Reading the accumulated sexual harassment accusations against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and former network executive Roger Ailes is like a quick dip in a sewage treatment pond. After even a brief exposure, the stench stays with you for days.
If the accusations of dozens of women over two decades are correct – and it is hard to dismiss them, as the accused have done, as unbalanced, dishonest or disgruntled – then Fox News is the focus of hypocrisy in the modern world. While preaching traditional values, it has operated, according to former Fox anchor Andrea Tantaros, “like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.”
A recent New York Times story detailing $13 million in payouts to women accusing O’Reilly of harassment depicts a corporate atmosphere of predation and enablement. Stories on Ailes present a similar (and even worse) picture of women treated as sex objects and employment benefits.
All this could be a grand, elaborate calumny. But the culture described by the women coming forward rings true. A culture in which powerful, older men exploit, sully and destroy the hopes and ambitions of young women for the benefit of their own appetites. Then, over cigars and whiskey, they say things like: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ‘em by the p----. You can do anything.” This statement made by Donald Trump describes not the pleasures of the flesh, but the pleasures of the bully. Not just ridiculous-looking lechery, but genuine cruelty.
What emerges in these cases is more than just the violation of standards by an individual; it is a systemic problem, a systemic failure. An institution is defined by what it accomplishes, but also by what it tolerates. According to these reports, Fox News has tolerated a pattern of procurement and exploitation. Loyalty has been twisted into complicity. Shameful things have not been treated as shameful. Disqualifying things have not been disqualifying.
This should matter in any setting – any candy factory or car rental office – but it matters particularly in the news business. The ethos of a newspaper, cable network or website influences the final product. At The Washington Post – reflecting its investigative self-image – the new motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” At Fox, this ethos has involved, according to The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot, “the fetishization of hot female news presenters.” And this, it seems, has doubled as a kind of conveyor belt for bright new faces. Can it really be a coincidence that feminism is often dismissed on Fox News as so much political correctness? Can a news organization deal adequately with women’s issues when you would never allow your own daughter to work there?
It is worth pausing here to admit that my criticism of Fox has been too comprehensive. Any network that includes Bret Baier, Dana Perino and Chris Wallace is often worth watching. Fox has been an alternative to leftward-slanting media, and a place where the worst sorts of political correctness have been exposed. And the parent company of Fox News is instituting some changes, including sensitivity training.
But I bet that Fox would not feature my next argument: Sometimes conservatives need liberals. (Sometimes liberals need conservatives as well, which is the topic for another day.) For more than 40 years, liberals have talked about sexual harassment and the need for equal treatment in the workplace. They have organized, argued and sued. And they were exactly right. The routine sexism of a previous generation was wrong and oppressive. And it persists.
A certain kind of Fox viewer will never find this persuasive. They think that boys will be boys, and men should be manly, and opponents are snowflakes, and women should just learn to lump it or leave. But it is hard for me to imagine how Christian conservatives – a major Fox demographic – could avoid choking on such rotted values. The way that women are treated in the workplace – or at home, or anywhere else – should reflect a belief in human equality and a commitment to human dignity. And the proper reaction when reading about the cases of O’Reilly and Ailes is revulsion.
We like to think that this kind of America is behind us – that only the crusty leftovers of workplace sexism remain. But we are a nation that tolerated misogyny in the election of our current president. And when you are a Fox star, evidently, you can still do anything. You can do anything.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.