Sexual harassment allegations against ex-Fox boss Roger Ailes are not a footnote

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If you thought this week had exhausted all of the usual dishes on offer at the sexism buffet, put your eating pants back on and take another seat because this banquet is far from over. And I hope you brought your Mylanta, because the acid burn of hypocrisy is strong.

When Roger Ailes was reported dead earlier this week, obituaries made sure to pay homage to his family (including wife Elizabeth and son Zachary) and the corporate success he had achieved over the six decades of his adult life. The New York Post published a statement from Elizabeth that included the following:

“I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning. Roger was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many. He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise – and to give back.”

The 77-year-old founder and former CEO of Fox News had indeed been instrumental in building a wildly profitable centre for propaganda and conservative “patriotism” in the network, but less discussed in post mortem references to his work were the ways in which he chose to “give back” to the women unfortunate enough to have to work for him – that is to say, the numerous allegations of sexual harassment levelled at him in recent years, which ultimately proved so troublesome to the organisation that they resulted in his resignation.

These allegations didn’t just come from the kinds of faceless, nameless women whose anonymity and total lack of power makes them so much easier for people to ignore, deride and dismiss. Those kinds of women were no doubt harmed by Ailes as well (because those kinds of women are always the first port of call for abusive men with privilege and power on their side), but the world is full of people who believe that making money is a war zone and therefore the warriors who do it are entitled to their spoils.

But included in those women who came forward were two who had carved out a reputation themselves in the Fox stable, and that is a much trickier thing to ignore. Not impossible of course, as former Fox anchors Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly no doubt discovered (the latter of whom had already previously been “discredited” in the eyes of Fox’s core demographic because the notoriously thin-skinned Donald Trump didn’t like the questions she’d asked of him during the presidential nomination debates).

Carlson was fired from the network and she later sued, claiming her termination had come after she’d refused to have sex with Ailes amid his repeated, unwanted comments about her body. Immediately following the publication of these allegations, at least six more women contacted Carlson’s lawyers and offered their own testimonies of harassment at the hands of Ailes and other Fox executives. Kelly’s report of Ailes’ criminal behaviour was documented in her memoir Settle For More. She alleged the harassment was ongoing, occurring over a number of years, writing:

“There was a pattern to his behaviour. I would be called into Roger’s office, he would shut the door, and over the next hour or two, he would engage in a kind of cat-and-mouse game with me – veering between obviously inappropriate sexually charged comments (e.g. about the ‘very sexy bras’ I must have and how he’d like to see me in them) and legitimate professional advice.”

Kelly rebuffed Ailes’ attempts to force sexual “favours” out of her in exchange for career progression but says Ailes “crossed a new line” in January of 2006. “[He tried] to grab me repeatedly and kiss me on the lips.” When she physically pushed him off, “he asked me an ominous question: ‘When is your contract up?’ And then, for the third time, he tried to kiss me.”

But Ailes’ grotesque treatment of his female employees is being treated like a footnote to the greater story of his corporate achievements. When it has been mentioned, it is as an aside – the one black mark against an otherwise untarnished reputation of greatness. As sad as this is, it’s hardly a surprise. Our society is collectively committed to the preservation of male reputations even at the expense of the dignity and justice for women whose reputations are conversely torn apart and savaged (oftentimes, gleefully so).

Look at how many women it took to finally make mud against Bill Cosby stick and over how many decades – and even then, it still took another man saying it on stage for anyone to really start listening. Look at the people still willing not just to keep working with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, but to go on praising them as geniuses. Look at Casey Affleck, whose career highlights since being accused of the sexual harassment of two female colleagues on set includes sweeping the awards circuit and winning both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for best actor.

The reputations of men (and particularly the reputations of rich, white, heterosexual, cisgender men) are revered in this world. Despite the constant repetition of fears that women can destroy a man’s life with a lie, these reputations are in fact seemingly indestructible. There are still people who believe Bill Cosby is innocent and there are still people who insist Dylan Farrow is simply being manipulated by her mother, Mia Farrow, to get back at Woody Allen for a relationship that ended 30 years ago. There are countless other who’ll reference Polanski’s troubled life as an excuse for his rape of a 13-year-old and others who believe Affleck is the target of a witch hunt because “innocent until proven guilty!”.

The Steubenville rapists were also proven guilty. That night, anchors on CBS news mourned the loss of their “promising futures”.

Reputation is meaningless when it comes at the expense of the dignity and wellbeing of your fellow humans. Roger Ailes used his power and position to try to force women to sexually gratify him and his equally powerful friends. With some of them, he succeeded. And still we hear about the incredible contribution he made to growing and adapting the media machine.

Roger Ailes might be dead (and good riddance) but misogyny, as ever, is alive and well.



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