No one would mistake Roger Ailes for a ladies man, at least not without a fistful of dollars – or a garter belt.
So emerges a fresh image of the man who created Fox News, the cable network known for its leggy, law-degreed female hosts. Ailes, like Hugh Hefner, knew that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
Then suddenly, somebody squealed. Former anchor Gretchen Carlson last month filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes for making lewd remarks, including publicly announcing that he’d slept with three Miss Americas but not Carlson.
The floodgates opened. Another 20 or so women have come forward with their own allegations of sexual harassment – going back decades to when Ailes was with “The Mike Douglas Show,” as well as through his years as a political consultant with the George H.W. Bush campaign.
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In interviews with New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, several women told stories that contained strikingly similar details. One of those is the garter belt, which Ailes allegedly asked many of them to put on. One woman said she was filmed by Ailes after he insisted that she dance while wearing it.
The dance scene was described a few days ago in a separate New York article profiling Laurie Luhn, a former Fox News booker of 20 years who, despite having agreed never to file a lawsuit against the network, decided to speak up. In so doing, she not only has created a head-swiveling drama that has Fox employees variously stunned and disgusted but has created a sidebar debate about feminism’s rules of engagement.
What is sexual harassment? When is a woman a victim and when is she a participant? What is the statute of limitations on intimidation? What is the line between perception and interpretation? Is a woman still a heroine if she speaks up only after she has tolerated it and professionally benefited while others were being targeted? Was she expediently complicit for her own advantage?
When “everybody” knows what’s going on and no one speaks up, isn’t “everyone” complicit to a degree?
Such questions are unwelcome in the television industry – and on certain college campuses where they’ll spark a protest faster than a military draft. You can carry a gun to class, but you’d better not present ideas that might make someone uncomfortable.
But ask these questions we must, not only for the benefit of younger women entering the workplace but also for the sake of feminism itself. Rallying to any and all women who claim victimhood, even in cases of complicity, damages the cause and credibility of those who are targeted for abuse.
If all that has been claimed against Ailes is true, then obviously there’s no defense for him, and his diamond-seamed parachute is further insult to his victims. Carlson’s claim clearly meets the standard of sexual harassment even if she waited until she felt she was demoted before she decided to make her accusations.
Apparently emboldened by Carlson’s move, superstar Megyn Kelly tipped the point when she reportedly told investigators that Ailes had made unwanted sexual advances a decade ago. Hold that thought.
But Luhn topped all with jaw-dropping stories such as that Ailes allegedly ordered her to kneel, facing him. She said he placed his hands on her temples and extracted a pledge to obey him henceforth.
Most women, I’d like to think, wouldn’t have gotten on their knees – certainly would never vow to obey anyone against their will. But Luhn says she played along – for 20 years. Under what New York magazine describes as “Ailes’ protection within the company,” Luhn says she received cash payments, promotions, a $250,000 salary and, in 2011, a $3.15 million severance.
Last week, she told Sherman that her life at Fox was “psychological torture.”
No doubt it was, but Luhn could have left at any time. As recently as last summer, having recovered from a nervous breakdown and an overdose, Luhn wrote Ailes a letter asking for help finding a job in Los Angeles. O, what a tangled web we weave.
This lurid, byzantine tale of sex, lies and videotape will likely continue to unfurl in the coming weeks, but the moral of the story is clear: Nothing, neither money nor career, is worth surrendering your dignity and self-worth, both of which will be questioned when you call quits on a game you agreed to play.
Washington Post Writers Group