Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor, will receive $20 million as part of the settlement of her lawsuit against Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chairman and CEO whom she sued for sexual harassment. That’s a lot of money and taken in isolation, this seems like a good dose of accountability for a loathsome and predatory lout like Ailes, who became one of the most powerful people in the media industry despite an enthusiastic record of serial harassment that reportedly stretches back decades.
But one can’t view the settlement in isolation. What’s happening at Fox News in the aftermath of Ailes’ downfall looks less like accountability and more like a rushed effort by worried executives to make the bad headlines go away.
The $20 million that Carlson is set to receive is a huge payout, but it’s still half of what Ailes’ bosses reportedly agreed to pay him just to leave his job as chairman of Fox News. That means we’re seeing the perverse situation in which a man who was forced out of his job for sexual harassment received double the payout of the person he harassed.
And you can’t look past the fact that while Carlson sued Ailes personally for harassment, the settlement was announced on behalf of Ailes by Fox News. As Vanity Fair reported in its story breaking the news of the settlement, “Fox is essentially [Ailes’] insurer for any settlement,” and there have been tense negotiations between Ailes’ legal team and 21st Century Fox over how much of Carlson’s $20 million Ailes will be personally responsible for paying. According to New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, Ailes managed to negotiate his share down to zero percent.
So Ailes spent two decades preying upon his female employees at Fox News until he finally was caught in a damaging lawsuit. (Carlson apparently has recordings of Ailes' making inappropriate comments to her.) Rather than being simply fired, Ailes negotiated his exit, essentially agreeing to be fired in exchange for a $40 million golden parachute. Then his former employer stepped in to settle the lawsuit and also pony up the entire $20 million payout to keep confidential all the damaging information that Carlson had about Ailes and her time at the country’s top-rated cable news channel.
It’s impossible to view that as “accountability,” especially since Ailes seems to be having some success in using what leverage he still has to protect himself from the consequences of his actions. This is the man whose clout kept him securely in power for years even as he flagrantly mistreated his underlings: Fox News makes a ton of money for 21st Century Fox and executives at the parent company will do whatever is required to preserve its profitability, even if that means helping Ailes get off the hook.
Carlson’s lawsuit made Ailes too toxic to keep at the company, but the suit wasn’t just about Ailes. It was about the culture that Ailes created at Fox News that excused his behavior. Every scandalous detail of Ailes’ tenure that enters into the public record undermines the Fox News brand and makes it all the more galling that the executives who protected Ailes as he preyed on female staffers were promoted to take over his leadership roles. 21 Century Fox would very much like to keep as much of that culture under wraps as it can.
The first step to covering all this up means 21st Century Fox has to pay exorbitant amounts of money directly to, and on behalf of, Roger Ailes, the cretin who put the company in this mess in the first place. That’s not accountability. That’s PR.