In the weeks since Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, his personal and professional reputations have taken a severe public beating. Carlson’s legal team says more than 20 women have come forward with further allegations of sexual harassment by Ailes in the wake of the suit, which has gotten massive attention in the press. Even Megyn Kelly, Fox’s highest-regarded female journalist, said that he harassed her early in her career.
After two weeks of increasing fervor around his alleged history of mistreating female employees, Ailes resigned on Thursday. This should be a celebratory moment for those who’ve long waited to see the man whose lechery was an open secret in the news industry get his due. But the final peg in Ailes’ Fox News career has come across as a bit of a letdown. Why doesn’t his comeuppance feel as good as we’d imagined?
For one thing, Ailes’ resignation letter lacks any measure of self-awareness or humility. Amid multiplying allegations that he shamed on-air female staffers into showing more skin and repeatedly propositioned them for sex, Ailes patted himself on the back for his contributions to gender equality in journalism. “I take particular pride in the role that I have played advancing the careers of the many women I have promoted to executive and on-air positions,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Ailes’ boss, 21st Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch, made a statement that seemed better suited for a jubilant retirement banquet than a resignation under accusations of chronic sexual misconduct. “Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country,” Murdoch said. “His grasp of policy and his ability to make profoundly important issues accessible to a broader audience stand in stark contrast to the self-serving elitism that characterizes far too much of the media.” Murdoch finished his letter of recommendation for Ailes without so much as a mention of the harassment allegations.
Most infuriating of all, Ailes’ future prospects look as bright as ever. He netted a $40 million buyout of the rest of his contract, and he doesn’t even have to leave Murdoch’s employ. In his resignation letter, Ailes said he’d continue as a consultant for 21st Century Fox, though later reports have him consulting for Murdoch with no connection to the Fox brand. It sounds like a cushy, lucrative gig for someone who was forced to resign after more than 20 women accused him of unconscionable treatment of his employees.
In one sense, it’s satisfying to see how Ailes’ relatively swift ouster came to be. As Nora Caplan-Bricker wrote in Slate earlier this month, the quickly mounting allegations against Ailes, and the public’s propensity to believe them, are a product of a post–Bill Cosby society that is less likely to make excuses for high-profile men who’ve previously sexually harassed and assaulted women with impunity. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the changing culture around accusations of sexual harassment and reason to hope that the next generation of men in power will learn that reprehensible behavior toward women won’t go unnoticed or unpunished.
But the Ailes case also reveals the shortcomings of our ability to hold alleged abusers and harassers accountable. Bill Cosby is not in jail; the nearly five dozen women who’ve accused him of sexual assault are all “alleged” victims. Ailes, who must be nearing retirement anyway, will get all the money he would have made through 2018 without having to do any of that work, then he’ll transition into another great job that keeps him well-paid and in a position of influence.
He’ll even get to keep his sterling reputation among the people he cares about most. There is a not-insignificant part of the population that thinks what Ailes allegedly did to Carlson, Kelly, and others was not that bad. Some, like Donald Trump, will just choose not to believe the allegations, telling themselves until the end of time that women invent instances of harassment to get money or attention. Others, like these folks who popped up in my Twitter mentions, think Carlson shouldn’t complain about Ailes since she stayed at her job despite the harassment, and that raising a fuss over a boss who repeatedly reduced her to her sex appeal made her unpleasant to work with.
There is little evidence to suggest that Fox News will learn its lesson or change its culture of sexism, even with Ailes gone. The network’s entire paradigm around accusations of sexual assault has revolved around victim-blaming, distrust, and outright denial—Ailes will be seen as a casualty of the feminist war on men, not a cautionary tale. Fox News diehards will likely believe that that his ouster is just another example of a PC culture that punishes men for vocalizing their manly desires for sex with their employees.
As temporarily gratifying as it may be to watch Ailes incur a nominal punishment for his alleged misdeeds, that feeling of justice served shouldn’t last long. The future of Fox News isn’t a zero-tolerance policy for mistreatment of women. It’s Murdoch, Fox News’ interim leader, who removed Ailes from his post with a kiss and a wink and who didn’t find it necessary to renounce Ailes’ alleged behavior, commit to making Fox News a safe workplace for women, or say anything about workplace sexual harassment at all.