After Roger Ailes was ousted as chairman of Fox News in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit, new reports suggest that the cable network had a culture that was hostile to women and raise questions about whether incidents were covered up.
The most prominent former Fox newswoman to speak out was Rudi Bakhtiar, who said her contract was terminated after complaining about harassment by a Fox staffer.
Bakhtiar was among what the New York Times said were a dozen women who told reporters about provocative comments, assignments conditioned on oral sex, meetings filled with sexual innuendo, questions about their sex lives, and meetings with Ailes that began with hugs and kisses that made them uncomfortable.
A story in New York magazine detailed how Bakhtiar said she was treated at Fox News.
“What’s wrong with being friends with benefits?” Bakhtiar said she was asked by a potential supervisor at Fox News in 2006. She turned down the advance. “‘I’m engaged. I’m in love with my fiancé. I really want this job, but there’s no way that I’m going to show you the inside of my hotel room,’” she told him, ending the meeting as soon as possible.
According to what she told the magazine, that wasn’t the first time Bakhtiar had endured harassment at the network. Ailes himself made unwanted sexual comments during her first interview in 2005. “He said, ‘Can you stand up for a second?’” Bakhtiar recalled. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He said, ‘Just stand up. I want to see your legs.’ So I stood up and said, ‘Is this part of the job requirement?’ He just laughed and said, 'No, no, no. Sit down.’”
Bakhtiar said she was encouraged to formally complain about the harassment by Fox anchor Megyn Kelly.
When she brought her complaints to Fox officials, they were mainly concerned as to whether or not she would press charges, she told the magazine.
Not long afterward, Ailes called her into a meeting, she told the magazine. “We’re letting you go, Rudi,” she remembers him telling her. “I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘John Moody doesn’t think you’re a good reporter.’"
On July 5, 2007, Bakhtiar’s lawyer wrote to Fox News saying that she had been unlawfully treated and terminated, citing a hostile environment of sexual harassment, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and retaliation, the magazine said. The case went into confidential mediation. Barry Asen, the lawyer who intimidated Bakhtiar about going public with her story and who is currently representing Ailes in the Gretchen Carlson lawsuit, wrote a letter to the mediator to refute Bakhtiar's three claims.
In the end, the mediator ruled in Bakhtiar’s favor, instructing Fox to pay the $670,000 remaining on the three-year contract she signed with the network on July 13, 2006. Additionally, Fox had to cover Bakhtiar’s legal fees, “which were enormous,” she told the magazine.
"Fox’s culture of harassment extends far beyond Ailes, and women are afraid to talk about it,” Bakhtiar said. She thinks there are many good people at Fox but they are subjected to abusive behavior by senior managers, whose attitude about sexual harassment, she says, is that “it’s only a problem if you complain about it.”
Even after she left Fox, Bakhtiar said the network continued to try push back against her claims.
Ailes found out Bakhtiar was talking to reporters and her attorney got a message from Ailes’ lawyer.
“He said he heard that I have an interview with Gabe Sherman. His message said that, ‘If so, you violated the non-disparagement agreement,’” Bakhtiar told the magazine. That call came about an hour after New York magazine contacted the Fox News staffer accused of harassing her. He denied harassing her.
Meanwhile, according to ABC News, Ailes was set to battle Rupert Murdoch and his sons, who run Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox to keep his post, but realized his efforts were doomed when Megyn Kelly spoke to the company’s investigators rather than express support for him.
ABC News described Ailes' war room in Bergen County, N.J., where he was advised by wife Beth and the PR and legal team from Fox News.
According to ABC News, Ailes made it clear to his team that he thought Lachlan and James Murdoch would try to use the Carlson lawsuit as a vehicle to remove him from his perch. After a career of battles—both in politics and media—Ailes figured he’d be able to strategize and scrap his way through and stay on top.
“We’re not going to let them win,” Ailes said of the Murdoch heirs.
The pressure was most extreme to get Kelly on board, according to ABC News. She had taken center stage in public battles this year with Donald Trump and she is perceived to be both a strong woman and an independent thinker. Getting Kelly on board would be a coup and was to send messages both to the wider world and those inside Fox headquarters in Midtown Manhattan that things would be OK for Ailes.
But Kelly wouldn’t do what Ailes wanted. Instead, she spoke with the team of investigators retained by the Murdochs to probe what was happening at Fox. During that session, Kelly told investigators about harassment from Ailes she had suffered years earlier. Ailes would soon find out about that interview and news accounts detailing her account would follow quickly.
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Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.