS), but when I worked at ABC and CBS News, I saw — and I still see when I look at the business today — strong women in positions of power. I also know that the corporations that underwrite the news divisions go to great lengths to punish harassers.

I know of some exceptions, but the exceptions are usually the source of much angst. It is NOT cool to be sexist anymore.

So the allegations against Fox News stick out. According to Gabriel Sherman's lengthy biography of Roger Ailes, Fox News is something of a sexual carnival, with the tone set by Roger Ailes himself.

When he worked at NBC, Ailes allegedly offered a salary bump to a female producer if he could knock boots with her whenever he wanted. He allegedly made suggestive and degrading comments to TV producer Shelley Ross. (Ross would later become a tough-as-nails executive producer at Good Morning America.)

In 1989, he allegedly assaulted a female AIDS protester.

He insulted the women he hired to host a flagship talk show on CNBC, saying that they were the type of women who looked better around closing time of a bar.

At Fox News, Ailes behaved himself somewhat. He kept his rage in check, at least the physical manifestations of it. But he tolerated, according to the book, behavior that would be cause for firing elsewhere. With one exception, he surrounded himself with men. And there were still allegations of sexism:

- Introducing a female lawyer to the entire Fox News staff before its launch, he made a crude sex joke

- The EEOC sued Fox News in 2005 for firing two employees who accused a Fox VP of harassing them

- Ailes complained that he didn't spend money to give Paula Zahn a glass desk only to have her wear pants — he wanted viewers to see her legs. (As I was writing this piece, I came across a compendium by Media Matters, long an Ailes foe, that included another example: Ailes ordered a telephone removed from an anchor desk because he couldn't see the legs of host Kieran Chetry.)

Ahem: The female co-anchors on Fox and Friends were not allowed to wear pants.

- Fox took seriously the complaints of a producer of Bill O'Reilly's when she threatened to sue him for sexual harassment, but Ailes ordered a vindicative and take-no-prisoners investigation of her own sex life.

Sex and beauty sell. No one expects, or should expect, news operations to be devoid of friction, humor, even joke(rs) who might cross a line or two. But with a guy at the top who doesn't seem to respect women, and has a history of appearing to treat them as objects, I wonder what life must be like for women who work at Fox.

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