In her sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes, former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson hinted at a company culture nearly as hostile to women as the alleged creep at the top. Her Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy “shushed” her on air, mocked her during commercial breaks, and treated her like a “blond female prop,” Carlson claimed. That Ailes allegedly brushed off her complaints and ordered her to “get along with the boys” was no surprise, coming from a man who’s facing sexual harassment accusations from more than 20 women who’ve worked with him.
According to a new New York Times investigation, the other leaders of Fox News may have been emboldened by Ailes’ alleged sexism. More than 10 women told the Times they’d endured sexual harassment as employees of Fox News or Fox Business Network, and several others said they saw fellow employees become victims of harassment. Just two of these cases involved Ailes; the rest of the acts were perpetrated by other supervisors at the networks. They are uniformly horrifying.
Multiple people said that the Fox networks housed pervasive discussions of female employees’ looks and sex lives. Fox supervisors would try to date their employees or proffer them for dates with higher-ups. Several sources recount dates and sexual acts being used as conditions of assignments, appearances, and employment. A one-time Fox reporter told the Times that every time she met with Ailes, he bookended their encounters with a hug and a kiss, the latter of which he’d try to land on the lips. Another woman recalled an executive whispering in her ear at a happy hour about the sexiness of the zipper on her dress.
Most of the Times’ sources spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of torpedoing their current TV careers. Just one went public with her name: Rudi Bakhtiar, who joined Fox News in 2006 after several years at CNN. She earned a three-year contract after a freelancing stint, taking on weekend correspondent gigs in Washington, D.C. on a fill-in basis. In 2007, she says she had coffee in her D.C. hotel’s lobby with co-worker Brian Wilson, who was set to become the Washington bureau chief. He told Bakhtiar he could help her get the weekend Washington correspondent gig full-time, but, Bakhtiar told the Times, Wilson repeatedly asked her “You know how I feel about you?”
When Bakhtiar asked him to clarify his question, she claims he responded, “I’d like to see the inside of your hotel room,” and told her he wanted them to be friends with benefits. (Wilson told the Times he takes “strong exception to the facts of the story” as Bakhtiar recounted it.) After she turned him down, Bakhtiar says, the network began to cancel her gigs in Washington. A supervisor told her to make an official harassment report to the network’s human resources department, and soon after, Ailes fired her for good, claiming that her reporting skills weren’t up to par. Fox News granted Bakhtiar an undisclosed payment in a settlement that legally bound her to remain silent about the incident. Bakhtiar risks a lawsuit by speaking out about Wilson’s alleged harassment and the company’s alleged retaliation.
The saddest part of the Times’ findings are the accounts of women bucking up and dealing with a workplace engineered to belittle them and remind them that their value as employees is contingent upon their sex appeal. Bakhtiar says she apologized to Wilson when she rejected his advances for leading him on in any way. One woman said she laughed politely and treated it like a joke when a supervisor demanded oral sex in return for a desirable reporting assignment. Another said she endured Ailes’ hugs and simply turned her face so his kisses wouldn’t make it to her lips.
These are the small, humiliating behavior modifications women make in every industry to keep their sanity and their jobs in workplaces where misogyny festers unchecked. Television news may foster a particularly hostile space for female employees: “Many women viewed the behavior [at Fox] as par for the course in the broadcasting industry, where appearance is so highly valued,” the Times reports.
Still, by most accounts, the climate at Fox News is unique in its tacit endorsement of sexual intimidation, misogynist power plays, and physical harassment. Few were surprised to hear that Ailes had been accused of sexual harassment earlier this month—his lechery has been an open secret for years—and anyone with a working knowledge of the Fox News worldview won’t be baffled by these new reports of a news network built on devaluing and sexualizing female employees. But thanks to the brave women who are coming forward to lend credence and specificity to our suspicions, those who continue to defend Ailes and his ilk are looking more backward by the day.