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Former Fox News Channel anchor Gretchen Carlson launched a sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. (Charles Sykes/AP)
Former Fox News Channel anchor Gretchen Carlson launched a sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. (Charles Sykes/AP)

John Doyle: Lessons learned from the Fox News harassment scandal Add to ...

“We sincerely regret and apologize for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.”

That’s the statement that 21st Century Fox, parent company of Fox News, issued last week as part of a $20-million (U.S.) apology/settlement with Gretchen Carlson. Carlson had launched a sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.

The fall of Ailes, the reaction to the lawsuit from 21st Century Fox boss Rupert Murdoch and the growing number of allegations of sexual harassment inside Fox News amount to an extraordinary story. They are also gross, disturbing and dispiriting. But we can learn lessons from it and use it to keep a cold eye on what happens inside television.

First lesson is this: Sexism is rampant. While harassment appeared to be emphatically flagrant at Fox News, it is fair to suggest that the alleged conduct of Ailes and other Fox News bosses is unlikely to be unique. Women are often badly treated in broadcast media. There is an unnerving acceptance of sexism and sexist behaviour. And to cast the net wider, we need only look at the treatment of Hillary Clinton in coverage of the current U.S. presidential campaign – coverage not exclusive to Fox – to see the fear and loathing of women that is currently unbridled.

In coverage of the Fox News story, mainly in the U.S. media, there has been the smell of gloating in many quarters. It’s understandable. When Fox News was launched in 1996, under the guidance of Roger Ailes, Murdoch’s company was sensing an opportunity. It looked at the competition, CNN and MSNBC, and laughed at the idea of objectivity. The core of Fox News, with its often comical bluster masquerading as news, is the recognition that its viewers aren’t objective, they are biased.

As most citizens are. They want to hear attacks on “elites,” and they resent change. They enjoy outrage. The savagery of the Fox News approach again exhibits the Murdochian contempt for tradition and genius for energizing the tawdry. Fox News celebrated the reactionary views of its audience – the sort of older males who call phone-in radio shows to complain about everything – and elevated those views to orthodoxy.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Fox News is how deeply serious it has always been. Everything that airs is unchecked by any semblance of irony or humour.

Mind you, putting the Fox News scandal in the context of Fox alone is wrong and unhelpful. Follow the Ailes thread to his new job advising the Donald Trump campaign, and follow it from there to what Trump himself says. CNN reported this recently: “In recent weeks, Ailes has become one of the most influential voices in the room as Trump prepares for his first head-to-head matchup with Hillary Clinton, on September 26. Ailes has attended at least two of Trump’s Sunday debate prep sessions in person, sources said, and talks with Trump by phone multiple times a week.”

While the connection has been reported, there is, surprisingly, little outrage over it. And yet Ailes, now facing multiple allegations of harassment and his former employer having settled several of them, is advising a candidate who has said he hopes daughter Ivanka Trump would “find another job” if she was sexually harassed at work. And Tuesday on NBC’s bizarre Commander-in-Chief Forum, Trump defended a comment he made in 2013 that sexual assault in the U.S. military happened because men and women serve alongside each other.

It beggars belief that an underlying sexism in the U.S. political culture is not being deliberately nourished and brought to the surface. That same sexism exists in broadcasting, to a greater degree than many might suppose. Having written about television for more than a few years, take my word for it.

And in looking back at Fox News and its origins, I was reminded that a big movie released around the time the network launched was To Die For, about a woman, played by Nicole Kidman, who will do anything, including arrange a murder, to have a TV career. When she realizes that she might have to have sex with a man to further her professional ambitions, she only hopes the guy isn’t ugly.

The movie is satire, a broad farce at times. The point is to mock those who live inauthentic lives and desire celebrity status. Yet sometimes I think many people believe that Suzanne is a representative type – and believe that many women will do anything to have a career in TV, and to stay there. As the Fox News scandal reveals, some TV bosses certainly believe that. There’s a lesson right there.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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