Rumors of Roger Ailes’ ouster as chairman and CEO of Fox News have been circulating for days, but his resignation on Thursday still felt like a momentous event. The 20-year veteran of America’s most-watched cable news network, whose history of harassing women has been an open secret for years, lost his job within two weeks of Gretchen Carlson’s filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. Carlson’s lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith, was understandably ecstatic in a statement about the consequences of the suit:
Gretchen Carlson’s extraordinary courage has caused a seismic shift in the media world. We hope that all businesses now understand that women will no longer tolerate sexual harassment and reputable companies will no longer shield those who abuse women. We thank all the brave women who spoke out about this issue.
Smith rightfully thanks the women who spoke out about their experiences with Ailes in the wake of Carlson’s suit, including women who reached out to Smith directly, women who spoke to New York’s Gabriel Sherman, and women who gave statements to 21st Century Fox lawyers investigating Ailes’ behavior (including Fox News superstar Megyn Kelly). Without the outpouring of first-person accounts, Fox could have much more easily characterized Carlson as a disgruntled, dishonest former employee.
But Carlson’s bravery, and the bravery of the other women who say Ailes harassed them, are only part of the story. The other part is the American public’s newfound willingness to believe women’s claims of sexual harassment and abuse. As my colleague Nora Caplan-Bricker wrote recently, “Multiple times in the past year, we’ve seen that when one victim goes public about harassment or abuse at the hands of an influential man, others are emboldened to follow—and the combined weight of their accounts produces results.” Ailes’ downfall parallels that of Bill Cosby: Dozens of Cosby’s alleged victims went public with accusations in the past two years, finding an audience finally ready to believe them. Carlson’s accusations arrive in what Caplan-Bricker calls “a distinctly post-Cosby moment: one in which the testimonies of a powerful man’s alleged victims are taken more seriously by the mainstream media, and by many of its consumers, than would have been imaginable even a few years ago.”
The irony, of course, is that if you got all your information from Fox News, you might have no idea this shift in cultural consciousness was taking place. Fox News has been one of the most reliable sources of victim-blaming rhetoric, with commentators who are always ready to suggest that women who make claims of assault or abuse either are lying or were asking for it. But despite Fox News’ efforts, the idea that rape and harassment victims are mostly bimbos who asked for it is slowly but surely dying out. Ailes’ forced resignation is a reasonable consequence of his allegedly unconscionable behavior, but it’s also a repudiation of the worldview he has peddled, and profited from, for the past two decades. If Ailes thought that Fox News could stoke Americans’ reflexive disbelief of victims indefinitely, he made a bad bet.