Fox News Chairman-CEO Roger Ailes(Photo: Alex Kroke, AP)
Its been said that Roger Ailes runs the influential, highly rated Fox News Channel like a feisty political campaign, quick to respond in no-holds-barred fashion to real and perceived critics.
The 76-year-old executive will need to muster all his bluster and fight as he faces one of hisgreatestchallenges since assuming the helm at the network as itsfounding CEO in 1996.
Gretchen Carlson, a former host of The Real Story and Fox & Friends, sued Ailes in a state court in New Jersey on Wednesday, alleging that Ailes sabotaged her career because she refused his sexual advances and that she was subjected towhat her suit said was severe and pervasive sexual harassment at work. The lawsuit has a sole defendant, Ailes, Fox News CEO, but it also citesher former Fox & Friends colleagueSteve Doocyfor allegedly treating her in a "sexist and condescending" way.
Carlson, a Minnesota native and a former Miss America, left Fox on June 23 when her contract was not renewed. Carlson also alleged that Ailes ogled her and asked her to turn around so he could view her posterior, and commentedabout Carlsons figure and legs.
The lawsuit depicts a combustible mix of gender politics and workplace harassment, simmering againstthe backdrop of a controversial, hard-charging TV news operation now wincing at a bold charge from the most unlikely source a former employee who seemed to be the model of a loyal solider.
For Fox critics and many liberals, it is a satisfying dose of comeuppance for an operation that hasnever been shy about sharply criticizing the Obama administration and leftist politics in general. Fordefenders of Fox, the dominant force in cable news and a powerful player in Republican politics, the lawsuit isa play by a sour-grapes ex-employee who lost key assignments because she was no longer drawing the ratings needed to compete with rivals.
So what does it all mean for the future of AIles, the architect of the cable juggernaut?Its premature to jump to any conclusions, saysKerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and author of Dark Genius: The Influential Career of Legendary Political Operative and Fox News Founder Roger Ailes. Hes a survivor. If anything, he proved that he can remake himself over and over in different contexts.
But the lawsuit is also occurring at a time of interesting changes at Fox's parent company, 21st Century Fox, and some analysts say that may not be an insignificant factor in how the saga plays out.
Ailes has kept his corner office at Fox News largely because the network continues to overwhelmits competitors in the ratings wars as well as his close association with 21st Century Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch.
About a year ago, Murdochs sons, Lachlan Murdoch and James Murdoch, assumed greater control of the company. Lachlan became executive chairman along with his father, while James runs day-to-day operations as CEO.
One of the first issues that surfaced after the corporate shake-up was the chemistry, rumored to be less than chummy, between the younger generation of Murdochs and Ailes. Carlsons lawsuit, some analysts say, could be the opening the parent company needs to turn the page on Ailes profitable but controversial reign.
The younger guys have never been as comfortable with Ailes, says Gabriel Kahn, a former Wall Street Journal editor who is now a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. Theres a suite of corporate assets that would either potentially be reshaped or moved around.
The fact that 21st Century Fox and Ailes issued separate responses to Carlsons lawsuit was interpreted by some as a sign that the parent company is seeking to distance itself from the scandal. 21st Century Foxs statement, while expressing full confidence in Ailes and Doocy, also said it takes these matters seriously and that an internal review has started.
The wording and timing of the press release signal that Ailess standing with the Murdochs is precarious, wrote Gabriel Sherman, a New York magazine editor who wrote a critical book on Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, in an article for the magazine.
Ailes statement was unequivocal. He said Carlsons allegations are false and her lawsuit is a retaliatory suit for the networks decision not to renew her contract, which was due to the fact that her disappointingly low ratings were dragging down the afternoon lineup."
Lawyers for Ailes also filed a motion to have the lawsuit arbitrated in federal court, saying her contract states any employment dispute regarding her tenure at Fox News must be done via confidential arbitration.
In a statement, Carlsons lawyers said she never agreed to arbitrate anything with (Ailes) and the contract on which he relies does not mention him and is not signed by him.
Scott Collins, TV editor at media news site TheWrap and author of Crazy Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN, notesthat the evident and apparent tension between the parent company and one of its most successful units is interesting and bears close watching.
That 21st Century Fox was not named as a defendant also raises questions. Collins saysCarlson may not be after money, but some sort of public vindication given her allegations.
Typically, if youre representing an employee, you want the corporation held responsible, saysJay Holland, an attorney at Joseph, Greenwald & Laake,who has tried sexual harassment cases. She may not want to burn her bridges, so to speak. But this is unusual. Its a very personal lawsuit that involves his personal behavior.
The case will ultimately hinge on the credibility of the combatants, and whether Carlson's allegations are buttressed by evidence, including documents and witnesstestimony, Holland said.
Ailes previously was accused of sexual harassment. According to Sherman's book, Ailes was negotiating a salary with Randi Harrison, a TV producer, in the 1980s when he offered her an additional $100 each week if you agree to have sex with me whenever I want.
Fox has said that the charges in Sherman's book are false.
Sherman of New York magazine also reported Saturdaythat more than a dozen women have come forward with detailed allegations of sexual harassment by Ailes over a 25-year period. Six of the women spoke to Sherman, two of them on the record.
"It has become obvious that Ms. Carlson and her lawyer are desperately attempting to litigate this in the press because they have no legal case to argue, said Barry Asen of Epstein, Becker & Green, who is representing Ailes. The latest allegations, all 30 to 50 years old, are false."
In his research for his book on Ailes, Swint sayshe didnt see anything of a sexual nature or this kind of entanglement.
Several of Ailes female colleagues have come to his defense. Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host, told The Wrap that Ailes is a decent man.
I have spent my career fighting for women. I have no bones about criticizing someone when they deserve to be criticized. But this is ridiculous, Pirro said.
Fox News host Greta Van Susteren was also skeptical about Carlsons claims. People talk. You hear a lot, and I never heard this, she toldThe Daily Beast. Im telling you, based on my experience, Ive never seen it or heard it or suspected it.
Others have also raised eyebrows at how Carlsons lawsuits jibes with the comments about Ailes she made in her book last year. She wrote that Ailes was the most accessible boss Ive ever worked for, and that shes come to value our time together over the years.
She was still an employee there (when she wrote the book), Holland says. You dont want to anger your employer. But if the book contains statements that contradict her lawsuit, then that could create some hurdles for her.
Fox has said Carlsons contract wasnt renewed because her ratings at the 2 p.m. slot were weak. She saw the move to the new slot from Fox & Friends as a demotion and says she had competitive ratings, including a 33% spike in total viewership so far this year.
Fox News rebutted her claim. Her program was beaten by CNN in June in the important 25- to 54-year-old demographic and "had the narrowest margin of victory over CNN of any (Fox News Channel) show for the second quarter of 2016," it said.
TheWraps Collins agrees that Carlson was not doing as well as some of her competitors.
She was seeing increases, but all cable shows are seeing increases due to the election, he says. Since Gretchen left, the substitute host has done better in the time slot. That doesnt argue well for her side.
Kahn expects Fox News to remain its defiant self as the saga unfolds. A lot of their talk and their on-air talent exude this anti-politically correct, cultural warbattle cry that would make you think that the culture of the place is to take an extreme position of innocence until proven guilty on something like this, Kahn said.
When the dust settles, Fox News may or may not remain what it is. But the legal battle may open a windowinto the workplace cultureof one of the most insular, aggressive newsrooms in the country. And perhaps provide more clarity on what happened between the most powerful cable TV newsman in America and a spirited journalist who once seemed to embody the ethos of the network.
Beyond making this a blood sport, there could be a real victim here, Kahn says. That should be the first element of the story.
Follow USA TODAY media reporter Roger Yu on Twitter @ByRogerYu.